III. History of Patriarchal Unionism

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(18) During the 1950s and 1960s, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union practised what would today be considered an extreme form of patriarchy. The union seemed to reflect the patriarchal practices of other societal institutions, such as education, the mass media, the economy, and the family. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the RWDSU dropped many of these practices, while other societal institutions continued variations of them.


Sexism Menu Graphic | Sex Time Graphic

(19) Three aspects of sexism — pinups, union beauty contests, and sexual harassment — will be examined directly. However, as suggested in the Theory Map, sexism also overlaps our examination of other spheres, such as the domestic, wage labour, and trade unions.


(20) Beginning in 1955, in every issue of the ‘Record’ the RWDSU published soft pornographic ‘pinups’ of women that seemed designed to appeal to patriarchal male sexual tastes. Photos of male ‘pinups’ were never published. The women usually wore skimpy bathing suits or bikinis, dresses with slits up to the thigh, black shoes with very high and thin heels, tight sweaters with plunging necklines emphasizing protruding and partially exposed breasts, open blouses down to the waist, garter belts, dark nylon stockings, black negligees, or very ‘short shorts’. The women were extremely busty, young, with slender and tapering legs. So that the pictorial message was not lost on the male union reader, each photo was accompanied by a caption seemingly designed to connect the physical features of the women in the photos with male sexual lust.

Five specific themes appeared in the ‘pinups’.

(21) First, there appeared to be a fairly open sexual invitation in the captions: “Holywood’s Audrey Flowers perches prettily on phone book. Anyone have her number?” FN_32

(22) Second, an association seemed to be made between women and animals, possibly implying the instinctual, primitive nature of women, their supposed lack of intellectual development, or their duty to obediently serve male masters: “Crowd-stoppers at county fair in Indianna are pretty girls and trained chickens. … Staffing booth at county fair in Evansville is volunteer Janet Pruitt. Baseball playing chicken is named Casey.” FN_33 The union filled its union paper with associations between women and a wide variety of animals, such as rabbits, horses, reindeers, leopards, and cows.

(23) Third, women were treated explicitly as physical objects in three ways.

  1. They could be traded as commodities. In a 1956 ‘pinup’ of a blonde woman with the tops of her breasts exposed and in a black, low-cut negligee, the caption read: “BRITAIN’S GIFT TO U.S.: Decide for yourself who got the better of the swap when Diane Dors [in picture] came here as Marilyn Monroe made eastward crossing.” FN_34
  2. Women seemingly could be dissected into parts. “Dressed for the part: All right, have it your way, undressed for the part. All Western addicts will recognize the authentic parts of Linda Christal’s outfit for her role in Universal International’s ‘The Western Story.’ “. FN_35 The captions to the photos portrayed a male sensual/mechanical object perspective, with an attention to body parts as brains, rectum, breasts, arms, legs, feet, ankles, face, and hair .
  3. Women could be used as stage props. In one cartoon of a leggy actress dressed in a black, low-cut bathing suit and leaning against a high chair, the caption read: “NICE PROPS: And we don’t mean the high chair.” FN_36

(24) Fourth, there was an integration of the photos with the US entertainment world. Many were of women actresses in various stages of undress who had or were about to appear in Holywood-produced films. For example, the RECORD noted that Mamie Van Doren, besides displaying talents at singing, dancing and performing rodeo riding tricks, appeared in the film, “Born Reckless”.

(25) Fifth, perhaps as a legitimation for their publication, the RWDSU pointed out that many of the women were members of the Screen Actors Guild, and thus union members.

(26) The publication of the ‘pinups’ in each issue of the ‘RWDSU RECORD’ came to an end in 1962, after which the patriarchal capitalist corporate, media, and entertainment worlds continued such practices. Occasional ‘pinups’ were published after 1962. In 1968, the Union published a photo of four “bunny girls” with the caption: “Set ‘Em Up, Joe.” In 1971, the RWDSU published a ‘pinup’ of a stewardess in a bikini with a “union book number [of]…36-21-35”. FN_37


(27) Beginning in 1954, the RWDSU ran its own annual ‘union maid beauty contests’. The powerful symbol of each contest that seemed to integrate sexuality and physical assault was a photograph of a decapitated woman in a low-cut bathing suit holding in one hand a beach ball, possibly a symbol for her missing head, which was replaced by a large question mark enclosed in a blank picture frame resting on her shoulders. FN_38

(28) Other advertising promotion symbols were of a headless, legless and armless female mannequin, and of the silhouette of a naked woman.

