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Women and Deafness:
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.”