Gender and jewelry, a feminist analysis

Hey fellow Orchidians. My name is Bekka, I met many of you at Tucson
two years back, and I’m a recent graduate of the School of the
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and Tufts’ combined degree program. I
wrote a thesis and made a twenty piece collection examining the
feminist implications of jewelry, and developed an analytical
framework for looking at how gender and jewelry interact within
societies. It’s officially PUBLISHED as a book entitled
Gender and Jewelry: A Feminist Analysis”, available at Amazon in paperback and
kindle form

It also features the work of the incredible Keith Lewis, Kelly
Malec-Kosak, Theresa Milheiro, Sondra Sherman, Gerd Rothmann, and
Cheung Lin. I’m including a snippet, so you can get a taste of what
it’s like. If you know anyone else who might be interested, I’m not
making money off of this, just looking to get it out into the world,
I’d appreciate if you’d pass it on. Thanks so much, and thanks to the
Orchid forum as a whole for being a constant source of intellectual
and artistic stimulation (and proof of how beautifully the two go

Bekka Ross Russell

Physical incapacitation through jewelry, as with the heavy anklets of
the Igbo tribes of the Niger delta, serves not only to communicate,
but indeed enforce, ownership. However, when it is bound up with
conceptions of femininity, it additionally naturalizes femininity
itself as a social disability commensurate with or even exceeding the
physical. The imposition of restrictions by the powerful (in this
case men) onto the restricted (in this case women) is erased by the
narrative that replaces femininity itself as the cause of (socially
naturalized) disability. This becomes even clearer in the examination
of the Padaung and N’Gombe tribes’ focus on the legs and neck as
locuses of imposed disability. Perceived and idealized intellectual
and experiential inferiority of women becomes a self fulfilling
prophecy, achieved through the physical restriction of ambulation,
sight, smell, and speech. The ideal of the passive, dependent woman
becomes virtually inescapable and, since the incapacitating objects
are sources of cultural pride, indeed the very markers of
‘successful’ femininity, women are co-opted into perpetuating the
very traditions that keep them subordinate. How then is it possible
to address oppression that is scaffolded and reinscribed by the
actions and beliefs of the oppressed? Does feminism’s commitment to
individual choice require a moral and cultural relativism and
preclude judgment or action?

Judith Butler addresses the issue of responsibility thus in her

**"Although individual acts do work to maintain and reproduce systems
of oppression, and, indeed, any theory of personal political
responsibility presupposes such a view, it doesn’t follow that
oppression is a sole consequence of such acts. One might argue that
without human beings whose various acts, largely construed, produce
and maintain oppressive conditions, those conditions would fall away,
but note that the relation between acts and conditions is neither
unilateral nor unmediated… The transformation of social relations
becomes a matter, then, of transforming hegemonic social conditions
rather than the individual acts that are spawned by those
conditions."The choice to don anklets or lengthen the neck is not
inherently problematic in the presence of other options, but the
limitation of acceptable gender performance to acts that reduce the
ability of the female body most certainly is. When gender, and
specifically the transition to successful adulthood, is constructed
solely in terms of disability, incapacity and femininity become

The same dynamic applies when analyzing makers of sexual ownership
and availability. Marriage and the exchange that takes place at
weddings have long been subjects of interest for scholars. Historian
and feminist scholar Gerda Lerner observes that =93[t]he exchange of
women [through marriage] is the first form of trade, in which women
are turned into a commodity… The exchange of women, according to
Levi-Strauss, marks the beginning of women’s subordination. It in
turn reinforces a sexual division of labor which institutes male
dominance.=94 However, feminism posits that monogamous commitment or
marriage need not be a surrender to predetermined balances of power
based on gender. When seen as one of a range of options, including
successful independence, there are few rational arguments to make
against it. Again, the problem arises when submission to a particular
form of highly socially regulated relationship serves as the only
legitimate path to adulthood. Additionally, forms of the ritual which
make it clear that the power imbalance is a crucial part of the
tradition and usage rather than an individual fluke appeal to the
same logic as above: Acts of collaboration in a hegemonic context are
to be understood as reflections of the social structure rather than
reflections of uncoerced, ‘natural’ order. This can be exemplified by
the use of Turkish puzzle rings, for instance, to ensure that women
and women alone are unable to present themselves outside of the
context of their marriage. Similarly, traditions that use rings as
the barter token with which to, quite explicitly, buy their bride =96
especially without a similar marker on the opposite side =96 begin
the relationship within an inextricable framework of gendered
imbalance and ownership.

