Rewriting Patriarchal Scripts: Women, Labor, and Popular Culture in South African Clothing Industry Beauty Contests, 1970s-2005

By Alegi, Peter | Journal of Social History, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Rewriting Patriarchal Scripts: Women, Labor, and Popular Culture in South African Clothing Industry Beauty Contests, 1970s-2005


Alegi, Peter, Journal of Social History


"Few countries take beauty pageants quite as seriously as South Africa," noted The New York Times on the eve of the country's first democratic elections. (1) This national passion for beauty contests traces its roots back to the 1920s and 1930s and transcends race, class, and cultural divisions. The popularity of noncommercial beauty pageants throughout the country signals that popular interest extends far beyond Miss South Africa and other conventional contests. This study focuses on the history of the Spring Queen beauty festival in Cape Town's clothing industry: an extraordinary festival of black (2) female working-class culture that began in 1980. "It's really exciting and it's a lovely afternoon," remembered Josie Arendse, a former garment worker and shop steward; "when you watch and see all the people on the ramp and some of us just [laughs], you know, just for the fun of it will enter. It's nice." (3) By privileging the actions and perspectives of workers who experienced the indignity of apartheid racism and earned the lowest wages in the South African clothing sector, (4) this article argues that factory women purposefully transformed a seemingly banal and patriarchal beauty pageant into a cultural production for self-empowerment and trade union solidarity.

The historical significance of the Spring Queen is threefold. First, this local case study unveils a poorly documented yet intriguing aspect of the broader history and culture of South African women. Black women factory workers in South Africa, the continent's most industrialized nation, remain marginalized in the historiography to the point of near invisibility. (5) More than a decade after the publication of historian Iris Berger's seminal book Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry, 1900-1980, the literature consists mainly of a small number of activists' memoirs and institutional histories of labor organizations, as well as a handful of unpublished university studies. (6) By placing women's historical experiences at center stage and adopting a gendered reading of history that incorporates men, this study of workers' culture in Cape garment factories takes an approach favored by influential feminist historians of Africa: "Gender history cannot go far without the continuous retrieval of women's history," Paul Tiyambe Zeleza asserted, "while women's history cannot transform the fundamentally flawed paradigmatic bases of 'mainstream' history without gender history." (7) Gender and women's studies scholar Kathleen Canning, a specialist in European and German history, recently seemed to echo Zeleza: "Rather than fitting gender into the existent mainstream, we might hope that its eventual integration will mean altogether less truncated history, one that dissolves the distinctions between epochal changes and histories of gender, women, and sexuality." (8) Set in the rapidly changing social and political context of South Africa since the 1970s, this investigation of the Spring Queen attempts to do so by reconstructing and representing the sociability of proletarian women in relation to the dominant power of male managers, union comrades, and family members.

The second reason why this study of the Spring Queen has relevance beyond South Africa and Africa is that it focuses on a gendered genre of popular culture that connects workplace and community struggles, topics that labor and social historians have traditionally tended to analyze separately. (9) While this union pageant shared the global logic of beauty contests in placing gender norms and idealized femininities on stage, it also provided a rare opportunity for factory women to publicly assert their human dignity, enhance their self-esteem, and claim equal rights as women and workers in a democratizing South Africa. (10) At different moments, the selection of a Spring Queen as a symbol of collective representation of garment workers bolstered, coexisted with, or endangered the status quo. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Rewriting Patriarchal Scripts: Women, Labor, and Popular Culture in South African Clothing Industry Beauty Contests, 1970s-2005
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.