The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 11      March 21, 2011

How capitalists cynically
cultivate ‘demand’ for ‘must have’
cosmetics and fashions
‘Textbook in fundamentals of communism’
launched at Havana book fair
(feature article)
HAVANA—“Is the use of cosmetics worth the attention of a Marxist?” asked Isabel Moya, a leader of the Federation of Cuban Women’s (FMC) and director of its publishing house, Editorial de la Mujer. She was quoting Joseph Hansen, one of the authors of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women.

Her answer—like the author’s—was a definite yes.

Moya was the opening speaker at a well-attended meeting here launching the new Spanish-language translation of the book by Hansen, Evelyn Reed, and Mary-Alice Waters, published by Ciencias Sociales, one of the main publishing houses in Cuba.

First published in English by Pathfinder Press in 1986, it was translated into Spanish by Esther Pérez, editor of Caminos, a magazine published by the Martin Luther King Center here.

The February 14 presentation was one of 800 public events organized as part of the 11-day Havana International Book Fair. As in previous years, the fair started in Havana and moved on to provincial capitals across the island.

The meeting was chaired by Sonia Almaguer, director of Editorial Nuevo Milenio, which includes Ciencias Sociales. Also speaking were Julio César González Pagés, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Havana, and Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States. Waters is the editor and author of the introduction to the 1986 edition and wrote the preface to the 2010 Spanish translation. Pathfinder will publish a new edition in English, Spanish, and French this year.

Among the 75 people in the audience were José Ramón Fernández, vice president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, and Víctor Dreke, president of the Cuba-Africa Friendship Association, both legendary fighters of the generation that overthrew the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas. Also in attendance were Luis Morlote and Lázaro Castillo, president and vice president of the Saíz Brothers Association, an organization of young Cuban artists and writers.

The overflow audience included students from the University of Havana. To publicize the event, students there circulated posters and electronic mailings with images of the book’s cover and other illustrations. The event was held at the Cuba Pavilion, a popular cultural center in downtown Havana and one of several venues used for book sales and presentations during the fair.  
‘Seems like it was just written’
Moya welcomed the new Cuban edition as a contribution to the fight for women’s emancipation, not only in capitalist countries but “in our own context” in Cuba. (See her remarks on page 9.)

The book, she noted, originated in a debate in the Militant in 1954. “I very much enjoyed the irony of the initial article by Joseph Hansen, using his pen name Jack Bustelo,” which sparked the debate, Moya said. Hansen explains how the owners of cosmetics and fashion corporations exploit women’s economic, social, and, sexual insecurities to sell products and boost profits.

The authors, she said, describe how the capitalists dictate norms of beauty and try to convince women that meeting those norms—by buying the latest styles—“is a requirement for success in the labor market” and to be sexually desirable to men.

She quoted Evelyn Reed’s statement that it is necessary “to expose the capitalist system” for telling women “that the road to success in life and love is through the purchase of objects.”

That “seems like it was just written,” Moya said.  
Rulers play on women’s insecurities
González Pagés called Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women “a Marxist classic on women’s liberation.” He noted that “there are few Spanish translations of books about fashions and the cosmetics industry,” and, in particular, “very little literature on this subject from a Marxist standpoint.” It will be a valuable addition to textbooks used at the University of Havana, he said.

“The sexist image of the model woman is an inevitable consequence of a social system in which those who hold power benefit from the exploitation of women in the home and the workplace,” González said. The cosmetics and fashion companies rake in “billions of dollars a year based on a strategy of creating a deep dissatisfaction among women with their own bodies.”

Ads that glamorize “superthin fashion models, ” González said, pressure women “to spend more time and money, and suffer more physical and psychological stress, to try to achieve the standards” of beauty dictated by bourgeois society. Noting that young people are particular targets of such campaigns, he pointed to figures on the numbers of women in capitalist countries—particularly teenagers—who go on extreme weight-reduction diets or suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

The most effective way to combat stereotypes, he said, is “to involve large numbers of women in campaigns to change their unequal conditions of life.” Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women can be used as part of those struggles, González said.

In introducing the final speaker, chairperson Sonia Almaguer noted that Waters was also one of the three judges in the annual Pensar a Contracorriente (Thinking against the mainstream) essay contest organized by Ciencias Sociales as part of the book fair.  
‘A class question’
Waters said that Hansen’s article “The Fetish of Cosmetics” is in fact “a popular introduction to Marx’s Capital,” which she called “the best book ever written to help us understand women’s oppression and the struggle to end it” (see her talk on page 9).

At the heart of this book “is the class question,” she said. The fight for women’s emancipation is not a battle of women against men—it is “a battle between those who own no property and those who own and control the land, the mines, and factories, and expropriate for themselves the product of our social labor.” Women’s oppression, a cornerstone of class society, will be eliminated only along the road of a socialist revolution.

Waters pointed to the example of Cuba, where workers took state power some 50 years ago and “have in their hands a government of the working class, the most powerful weapon possible to use” in fighting to end women’s second-class status.

Members of the audience purchased 52 copies of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women, as well as other Pathfinder titles. The event was among those featured that evening in the coverage of the fair on national TV.

Two days later Waters spoke to a class of 40 students—mostly women, from across Latin America and from Spain—taught by Moya at the José Martí International Institute for Journalism. A lively discussion ensued not only on the fight for a woman’s right to abortion—from Mexico to Colombia, Brazil, and Chile—but on whether a socialist revolution in the United States is possible.

There were numerous presentations at the book fair of titles on the struggle for women’s equality. These included a new edition of Mujeres y la revolución (Women and the revolution), a collection of speeches by Fidel Castro, edited by the leadership of the Federation of Cuban Women; Género y transgresión mediática (Gender and media transgressions) by Isabel Moya; Macho, varón, masculino (Macho, male, masculine) by Julio César González Pagés; and Ser mujer científica o morir en el intento (To be a woman scientist or die trying) by Lilliam Alvarez.

Naomi Craine and Doug Nelson contributed to this article.
Related articles:
‘A class battle, not women against men’
‘As though it were written today’  
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