The strictly regulated system of jewelry usages advanced in Indian
marriage provides an in depth look at the ways that sexual
availability and ownership intersect with notions of value,
specifically what makes a woman valuable.

From the age of twelve, the acceptable amount and type of jewelry to
be worn is delineated through social stigma - as required or
forbidden, with little range for personal choice. As a fertile woman,
she is honored through adornment, never as a virgin or widow. The
amount of jewelry a woman wears peaks on her wedding day, when her
value to society is perceived as highest.

The narrow range of options and the elements of coercion separate
these usages from the merely culturally idiosyncratic. They are part
of a closely structured hegemony, coded external markers of societal
value. While individuals of course accept and, indeed, desire
elevation through this route, that does not equate to true freedom
of choice. Again, successful femininity is constructed only in terms
of relation to men, as a wife and mother. Jewelry resoundingly echoes
this fundamental social reality.

Congratulations on getting your book published. It looks fascinating
and I hope to read it some day soon. It’s great to see the
sociological and societal (is this redundant?) implications of
jewelry addressed.

All the best,
Elizabeth Watson

Dear Bekka,

Ooh, sorry, I know you worked hard on your scholarly tome, but, and
I speak only for myself, a feminist analysis of jewelry is a waste of
time. For, Pete’s sake, stop thinking about it and do it! I have
found in my life, and I’m 60, that the people who talk the most about
a thing do it the least. Those who are actually doing a thing don’t
talk about it; they’re too busy. That applies to sex, love, kids,
art, etc.

I was a young woman during the early feminist era, and the only
thing I see that feminism has brought us is that women get to work
AND take care of the kids, house, laundry, everything else associated
with housekeeping. Glamorous, huh? No, just tiring. I don’t know
where I’m going with all this prattle, but academics just irritate
me. Spend the next 20 years of your life LIVING and then write about
it. It will be so much more interesting and your jewelry, or whatever
art you produce will be so much more interesting.

I hope I haven’t violated some rule about being politically incorrect
or unpleasant, if so, sorry. I just want to read about MAKING jewelry
and the problems and solutions people come up with. I don’t care
about feminist or any other implications associated with it. My
question is: Is it beautiful or wearable in someone’s eyes. Those of
you who are DOING the craft of jewelry teach me something every night
when I read these posts. Thanks to all of you, but I don’t care about
academic examination of the subject.


This looks very interesting. I can’t wait to get the book,read it
and add it to my library. I’ll order it from Amazon asap.

In the mean time…

I have three questions.

A. Have you ever lived or spent any length of time within the
Padaung, NGombe, and Igbo societies that you describe?

B. What do you think of the more extreme body piercings, (really
large ear plugs, Price Albert piercings etc.) worn by both women and
men in modern societies?

C. Do you have any significant, more than 25% of your body mass,
tattoos or non mainstream piercings?

Jo Haemer

The extensive body tattooed and pierced,(since 1985) gold and
platinum smith.


That’s a bit much!

Academic analysis is a wonderful way of exploring the world. If you
get irritated by it, or feminists, then maybe you started your life
in a better place than most of us.

Feminist analysis, gender and race academical studies are the
bedrock of the movements that enabled so many of us to expand our
lives and gave us the courage and ammunition to make real changes.

I just ordered the book to spite you!

You’re not her agent are you?

