When you're a history instructor, one of the best things you can have in your toolbox is a collaborative relationship with your institution's archivist. In 2018, my colleague Abigail Nye at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Libraries brought to my attention a set of four dolls created in the early 1980s by Women Against Rape (WAR), a Milwaukee-area grassroots organization. In the semester that followed, my students and I examined the dolls, placing them in historical context and within a timeline of US feminist activism.
The WAR dolls are handmade from materials typically found in craft supply stashes: cloth, batting, yarn, beads, and thread. Their size is striking; each about three feet tall with articulated arms and legs, they have the height and heft of a toddler. They wear robes with the letters WAR emblazoned in sequins across the back. Underneath, their bodies feature external genitalia representing primary sex characteristics that adhere to an assigned-sex-at-birth dichotomy: female and male. WAR made two sets of dolls: the first pair, crafted with dark brown cloth and sporting short curly hair, were critiqued as having “stereotype features”; the other two, named Ms. Orange Pumpkin and Mr. Green Johnboy by their creators, reflected WAR’s recommendation that dolls be made, instead, “in fantasy skin tones.”
The WAR dolls were intended not as classroom playthings but rather to serve a function in a new sex education curriculum created in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Titled The Four Elements of Prevention: An Abuse and Assault Prevention Program for Children and Adults, the lesson plans were piloted in Milwaukee-area community spaces in 1983. The dolls make only a brief appearance in the first lecture to teach children “the names of the private parts” by showing them on what WAR described as “anatomically correct dolls.”
More broadly, WAR sought to end sexual assault, violence, and rape; the group saw education as the primary means to ensure systemic change, and, to do so, employed second-wave feminist organizing tactics: consciousness-raising and direct action. Its actions also reflect broader concerns about children’s welfare in the 1970s and 1980s. Signed into US federal law in 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act provided funding for identifying and preventing child abuse. Zooming out, then, we see simultaneous top-down and grassroots efforts to address child abuse and its causes. WAR hoped to expand its community education arm but was denied state funding. Without such resources, WAR disbanded in 1984, and neither its curriculum nor its dolls made it to MPS classrooms in any meaningful or long-lasting way.
As a historian, I’m struck by how progressive, at times, WAR’s curriculum feels. For example, while both “victim” and “survivor” appear in their flyers and literature to refer to people who have experienced abuse, the opening pages of The Four Elements of Prevention includes “NOTE: We use the word survivor to designate someone who has been attacked.” This choice challenges the parlance of the day and even anticipates present-day language trends. Victim, a term that emerged from victims’ rights efforts in the 1970s, is still used in the criminal legal system today. However, survivor did not significantly take hold until the early 2000s, and, even then, typically in domestic violence advocacy and nonprofit circles.
As an instructor who focuses on bringing material culture into higher education classrooms, with the WAR dolls, I was able to address an advanced aspect of material culture theory—investigating an object’s life span. My students learned how the dolls’ purpose changed over time: from education tools for children in the 1980s, to items accessioned by and available to all in a public archive, to a classroom source for studying systems of power and resistance and how policy and activism shape those systems. As a group, we reflected on these shifts, acknowledging that imagination and empathy, especially, were required as we worked to learn through, with, and about the WAR dolls.
Krista Grensavitch is a teaching resource developer at the AHA and a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She tweets @FemmePed.
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