This new collection bridges two dynamic academic fields: Women’s Studies and Deaf Studies. The 14 contributors to this interdisciplinary volume apply research and methodological approaches from sociology, ethnography, literary/film studies, history, rhetoric, education, and public health to open heretofore unexplored territory.
Part One: In and Out of the Community addresses female dynamics within deaf schools; Helen Keller’s identity as a deaf woman; deaf women’s role in Deaf organizations; and whether or not the inequity in education and employment opportunities for deaf women is bias against gender or disability. Part Two: (Women’s) Authority and Shaping Deafness explores the life of 19th-century teacher Marcelina Ruis Y Fernandez; the influence of single, hearing female instructors in deaf education; the extent of women’s authority over oralist educational dictates during the 1900s; and a deaf daughter’s relationship with her hearing mother in the late 20th century.
Part Three: Reading Deaf Women considers two deaf sisters’ exceptional creative freedom from 1885 to 1920; the depictions of deaf or mute women in two popular films; a Deaf woman’s account of blending the public-private, deaf-hearing, and religious-secular worlds; how five Deaf female ASL teachers define “gender,” “feminism,” “sex,” and “patriarchy” in ASL and English; and 20th-century American Deaf beauty pageants that emphasize physicality while denying Deaf identity, yet also challenge mainstream notions of “the perfect body.”
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Brenda Jo Brueggemann is Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH.
Susan Burch is Professor of History at Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC.
“Beautiful, though Deaf”
The Deaf American Beauty PageantSusan Burch
The rise and continued popularity of beauty contests in the Deaf world reflect the differing notions of cultural deafness and beauty, both within the Deaf world and in mainstream society.1 These pageants have primarily emphasized the physicality of women, while often downplaying or denying their Deaf cultural identity. At the same time, Deaf male spectators herald cultural deafness at these competitions, and with their Deaf female peers they challenge the prevalent notion of “the perfect body” exhibited by mainstream beauty contests. Although certain aspects of displaying cultural Deafness in such pageants have changed since the Deaf President Now! Movement (DPN) and the greater politicization of the community in the 1990s, gendered Deafness has remained relatively static in significant ways.2
Several scholars have elegantly shown that the mainstream beauty pageants of the twentieth century responded to the rise of eugenics and social-scientific constructions of physical fitness and normalcy.3 In one such provocative work, The Black Stork, historian Martin Pernick demonstrated that eugenics promised to make humanity not just strong and smart but beautiful as well. Being hereditarily fit included being visually attractive. Ugliness, according to these scientists, was a hereditary disease. Good grooming was commonly linked to good breeding.4
Articles in Deaf newspapers reflected a similar notion. A 1925 Silent Worker article noted, for example, that “good health is so radiant an attribute that mere ‘irregular fatures’[sic] are almost, if not entirely, unnoticed in their possessor. . . . is it not logical, therefore, that . . . the entire body can be developed to that physical perfection which is genuine beauty?”5 A 1927 article in the same paper, entitled “Beauty Is Health Deep,” claimed that “no one can be truly handsome unless she [sic] is truly healthy.”6 The article goes on to describe the discipline needed to maintain an appropriate regimen to show women’s inner beauty by perfecting their outer beauty.
Deaf people have long accepted the hierarchy of “handicaps” expressed by early eugenicists and have rejected such negative classifications for only their own population. Deaf leaders and advocates consistently focused on their “normal” intelligence and ability to work—their “able-bodiness”—in public relations campaigns and in expressions to each other.7 Yet mainstream society commonly perceived deaf people as similar to if not identical with “defectives” like feebleminded people, undercutting community members’ citizenship status. As eugenic ideology intensified during the twentieth century, Deaf activists sought to preserve and protect their society by distancing themselves from other disabled people and emphasizing their commonality with mainstream, middle-class society.8 Deaf beauty contests exemplify this strategy. Women’s beauty, as projected by the Deaf media and pageants, enforced the notion of normalcy in two ways: the sense of commonality with (able-bodied) others, and the sense that beauty specifically suggests healthiness and vitality. The issues of “passing” (as able bodied), normalcy, and beauty strongly inform the popularity of Deaf beauty pageants.9
Deaf beauty pageants are ubiquitous. Since the 1920s, they have flourished at the local, state, and national level. Inspired in part by the early Miss America competitions, local, state, and national Deaf organizations began sponsoring Deaf beauty pageants in the 1920s.10 Deaf newspapers, films, and eventually television programs frequently celebrated such victors, usually with greater frequency than other groups or types of women.