I think the witting about other cultures and their jewelry and at
what point in her life a woman receives it is fascinating. What is
valued by those cultures is demonstrated through jewelry. I find the
view that women are only subjugated by men confusing. If the trade
offs women receive were not worth it to them they would not exist.
Men are not all powerful in any arena. From our point of view, from
the Western point of view, those cultural norms are sometimes
appalling. But, there is no prefered point of view in the universe,
which is an Einstein quote, I think. Not to say that writing about
other cultures is a waste of time or trying to change other’s points
of view is wrong. But, I think an understanding of where those
traditions came from and asking why they exist at all might be a
good preface to such writing? That is where my confusion comes in, to
drop into a culture from 21st century United States of America and
declare that other cultures are oppressive is simplistic and hardly
begins to tell the whole story. I grew into my present state, middle
age white man, from a family dominated by women and was repeatedly
told that women can do anything a man can do. I also got the message
that if more women were in political power the world wouldn’t be in
such a mess. Then we got Margret Thatcher and Condeliza Rice and I
said to myself, I guess my sisters and mom were right.

Sam Patania, Tucson

Thanks so much to Tony, Elizabeth, and Jo. To Barbara, I respect that
you would rather spend your time working than writing. However, you
are essentially dismissing all art history, all conceptual art
jewelry, all work with a STORY, and that’s just too much. I’m not
even going to address the feminist issue here, except to say that
I’m extremely grateful to be growing up in a generation where I have
the choice to go to college, the choice to work, the choice to have
children, the choice to be a jeweler (a traditionally male
profession), and the choice to disagree with you completely about
the importance of the feminist movement to all of these
possibilities. I also would point out that we still have a wage gap
of 70 cents on the dollar, appallingly low numbers of women in high
political office or as CEOs, (only one country in the world has a
government of 50% women - Rwanda), and 1.3 million women are
physically and sexually assaulted every year. There’s still a lot of
work for the feminist movement to do, and I look forward to being
part of it for many, many years to come.

Now, off my soapbox -

Jo, I haven’t lived with any of the societies discussed within the
book for a significant length of time, with the exception of modern
American society, which does not escape scrutiny! However, I don’t
judge the aesthetic value of any of the jewelry discussed, I do talk
at length about the ways that it mediates interaction with the
world. For instance, I draw a clear distinction between stretched ear
plugs, which don’t impede basic bodily function, and stretched lip
plugs, which make it extremely difficult to eat and speak. The focus
is on the way that the jewelry changes people’s ability to function,
and the implications of those specific changes as they relate to
constructions of gender. I have a significant section on modern body
piercing as well, as an intersectional case study (for the purposes
of the book, restricted to those that involve jewelry, although
tattoos hold up to many of the same arguments). It looks at both
sides of the issue, piercing and body modification as a method of
ritually claiming ownership of one’s own body and defying imposed
standards of beauty - and also of the alternative perspective,
especially for women, of some types of body modification as acting
out internalized hatred of the body instilled by society. I
personally have several piercings and three tattoos, one of which
covers much of my forearm - but I try to give both (legitimate)
perspectives time in the book. The book basically develops three
primary frames as lenses through which to understand jewelry
traditions that speak about society and gender - and points out that
in many cases, more than one frame can apply and be useful for
getting at the heart of the tradition. I hope that answers your
question, but I’d be more than happy to continue the conversation! It
sounds like you have strong opinions on the matter - please do share.

Bekka Ross Russell

from 1941 through 1945 the women in the united states were the
dominant factory workforce in the United States of America in a very
short time factories in the USA were rolling B-17 flying fortress
bombers off the assembly line at the rate of one per hour.

Ship yards were producing battle ships in approximately 3 days & 16
hours per ship,not to mention all the trucks jeeps rifles uniforms
and millions of supporting replacement parts for all of this
equipment at a rate that was practically inconceivable . women yes
that’s right they did it !

you think you can define feminism with a bunch of academian speek
gobuldygook? for cultures that have existed for thousands of years
which one has to mature within in order to truly comprehend ? -


Thank you, Barbara,

the people who talk the most about a thing do it the least. Those
who are actually doing a thing don't talk about it; they're too
busy. That applies to sex, love, kids, art, etc. 

I have a saying (which, like yours, applies to all things artistic,
spiritual, sexual…etc…):

"Those who know it don’t show it. Those who show it don’t know it."
Having said that, I will buy the book. This looks very interesting.

