Growing up in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s with a working mother who was a trailblazing, successful investment banker, I attended an all-girl elementary school, graduated from a formerly all-women’s college, had two daughters, worked for Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda’s Women’s Media Center, among other causes for women, and still I wouldn’t have readily identified myself as a feminist. But I certainly might have looked like one.
Which is why it was odd when my friend, playwright and actress Laurie Sanderson, the newly appointed executive director of the Ziegfeld Club, asked me to join her board and help revive the relatively dormant organization. I didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity.
My knowledge of Florenz Ziegfeld was superficial at best. I thought he was flamboyant, extravagant and exploitative. I found it offensive that at a time when women were fighting for suffrage as well as the ability to join the workforce, Ziegfeld profited from “glorifying the American girl” and that he preferred to see women prancing half-naked around the stage with giant chandeliers on their heads looking absurd and useless.
However, when I began to place the man in a historical context, a different, more complex picture emerged. The Ziegfeld Follies became popular at a time when the world was dramatically changing. The industrial revolution had given way to the proliferation of automobiles, airplanes, trains and the elaborate New York City subway system connecting all the different parts of the city that had once been hard to reach and largely segregated by ethnic group. The Harlem Renaissance began; the silent film and later talking film industries changed the way people were entertained as well as informed. The liberated “flapper girl” was free from the Victorian-era restraints and flaunted her disdain for social and sexual norms. Clearly, there was a large part of society that had had enough change and was neither ready nor willing to see women as equals — and Ziegfeld, a master marketer, gave audiences the escapist entertainment they craved. The beautiful, sexually liberated, but brainless and powerless “Ziegfeld Girl” was a very palatable alternative to the demanding, abrasive suffragette.
Doesn’t this all sound strangely familiar? Yesterday it was Ziegfeld, today it’s [your favorite love-to-hate fashion magazine editor], [woman-hating fashion designer], [self-loathing cosmetic company] arbitrating our collective definition of beauty and objectifying women. Women have made tremendous progress, but there is a long way to go to achieve gender equality. We are still excluded from the upper echelons of corporate power, under-represented in government, earn 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes and fighting for our reproductive rights.
As I dug even deeper, I learned that these women who wanted and enjoyed being called “Ziegfeld Girls” until their dying day, certainly acted like feminists. They thought of themselves as first-class citizens, commanded a huge salary (nearly 10 times the national average), and were financially independent. Lucile Layton, who danced in the Follies from 1921 to 1924, remembered the feeling. ”It made you hold your nose up high,” she told The New York Times in 1996. In the early part of the 20th century, women were a third of the workforce, but generally exiled to low-paying clerical and teaching roles, so the lure of the money, power, respect and the glamour of Ziegfeld’s stage must have been very great. To say that Ziegfeld exploited them would be like saying that X studio exploited X starlet by paying her $10 to $20 million to star in X blockbuster.
But it can and has been argued that the Follies — and particularly Alfred Cheney Johnston’s promotional photographs of nudes — set the stage for modern sexual objectification and gave rise to 1940s pin-ups and eventually today’s Playboy centerfolds and other forms of female objectification, exploitation and pornography.
So why did I agree to join the board of an organization named for a man with a controversial legacy of exploitation?
The Ziegfeld Club was once a glamorous, high-profile Broadway charity supported by all the great stars of stage and screen, including my husband’s aunt, Angela Lansbury. Crowned “Miss Ziegfeld” in 1967 by Ginger Rogers, Angela told me, “I was very thrilled to meet Ginger. She was a heroine of mine when I was a child. My grandmother McIldowie took me to see all those great musicals that she made with Fred Astaire in the 1930s.” Angela remembers that the Ziegfeld Club’s charitable mission was simply to “take care of their own.”
And they did. Long before feminism or gender equality was a household word, and amidst the uncertain backdrop of the Great Depression, the Club was a sisterhood of women struggling to help one another survive. It was founded in 1936, and not by Ziegfeld himself, but by his wife, Billie Burke, after his death.
As Laurie noted in her Marbury Project post last month, the Club’s files contain countless heart-wrenching stories, from destitute former Follies dancers appealing for help with rent or food to moving letters of gratitude for the financial assistance provided.
The Club’s archives provide a snapshot of a dark time in women’s history. As a literature major and now independent film/TV producer, my passion has always been unearthing good stories; the stories of these women leave an indelible impression. During the Depression, a single woman was likely to be unemployed and homeless if she didn’t have family to take her in. Women seeking work were maligned and thought to be stealing jobs from the men who had mouths to feed. Older women were especially discriminated against: it was not uncommon for a “female wanted” job listing to request “only applicants under 25.” Just a few years earlier, many Follies women were “headliners,” Broadway stars, earning $75 to $125 a week. (A female factory worker at the time would earn approximately seven-and-a-half cents an hour, roughly $4.50 a week.) Then the stock market crashed, the Depression ensued, the Follies ended, Ziegfeld died, and many Ziegfeld girls found themselves with no money, savings or prospects, and entirely dependent on family and friends. The ’20s flapper was glamorous, independent, celebrated. During the Depression, she became faceless and largely ignored.
Here’s a quote from Kathy McMahon’s essay, “The Invisible Women of the Great Depression”:
These newly destitute urban women were the shocked and dazed who drifted from one unemployment office to the next, resting in Grand Central or Penn Station, and who rode the subway all night (the “five cent room”), or slept in the park, and who ate in penny kitchens. Slow to seek assistance, and fearful and ashamed to ask for charity, these women were often on the verge of starvation before they sought help…It was considered unseemly to be a homeless woman, and they were often hidden from public view, ushered in through back door entrances and fed in private.
There are many different explanations for why so many of these empowered Ziegfeld girls became destitute. Many were young — as young as 14 when they started dancing. Many were trained as showgirls and had no other skills. But the reason that my mother, Jewelle Bickford — the investment banker now turned professional wealth advisor — would likely identify is poor financial planning skills. This issue happens to be my mother’s absolute passion, and she works tirelessly to educate women in financial literacy for them to achieve independence and control over their future. All too often she sees women today who have no knowledge of their finances and no idea how they will sustain themselves through retirement. Too many women entrust their futures to their husbands or financial advisors, never asking any questions or having any input into these important, life-changing decisions. As my mom has taught me, true gender equity will not occur until we start taking control of our money. That includes achieving equal pay, equal access to the “C-suite” and corporate leadership roles, and not looking to others for safe financial futures.
The newly relaunched Ziegfeld Club will keep the important stories of the members of the sisterhood alive, and in their memory we will work to bring about gender equality. Our first initiative is the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award — $10,000 for an emerging female composer/lyricist. Eventually we hope to sponsor networking opportunities and financial planning seminars for women in the arts. We certainly want to celebrate the talents, beauty and accomplishments of the women who graced Ziegfeld’s stage, but aim to pull back the curtain and shine a light on their struggles, their sisterhood and their survival against great odds. Every woman working in theater today stands on their shoulders and we can all learn from their experience. That may not be sexy, but it’s what excites me about the organization and why I’m very proud to be a part of this “pioneering, feminist institution.”