Commentary on Deaf beauty pageants in the Deaf and mainstream press reveals an intimate connection between women’s beauty and oralism (as both a symbol and practice of “normalcy” in the period before DPN). Articles from the 1920s on deaf dancer Helen Heckman epitomize this. One entitled “Overcoming the Handicap of Deafness” asked readers whether they had ever witnessed a deaf girl play the piano compellingly or sing and dance eloquently. Praising Heckman’s ability to perform musical numbers—via instruments, her voice, and her body—the article alludes to the many obstacles overcome by the deaf prodigy: her “handicap of deafness,” the loss of her mother at a young age, and her physical awkwardness. Repeatedly citing Heckman’s ability to speak and dance as the means as well as the symbol of her success, the author instructs readers to learn from her example: “The results in this direction may be taken as a convincing demonstration not only of the value of the training of the body, but of the possibilities in the way of development of the mental faculties through the training of the body.”11 In other words, a beautiful, fit body reflects a beautiful, fit mind. The article originally ran in a mainstream publication (Physical Culture Magazine) and thus instructed presumably hearing women to take note from Heckman’s experience, but its placement in the prominent Deaf magazine the Silent Worker takes on added meaning. Presenting Heckman as the model of a successful deaf woman specifically encouraged female deaf readers to emulate her physical beauty and poise as well as her efforts to speak vocally. The general absence of articles explicitly describing women who could not voice articulately or perform like Heckman (and hearing women) compounded the powerful message sent by the essay on the oral “overcomer”: deaf female beauty required oralism. Other articles echoed this point.
Three years later, the November 1922 cover of the Silent Worker displayed a profile of Helen Heckman under the banner “Our Beautiful Deaf Women.” Heckman had placed second in a mainstream national contest of beauty of face and figure. The extended article on Heckman not only celebrated her good looks but also highlighted her strict oral training and complete separation from Deaf people and Deaf culture. The newspaper again praised and embraced her “overcoming” story. Later, writing from Italian Switzerland in 1928, Heckman spoke directly to Deaf readers of the Silent Worker. Contrasting her deaf childhood with her oral adulthood, she said, “I think of myself at the age of twelve, a fat, lazy, ignorant girl, without speech or learning, using signs in lieu of words, deficient in the sense of balance, unable to eat without smacking or to exert myself at all without making unnatural sounds.” With oral training she could “converse freely with hearing persons through the natural medium of speech; read the lips of others so easily that I do not sense the absence of hearing . . . [and] move about in the hearing world as a normal, happy being without the finger of pity being pointed toward me.”12
Her point, like her speech, was clear. Success, normalcy, and beauty depended on oral ability. Although Heckman may have pitched her message to the broader Deaf community, it resonated mostly with women. Throughout the 1920s the Silent Worker (and its peers during and since) vilified deaf men who advocated oralism, limiting Heckman’s example to female consumers. The paper, which was the premier Deaf newspaper of its time, consistently delineated success according to gender, and feminine deaf achievement was closely allied with oralism. Heckman, perhaps the most visible oral example of her time, appears to be the only deaf female to be honored twice on the front cover of the Silent Worker, the premier paper of its time.13
Other Deaf magazines echoed this message. For example, a 1935 American Deaf Citizen front page article celebrated Miss Deaf Chicago, Esther Dettinger. Repeatedly referred to as “the oralist,” Dettinger walked away with the crown from the Kansas City pageant.14 Four years later, two front covers of the popular Digest of the Deaf displayed oral beauties. The July 1939 issue claimed that Kansan Beulah Edith Harding enjoyed a “singing childhood” before becoming deaf at age ten and emphasized her speech skills. It later described her as “an excellent speaker and lip reader.” A finalist for the Miss Chicago contest in the 1930s, Harding went on to professional modeling under the name Barbara Lee.15 Marion Rene, the subject of the September 1939 issue, was a night club dancer. “Her success in spite of the critical criteria of the bright lights is yet another proof that deafness need be no bar to undoubted talent.” The article continued: “Perhaps a story of her life will bring comfort and help to other young deaf people and make them feel that there indeed is a place for each of them in this hearing world.”16 This “blonde oralist” achieved success by appearing exceptional only in her beauty and dance skills, like Heckman. Subsequent media coverage of deaf winners of mainstream as well as Deaf pageants—especially state and national ones—noted that the lovely ladies had “excellent” or “very good” oral skills.