(29) Women members in good standing were encouraged to send to the union’s international office in New York city photographs of themselves in bathing suits, along with a statement of their age, hair and eye colouring, height, weight, and bust, waist and hip measurements. Selections from these pictures were published in the ‘RWDSU RECORD’ and, through republication in the labour presses of other unions, were distributed throughout the labour movement in the US and Canada. The photos usually showed women union members attired in skimpy bathing suits and high heels, with accompanying descriptions such as: “Juanita Wileman of Local 815, Battle Creek, Michigan, is another well-stacked packer in Weston Biscuit’s stacker department. She has blue eyes, brown hair, is 29, weighs 125, is 5′ 4 1/2″, and measures 35-25-37.” FN_39

(30) The all-male editorial office of the RWDSU revealed their gender’s special views towards such photographs with such statements as: “We’re being overwhelmed by beauties! We’ve always suspected that there were lots of pretty girls in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and now we’re confirming it.” FN_40 One or more famous men from the media or entertainment world in Holywood (such as television star Steve Allen or cartoonist Al Capp) would select the ‘best’ five; such men, ‘because they were men’, were considered “automatically experts on feminine beauty” or “feminine loveliness”. FN_41

(31) The final five photos would then be published in the ‘Record’, and RWDSU members would vote on the ‘best’ picture by filling out ballots and sending them to the union’s New York office. The winner of each beauty contest would be given clothes, jewellery, a trip to New York or a resort, a crown, promises of a movie contract, and a guest appearance before the men at the RWDSU International Convention or General Council Meeting. FN_42

(32) In 1960, when the media and entertainment worlds continued such contests, the RWDSU halted its own contests, FN_43 although it still published and distributed pictures from the beauty contests of other unions until 1968 when it printed a final one from the Public Service Alliance of Canada. FN_44


Sexual Harassment Menu Graphic

(33) During the 1950s and 1960s, the RWDSU published a considerable amount of material that seemed supportive of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the streets. FN_45 Although much of this material was in cartoon format, its positive message and seriousness were quite clear. The following eleven interrelated themes or principles were evident in this material:

i) Age

(34) Men may harass attractive young women, but should leave older women alone. A 1956 cartoon shows a boss who is frothing at the mouth and holding onto the arm of an attractive and heavy-breasted young woman in an office. When he tries this again with a much older and ‘less attractive’ woman, she hits him over the head with her purse. FN_46

ii) Game of Chase

(35) Harassment is a game of chase in which the man seeks to break down the playful resistance of his female victim. In a 1963 cartoon, the ‘RWDSU RECORD’ showed, in Wimple’s Department Store, a smiling man sexually harassing a woman employee by leaning over her information booth. With folded arms, she replies: “Sorry! My telephone number is classified.” FN_47 Did the harasser interpret this as a refusal, as resistance, or as part of a continuing game? In a 1956 cartoon, a Casanova supervisor tells a new typist in an office, “Treat me right, doll, and you’ll go places.” The typist answers, “Yes Sir”, while quietly thinking to herself, “Ugh! What a jerk.” Two other female workers in the background talk about this. One says, “He’s trying to make a hit with the new girl.” The other replies: “he struck out before he even got to bat.” FN_48

iii) Women’s Positive Response

(36) The ‘RWDSU RECORD’ implied that women like harassment, as shown in their positive reciprocation. In a 1955 cartoon, women in an office are seen sexually attacking the boss, Mr. Smoe, planting kisses on his face — it was Christmas and he was under the Mistle Toe. FN_49

iv) Lack of Punishment

(37) Men will not be punished or suffer retribution for harassing women. In a 1959 cartoon, a woman office worker, after being pinched on her buttocks, slaps a free-standing computer and exclaims, “fresh”! Behind the computer stands a male office worker who actually carried out the deed, and escapes punishment. FN_50

