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of a small number of activists' memoirs and institutional histories of labor organizations, as well as a handful of unpublished university studies.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. …