Articles throughout most of the twentieth century continued to broadcast deaf beauties’ ability to “pass” as hearing. In the 1950s Violet Hylton bested her coworkers at the Standard Garment Company beauty pageant, startling the judges when they learned she was deaf. The newspaper report specifically emphasized that the contestants were evaluated according to their poise, personality, and, “of course, how they would look in a bathing suit.”17 The “personality” component likely involved some spoken presentation that Hylton could satisfy with demure responses, whereas the poise and bathing suit competitions allowed Hylton to be seen exactly as the hearing women were seen—posing, sashaying, smiling, and nodding at the audience. In all of these ways, silence was seen as exemplary of femininity. A 1981 article on Miss Deaf America winner Mary Beth Barber noted: “A male patron at a theater once grabbed her and swooned over her sexy ‘French’ accent.” It continued: “A date recently told her, ‘Mary Beth, your ears may not work well, but they sure are pretty.”18 Barber, who had attended oral and mainstream schools, had overcome her shyness by joining the cheerleading squad and theater groups where she presumably voiced regularly (and successfully). Placed among a crowd of hearing ladies, Hylton, Barber, and others like them distinguished themselves not by their physical or cultural deafness but by their physical beauty. Even the attempt to pass seemed to be important. Although they failed to fully pass as hearing, the women still succeeded. Their attractiveness helped them “overcome” their stigmatized deafness in the eyes of hearing judges. In these cases and many others, authors reveled in the success of deaf women’s actual or perceived victory over and among hearing women—in beauty pageants or in extracurricular activities. In the process, they—and presumably many readers—celebrated the approval bestowed on one of their own by the broader hearing world.
Multiple factors tied deaf femaleness to oralism and beauty, while antioralism partly defined male cultural deafness. For many—hearing and deaf—oralism had unique feminine qualities. For example, the quintessential oral educator throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was single, white, and female. The skills she taught fostered “polite” behavior—speaking over gesturing. Discouraging facial expressions common in signed (visual) communication as “barbaric”—and thus inherently more “masculine”—oral female advocates focused on young girls more than boys, instilling lipreading and speech skills along with specific gendered behavioral lessons. Many parents and oral educators hoped that with speech training, deaf girls might attract hearing suitors; deaf boys, in contrast, were assumed incapable of landing a hearing girl and thus received more vocational training than speech training. As oralism expanded, female oral educators generally replaced deaf male teachers in the classroom. Emasculated by this cultural and employment threat, Deaf men—as “protectors of Deaf society and culture—specifically fought oralism and oral educators.
Oralists and Deaf leaders fostered a specific form of deaf female femininity that encouraged deaf women to use oralism to pass as hearing in their search for beauty. For example, contributors to the Volta Review, the preeminent oral journal, explained to ladies how lipreading in front of mirrors helped cultivate beauty, including one article entitled “How to Be Beautiful, Though Deaf.” The author goes on to call oralism a miraculous art for deaf ladies seeking femininity. Another article in the same issue continued, claiming that “Love May Be Blind, but Not Deaf.”19 Such prescriptive essays conflated love, sex, beauty, and marriage to describe successful deaf women.20 Especially pervasive was the suggestion that sexual appeal demanded greater “normality” for deaf women. In other words, deaf women had to “pass” as hearing in order to be attractive. By the 1950s some vocational advocates advanced beauty arts, such as makeup classes and hair styling, for deaf women in particular because “it is logical to consider the proper use of cosmetics as the final oralist touch in the scientific care of the well body. The value of good appearance in the development of personality is frequently emphasized [and necessary].”21
Presenting deaf women as “normal” through their beauty and orality was in fact a conscious decision by some Deaf male leaders. Like many other minority groups in early twentieth-century America, Deaf elite men felt compelled to prove their value to society, and thereby earn a place of equality rather than to demand civil rights or government intervention on their behalf. In the case of Deaf beauty pageants, men emphasized deaf women’s beauty and oral ability as a way of proving that they were “real” men—to each other as well as to mainstream society. In essence, the men claimed that “our beautiful deaf women” were as good as hearing women, and therefore they themselves must be worthy men. In this example, deaf women were ornamental tools by which one group of men “spoke” to another. The desire to prove their worthiness and normalcy manifested in additional ways. This particular approach necessitated that the community minimize its difference with mainstream society. In Deaf media and public relations campaigns, Deaf organizations inflated qualities they shared with mainstream society: strong work ethic, patriotism, high moral values, and civic responsibility. In fact, many leaders went further, suggesting that Deaf people surpassed their hearing peers. This “hyper”-American image very specifically challenged the pervasive view of deaf citizens as disabled, different, or “Other.”
Beauty pageants presented a public venue to assert deaf worthiness, deaf normalcy. Deaf contestants allowed themselves to be inspected, judged, and admired. This process assumed—implicitly and explicitly—that finalists and winners were the most worthy, the most “perfect” in their normalcy. The structure of these contests reveals both a close alignment with mainstream rituals and complex Deaf cultural expec...
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