-BK in AK

“That’s a bit much” - Tony Funnily enough, that’s exactly the phrase
that popped up in my mind. I can often get annoyed by people that
take theory too seriously (the map is never the territory, after
all), but without these people nothing would develop. Most of the
artistic movements throughout history have started with idealism
first, practicality second - the art and techniques are there to
make ideas physical.I hadn’t really paid attention to the book,
originally, but I’ve read the review of it now. Are you sure you’re
not her agent?

"That's a bit much" - Tony Funnily enough, that's exactly the
phrase that popped up in my mind. I can often get annoyed by people
that take theory too seriously Well, when I read the first post by
Bekka, I thought, "Don't go there!!.............." 

In light of the other responses, though - a couple of thoughts. I
was born in 1952, and my mother especially made sure that we
understood that women are no different than men, in society, that
is. Sorry, but to me the word “feminism” often means, “I want to
argue about it.” That relations between the genders is thought of as
battle is what is wrong with the world, and relationships in
particular. IOW, those are BAD relationships. B= ut that’s just me.
“What do you mean, you don’t support women?!?!” isjust alousy first

As for the excerpts printed here, if I may offer a couple of
critisisms that are meant to be constructive: There was a comedic
news caster here who tragically died. She read a story that’s not
important, and when she finished she said, “Yes, folks, something
can be as plain as the stars in the sky, but when a scientist says
it, that makes it news.” Much of what I read is that. I understand
that it’s a thesis, but it reads more like, “Look what I have
learned.” than it does, “Here’s new for the world.” As
several others have pointed out, it is ~profoundly~ ethnocentristic -
to the point of using modern hot words to inflame the story. Arguing,
or trying to start one, as I started out with. Oppression, hatred,
enforced ownership, neutralizing femininity, imposition of
restrictions, social disability, incapacitating objects, women
co-opted into perpetuating, oppression that is scaffolded and
reinscribed, sexual ownership… On and on and on - hotwords,
strung together. I’d say somebody has an agenda… When the
authors can take a dispassionate view of the subject, and write
something useful, then they’ll have something…

After gazing longingly at the cases yesterday, a lady says across
the counter to me in an exasperated yet resigned tone, “WHY do women
want jewelry?”

“Women want jewelry, men want sports cars. Its the way it is.” I
didn’t go into that its to attract the opposite sex, I thought that
was obvious.

I particularly feel and think that our ideas of Gender should be
entirely tossed out the window, stomped on, eradicated. It is the
very worst thing we are doing to each other. We mutilate over
gender… we are prejudiced against deviations from gender
"norms"… We expect certain behaviors of certain genders to be

Personally, I am a small male and by BIG male standards, I am not
very “male” at all. My wife is just as strong as I am. I have male
friends that are female and female friends that are male. Really,
they are only People.

I’m sick of the Male driven excuse that Women are weaker. It’s crap.
They often can endure greater amounts of pain than men. When male
bodies produce estrogen and female bodies produce testosterone in
varying amounts, definitions get blurred. And when doctors cut off
penises or fashion them and sew up vaginas…definitions get blurred.

I don’t believe in Sexism for the very same reason I don’t believe
in Racism. It’s discrimination! It’s trying to impose our own view of
reality on a world that isn’t ours to begin with!

I don’t make jewelry for any sex. I make jewelry for people. I let
the people decide if my pieces are for them.

I’m tired of Sexist Crap in an age where we should be accepting all

TL Goodwin
The Pacifik Image

I didn't go into that its to attract the opposite sex, I thought
that was obvious. 

FWIW - long ago a read a book by Aldous Huxley, the title of which
eludes me. In it he suggested that the/one reason that people like
shiny, sparkly things of all kinds is because it makes them feel
nearer to God, or the Gods. As in the stars twinkling in the sky.

Women want jewelry, men want sports cars. Its the way it is." I
didn't go into that its to attract the opposite sex, I thought
that was obvious. 

Perhaps not. I don’t recall ever being attracted to a woman because
of her jewelry.