v) Gendered Family Attitudes

(38) Mothers and wives, in contrast to their husbands and sons, disapprove of sexual harassment. In a 1957 Tillers’ cartoon, maw tells paw that she is ashamed of Jabber because she saw him in town “standing on a windy corner where a lot of pretty girls were passing and he ‘whistled’ at every one.” Paw, presumably with the intention of doing likewise, then goes to Jabber and asks, “What corner were you standing on?” FN_51

vi) Handsome Men

(39) Physically-attractive men will be more successful than less attractive ones in obtaining a positive response from the women they sexually harass. One measure of male attractiveness is height. According to patriarchal myth, women find tall men more attractive than short ones. In a 1958 Tillers cartoon, a taller man, when he whistles at a woman in the street, is more successful at getting her attention than a shorter man. In response, the shorter one goes into a shoe shop to purchase a pair of shoes with high soles. FN_52

vii) Wealthy Men

(40) Wealthy men will also be more successful than poorer men in obtaining a positive response from the women they sexually harass. In a 1960 Tillers cartoon, two men engage in sexual harassment by whistling at and blowing horns at a woman on a street. In a first segment, one man whistles at the woman and gets a negative response. In a second segment, a man, in a fancy car honks and gets her positive response. In a third segment, the man without the car gets a hand-held horn from a store, and blows it at the woman, to her utter disgust. Evidently, wealth is more attractive than resourcefulness. FN_53

viii) Humane Workplace

(41) The ‘RWDSU RECORD’ implied that sexual harassment introduces an element of humanity and emotion in a workplace filled with ‘cold’ and mechanical equipment. In a 1956 cartoon, two male office managers or bosses are conversing with one another while they ogle the wiggling backside of a blonde office worker standing in high heels at a filing cabinet. The one says to the other: “Just name one thing that your office workers can do that our IBM machines can’t do better!” FN_54

ix) Union Organizers

(42) Without suffering retribution, union organizers may sexually harass women whom they are trying to sign up to a union. The ‘RWDSU RECORD’ published an article about a clerical worker who was organizing his workplace on behalf of a union. He couldn’t resist kissing “an attractive young brunette” on the back of her neck while trying to sign her up. His employer fired him for allegedly engaging in sexual harassment. But the National Labour Relations Board ruled that he was fired for engaging in union activities, and ordered that he be rehired. FN_55

x) Clothes

(43) The ‘RWDSU RECORD’ implied that women should dress in a manner sexually pleasing to men. A 1961 article reported on a dispute about a “pretty bookkeeper” who wore “curve-hugging sweaters” on the job every day. “This was a happy arrangement as far as the company’s male employees were concerned.” But the boss’ wife thought it was an occupational hazard for her husband, and ordered that tight sweaters were not to be worn. When the ‘offending’ woman refused to obey the order, she was fired. However, the State of Connecticut Unemployment Compensation Commissioner sided with her and the male employees in stating: ” ‘Why this sweater order was ever issued is hard to understand. There are more than enough restraints upon an individual’s privacy and freedom without adding to them.’ ” FN_56

xi) The Seductress

(44) The ‘RWDSU RECORD’ suggested that men are not responsible for their own actions when they sexually harass women; rather, as in ‘femme fatale’ mythology, it is the physical beauty and seductiveness of women that sends men out of control. In a 1961 Ticklers cartoon, George exclaims, “WOW! What a Blonde!”, and runs into a lamppost, knocking off his glasses, when he ogles a woman who is window shopping in the street. FN_57


(45) The author could find only one instance in the ‘RWDSU RECORD’ during the 1950s and 1960s of a woman fighting back against her harasser. In 1967, the RWDSU published a cartoon of a secretary poised with her whip, gun, and chair,whip ready to fight off the amorous advances of her boss, the “lion of industry” and president of a non-union firm. FN_58 It is unclear whether this cartoon expresses opposition to sexual harassment, anti-unionism, or employers. It was only later that the RWDSU began to take explicit measures against sexual harassment. By the 1970s, it dropped its apparent support of sexual harassment, and by the 1980s began to move actively against it. In 1981, Local 414, which initiated the organization of the Eaton workers in Southwestern Ontario, was successful in persuading the RWDSU Canadian District Council to pass a sexual harassment resolution. It called on the union to oppose sexual harassment by training union officers and stewards, negotiating clauses in collective agreements, and lobbying the government for better legislation in this area. FN_59

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