Tag Archives: femininity

Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America

Indiana University Press; 2001

Ann Braude’s work[1] presents her incredible research findings about spiritualism and its influential partnership with the promotion of women’s rights in the mid-late 19th century America. When the Spiritualist movement arose, it is compelling to find that it was actually adolescent girls rather than adult women or men who were the most common spiritual mediums. This information raises numerous questions about the specific understanding authenticity and its popular association with girls in the late 1800s as well as the kinds of ideas that are circulating about the same issue in this modern century.

During previous centuries, words like “pious”, “pure”, and “moral” were customarily used to describe women. It was an obvious connection that Americans made, considering what they thought about the public and private spheres. Thus, even if spiritual participants were both male and female, most spiritual activities were conducted within the women’s private sphere—their homes—instead of the organized church. Braude expounds that spirituality was linked to femininity; therefore, mediums were most commonly women and girls.

More specifically, she argues “Americans throughout the country found messages from spirits most plausible when delivered through the agency of adolescent girl.”  While testimonies from children might be more likely to be dismissed as childish chatter, Spiritualists believed that a young girl had the potential to be more innocent—untainted and moral—than older women. This innocence further attached itself to the idea it also presupposed trustworthiness. Although Spiritualists’ primary reason for spurring this new trend was to find mediums who made it easier for spirits to speak through, the byproduct was that it offered girls a radical platform to experience and practice public work despite the discouraging backdrop of their current society’s norms on proper girl behavior. Unfortunately, Spiritualists’ efforts perpetuated the suppression of girl’s actual agency because, with their role as mediums, girls were only viewed and treated as passive vessels.

In the 21st century, a greater emphasis on the legitimacy and authenticity of children’s testimonies has allowed space for further implementation  in child empowerment—everything from self-expressive creations to the expansion of child’s rights. Dr. Marnina Gonick, professor and author, wrote Between Femininities chronicling her research on adolescent girls who actualized their own agency by creating fictional films that were in fact testimonies of their own life stories. Their stories allowed them to personally vocalize various types of issues they were experiencing as young, developing girls. Gonick and Yasmin describe the project to be an extension of “postmodernist privileging of girls’ voices, resistance and agency.”[2]

Although Spiritualists and postmodernists provided girls with the chance to stand and speak in wider public spheres, both groups chose to do so for drastically  different reasons. Spiritualists believed that pure, innocent, girls were  ironically non-participatory, transparent mediums whom the spirits could use to speak through. On the other hand, postmodernists continue to believe in encouraging girls’ agency on the basis that, regardless of age, girls thoughts, perspectives and experiences are valuable narratives that should be heard by their peers as well as the larger society.

[1] Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.

[2] Gonick, Marnina, and Yasmin Jiwani. “BETWEEN FEMININITIES: Ambivalence, Identity and the Education of Girls.” Resources for Feminist Research 31.1 (2004): 14-6. ABI/INFORM Complete; GenderWatch; Los Angeles Times; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Criminal Justice. Web. Oct. 2012.


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Video Essay: Visual Femininity


A Short Blurb on Video Essays:

Like most students, I come from a background in which writing academic papers that exude cogency is praised by most professors and colleagues alike. In one’s undergraduate studies, the audience is obvious—the professor and possibly a TA who will stamp a final grade onto your papers. When we write about topics that we want to bring beyond the classroom walls and into the public view, this traditional, distant, and formal writing style does not seem to be as effective as other available mediums. Paper-based essays thrive in academia, but do they make the same kind of impact to the rest of society who we really want to listen?

Short video essays are rising into the public as they carve out a slightly different path than documentary films. Documentaries (essentially longer, more professional video essays) have made their way into various classrooms, the History Channel and the Sundance Film Festival. Creators of 3-5 minute long video essays have utilized popular platforms like YouTube or educational websites that encourage this new wave of visual learning and information extraction. Perks of creating an essay in the form of a short clip  are the wider audience, likelihood of someone finishing the piece in one-sitting, and its easy one-click accessibility on the internet.


Process of Creating this Video Essay:

In my previous post, I submitted a draft outline of what my upcoming video essay would look like. The process of outlining a video essay remained relatively the same as it would if I were to write a paper essay with the same topic and thesis. Yet, the aspect of maintaining cogency required that it manifest itself in an unfamiliar, alternate form.

Editing an essay took on a whole new meaning as I replaced my trusty thesaurus with film software programs. Shooting in real time and cutting clips demanded an extra layer of thought than simply pressing the delete key on a computer keyboard. Timing never felt so important. Music emphasized the tone and mood of the piece. The most surprising element was that words became a supplementary supporter rather than the primary means for relaying my message. 

The most rewarding part about this experience was that I wasn’t stuck in a library alone with my laptop and mountains of books beside me as I hammered away into the night trying to find legitimate sources/quotes to use to support or counter-argue my point. Creating this video essay required interaction with other people. I was able to hear their real opinions while I looked at their facial expressions and heard the fluctuations in the sound of their voice. After the shoot, the cast members themselves became my attentive audience as they provided an unexpected stage for me to share and explain my personal questions about Visual Femininity.


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Video Essay Outline: Visual Femininity

Inspiration Questions:     

  • What determines true “womanliness” or “femininity”?
  • How much does the visual appearance (“masquerade”) of a woman alter the way people perceive her as womanly or feminine?
  • Does a woman’s makeup and clothing change the way people perceive a woman’s lifestyle or “worth”?


The following excerpts are from Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “The Visual Culture Reader”:

  • Judith Butler— “genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade’…they are the same thing” (149)
  • Guy Debord— “the spectacle… is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (142)


Undergraduate college students (men and women)


Interview two men and two women in which each person interviewed is shown one picture of a woman with no makeup wearing asexual clothing then a second picture of the same woman with makeup and wearing feminine clothing

  • On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most, how womanly or feminine would you consider this person?
  • How much money do you think this woman makes?
  • Do you think she is currently in a relationship, dating or married?
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