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Laura Wexler : The Gender Rebellion
Laura Wexler Francis Benjamin Johnston wants more room as a woman. She wants the freedom to have a career, her own career. It's not gonna be a career that's gonna try to topple the establishment, but she wants room in the establishment to have her career as a woman. She's very proud of being a woman all her life. She writes many articles in which she counsels other women that photography is a good career for them. She says it's hard, but she says it's great for a woman. So there's a gender rebellion. The gender rebellion doesn't necessarily mean political rebellion. I think that we're increasingly finding this.

The beer and cigarette in her portrait say that upper class, talented, energetic white women like Johnston are knocking at the door of social power and professional power in the United States and that they are going to be able to enter that door. Photography is Johnston's way of doing that.

These are women beginning to be comfortable with a public life, beginning to come out from the shadow of their men and in their family, their husbands. Henry Adams' wife was a photographer, and earlier than Johnston, and she actually committed suicide by drinking her photographic emulsion chemicals. Johnston's cohort are beginning to come out of the shadow and they're making fun of the old gender conventions. So the photograph of her in her studio -- this is a beautiful studio that she had built for herself to be a professional woman--that photograph is saying, "I am a bohemian, I can smoke, I can drink beer, I can show my ankles, I can have a business, I can be a photographer and travel all over Europe. She pairs that with a spoof of herself as a Victorian lady with a high button collar and one of these great big hats, sitting very primly and properly. The point is that neither of those are real. The point is that woman are now looking for a way to be not stereotyped in either way, either as a proper Victorian matron or as the horrific figure of the woman gone awry, you know, the nightmare of the new woman, which is what that photograph is spoofing.

All these new women, at the turn of the century are demanding careers. They are limiting their families. They're having fewer children. They're trying to come out from their home They do this in a variety of ways. They're escaping from domesticity. Partly they take their role of domesticity that has been, a credible role that they've had and they say, "Well, now we have to be housekeepers to the city. We have millions of immigrants coming. Our national household is a mess and since we are such good housekeepers, we now should be able to involve ourselves in city politics, involve ourselves in the vote. We should be able to be housekeepers to the nation, housekeepers to the world." Johnston is not saying that. That's one way that the progressive era new women are coming out from their domesticity. She's actually saying, "I'm not gonna be a housekeeper. I'm not gonna be a wife. I'm not going to have that feminine role. I am going to really frighten people. I'm going to act like an artist. I'm going to be as good a professional photographer as any man. I'm gonna compete with men." And she knows, of course, that she's actually not a wild woman. She knows that it doesn't matter if her ankles show, if she had a cigarette and a beer, although I take it she liked her bourbon. She knows that the fear of that -- it's a fear of race suicide, as Teddy Roosevelt later called it. It's a fear that women are becoming unruly. The new woman is both enticing and frightening to people and she is spoofing that fear at the same time as she is spoofing the Victorian stereotype as well. She's neither one.

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