Al Balmer
Sun City, AZ

I can’t presume to know why men like sports cars. (I know that I
love the spunkiness and power in them. It is SOOOOOO much fun to
down- shift into a wicked curve or hill.) But, I CAN comment on why I
like jewelry. And it has little to do with attracting men. (as a
happily married woman, I certainly enjoy attracting my hubby. It’s
just that what jewelry I wear really isn’t a component of that.) When
I was a young woman, the jewelry that I chose and wore was the first
way I expressed “who I was.” I didn’t care much about what material
was used. Beautiful plastic or copper circles dangling from my ears
were just fine. Then later, as I advanced into my
’non-jewelry-related’ professional life, I liked wearing "status"
pieces, as if they showed “I had arrived and proven my way.” But now
that I have grown to a point where I’m completely comfortable with
who I am (and don’t feel that I need to prove anything to anyone
anymore… how many “any’s” can I get in one sentence), I’ve gone
back to where I began. I make, buy, and wear jewelry that reflects
and expresses the peace, the spirit, that has grown with the years.
So I think that different women buy and wear jewelry for different
reasons, depending on where they are in their life’s journey. Isn’t a
bottom line, however, that we are so fortunate to have this means of
self-expression. So here’s a heart-felt “thanks” to all of you true
jewelers out there who provide beautiful objects that express who we
are far better than we could ever articulate.

I'm tired of Sexist Crap in an age where we should be accepting
all people. 

Well said Todd - I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’ve been known as
a bit of a feminist in my family for many years, just by way of
attempting to get some equality within a rather old-fashioned, very
religious and therefore sexist environment.


Hi TL,

Well funny you should say that, because it used to be pink for boys
and blue for girls, from about the 1930’s it changed (or so the
Antiques Road Show would have us believe), pink was considered a
manly strong colour, too strong for women.

Well I see things as you do… to a degree. I believe in equal
rights, and the size of a person or stature does not determine
gender. However on average a healthy adult male will be stronger than
a healthy adult female, it’s the way we’ve evolved. No amount of
surgery or drugs will change a man into a woman or vice versa,
certain characteristics cannot be erased, it goes to a cellular

In some ways women are weaker, in some ways they are stronger. If we
were equal there would be no need for the sexes, and we’d be a
single sex, there’s be the 100 metres dash, not the men’s 100, and
the woman’s 100. As it is we’re a complimentary species, and cannot
survive without each other.

When it comes to design, some are male specific e.g. female jeans
can be worn by a man, although it might be cramped quarters,
functional design is functional design, and takes into consideration
the difference in the sexes. This can also be extended to jewellery,
for functional reasons, men and women have fat, muscle and bone in
different places.

When it comes to artistic design, then of course it’s what ever
floats the customers boat. Function will sometimes effect the
artistic design.

Regards Charles A.

Women want jewelry, men want sports cars. Its the way it is." I
didn't go into that its to attract the opposite sex, I thought
that was obvious." 

This is not necessarily all that obvious. Women who have worn my
jewellery and obtained it themselves have done so to please
themselves. If other people like it then that’s a bonus but not the
prime objective. Why jewellery serves this role in our culture is
another issue it has served different – status markers (marital and
socioeconomic), symbols of office, ritualistic, trophies or to
intimidate enemies.

The current role of jewellery is also embedded in our conceptions of
masculinity and femineity where men’s conspicuous consumption tends
to be on functional items including where the functionality is an
element of the aesthetic of the object - sports cars, complex
wristwatches etc. Women’s conspicuous consumption, by contrast tends,
towards decorative objects such as designer clothes and jewellery.

In practice things are more complex because we have a plurality of
co existing cultures and subcultures whose gendered expectations
differ and in any case people in their lived experiences can both
resist and creatively transform gender stereotypes.

Any jewellery I make for myself is both to please myself and
demonstrate what I can do as a jewellery artist. I have neither need
or desire to attract a sexual partner.


m about the 1930's it changed (or so the Antiques Road Show would
have us believe), pink was considered a manly strong colour, too
strong for women. 

Yes, I have read that in other sources as well, it used to be the
reverse, blue for girls, red for boys.