Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

"A Colourful Crowning Ceremony": Images of Class, Gender, and Beauty in World War Ll-Era Canadian Communism

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

"A Colourful Crowning Ceremony": Images of Class, Gender, and Beauty in World War Ll-Era Canadian Communism

Article excerpt

ON THE SURFACE, THE IDEA of Communist Party-run beauty pageants might seem odd. Yet the Communist Party of Canada (CP) and its affiliated unions often produced and promoted beauty contests during the 1940s and 1950s. (1) One particular instance--a beauty pageant held in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in early 1945--shows the nature of CP "popular girl" contests. Vancouver-based Communist Party stalwart Tom McEwen was running for parliament in the Yukon riding. A group of Yukon-based, cp-affiliated trade unions sponsored a local carnival and the beauty pageant. The weekly newspaper for the British Columbia section of the Communist Party, the Pacific Advocate, asserted that the beauty contest had "done more to make the people union conscious than any other undertaking could have done." (2) The article continued: the "girls" who participated "in the carnival queen contest have on several occasions appeared at theatres, and other packed public places" and "consistently gave their support to their union." The Advocate noted that the finale of the pageant would consist of a "colourful crowning ceremony." (3)

In her acceptance speech, winner Doris Lesanko, who was dressed in white furs, suggested that the carnival was "a splendid demonstration of what can be accomplished when a small community gets together." She argued that "the same can be accomplished to help bring our boys back and to make sure that when they get back, they have more to come to than when they left." (4) In addition to their support for the war effort, CP members supported postwar help for veterans. (5) Lesanko's comments could easily have been made in a mainstream beauty pageant. Comments surrounding local patriotism, support for the war effort, and expressions of gratitude for Allied war veterans were commonplace in Miss America pageants and in smaller local contests.

What came next, though, differed from mainstream pageants. Lesanko argued that the community should "get together and build, support and maintain our unions. Let us maintain the same spirit that we have displayed during the carnival in the months to come." (6) The image of Lesanko dressed in white furs contrasted with her speech on the building and maintenance of trade unions. Lesanko's costume, along with the other iconography surrounding this pageant, suggests both that many CP members held to mainstream ideas surrounding gender roles and that the women in those pageants were politically aware. Communist Party women used these pageants to realize a specific political goal: to help the CP, and the broader left-wing cause. As Joan Sangster has stated, it is possible that the CP used these beauty contests as part of their ongoing efforts to appear respectable. In effect, Communists utilized beauty pageants in order to appeal to mainstream Canadian society. Communists wanted to attract new members, and voters, to the party. (7)

However, these events were about much more than image and, on closer examination, we find deeper and more complex intentions. This article examines what the CP'S "colorful ceremonies" tell us about Communist culture by using World War Il-era British Columbia, which was one of the centres of labour, left-wing, and communist activism in Canada, as a case study. (8) This article interrogates the different views of women and beauty that Communist Party members--both female and male--held during the 1940s. I present two arguments. First, I argue that CP beauty pageants symbolized the contradictions inherent in the Communist Party's view of what Joan Sangster has called the "woman question"--the role that women were supposed to play in the Communist Party, in labour and left-wing movements in Canada, and in the broader Canadian society. (9) Second, I argue that Communist men and women had different perspectives surrounding what these beauty contests meant for the party and for women. Male party members, particularly the CP leadership whose views the official party newspapers represented, (10) saw the pageants as a method of using women's bodies in a conventional manner: the party chose beautiful women for the contests in order to raise publicity and money for the party. …

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