Women’s History Month: Mae West, Feminist and Progressive
A lot of people know that movie star Mae West was born in 1893 on Herbert Street and that she became a and one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, but a lot of people do not know that she was an outspoken feminist and a social progressive who successfully challenged bigotry and narrow-minded conventional morality.
West grew up at a time when women’s social roles were changing. She explained, “I was born just at the right time. A little earlier and they would have put a scarlet letter on me and burned me at the stake. A little later and they wouldn’t have been shocked any more.” West came of age at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment, and Greenpoint had seven vaudeville theaters. West had little formal schooling, but her huge exposure to vaudeville theater shaped many of her avant garde ideas. In a day when most whites were prejudiced, her favorite male vaudeville actor was African American Bert Williams, from whom she took many of the aspects of her stage persona. She copied Williams’s uses of double entendres, innuendo and answers with multiple and conflicting messages where rebelliousness hid just below the surface. Later, when she directed plays, she insisted on racially integrated casts.
Mae learned early in life that the way to capture an audience was to shock them—and she portrayed herself as part of a shocking new generation of tough, streetwise girls who were flamboyant, aggressive and totally self-confident. The characters she portrayed were a direct challenge to male social patriarchy. She explained, “I thought white men had it their way too long and should stop exploiting women, blacks and gays.” She defied gender stereotypes and embraced a sexually uninhibited lifestyle saying, “I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does, if she does no actual harm to society.”
Most people remember West only as an actress, but she was also a playwright who wrote dramas on taboo themes. She wrote the pay Drag, which was the first trans-gender drama staged in New York. Her play Sex both shocked and fascinated New York audiences in 1927 and the arrest of the entire cast for corrupting the morals of the young landed her in prison, while making her a household name. During her arraignment in a Manhattan court the judge asked the bored looking West if she was trying to show contempt for the court. Her reply was classic, “ On the contrary your honor, I was trying my best to conceal it.” West finally died in 1980 after seven decades on the stage. Her rebelliousness and unique style of feminism have made her into an American cultural icon.