Ain’t I a Woman, Part 2: The Iowa City Haircut

Ain't I a Woman?  nov. 19 1971Recently I visited the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries and read old issues of Ain’t I a Woman?, a feminist newspaper published by a collective in Iowa City (1970-74).

This well-written radical newspaper published articles on sexuality, class, race, health care, day-care, abortion, rape, self-defense, lesbianism, and other serious topics.

The AIAW collective also published some thoughtful personal essays, among them “Notes on Cutting My Hair”  (Vol, 1, No. 11, 1-29-71).

The anonymous writer of “Notes on Cutting My Hair” was not quite s Second Wave Feminist Delilah, but she analyzes the meaning of the length of women’s hair.  She begins by describing her own sensual waist-length hair, worn in three braids pinned up on her head.

Then feminists in Iowa City began to experiment with very short hair, changing their trademark look from feminine “freak” (“hippie” is the media word) to a bold statement about feminists defying fashion. Impressed by a friend (housemate?) who dared to cut off all her hair, the narrator had hers cut to her shoulders.  Then she attended a conference in Grinnell and noted, “Ann’s hair was really short,”  and everyone was talking about the “Iowa City haircut.” Then the scissors came out.

Her very short hair changed the way she related to others.  A male professor whom she disliked no longer counted on her half-flirtatious deference.

She wrote,

When I walk through the commons, I feel much less on display.  I’m freer to look for people I know, walking through is now more my business than the business of people who are looking at me, and if people watch me I don’t care.  I’m not touched by it…  Much less do I see myself as others see me, and operate either in agreement with that image or defensively against it.

I knew so many women with Iowa City haircuts.

I had an Iowa City haircut, too.  One day I was eating dinner with friends when a strip of fly paper fell from the ceiling into my hair.  It was agonizing, all that goop in my hair.  I had it trimmed to my shoulders.  Then, a few months later, when I noticed some stylish feminists wearing short hair, I  had it cut very, you know, pixieish.  Did I read this essay in AIAW?  I can’t remember.

I had very mixed feelings about my short hair.

My women friends approved of the new look:  both heterosexual and lesbian feminists understood the significance of flouting fashion.  Why should we spend all that time on our hair and clothes?

Sometimes I loved my short hair, sometimes I hated it.

Ssometimes, missing my long hair, I wondered if this fashion was a throwback from dyke- (a word the lesbians used a lot) to bulldyke-.

I didn’t say that aloud.

The anonymous writer of the article felt more confident with short hair, but I felt more vulnerable with men. One man told me, frowning,  “You really changed yourself.” On the other hand, a boy at school said he’d never noticed me before and now thought I was beautiful.  And when I told my husband about this AIAW essay, he speculated that the short hair might have backfired and men paid them more attention.  Well, I think in general not.  Confronted with a woman with long  hair and a lot of makeup, and a woman with an Iowa City haircut and no makeup, guess whom they’re more likely to pick?

I have grown and cut my hair and grown it back and cut it many times in my life.

Every woman, whether feminist or not, knows her hair can define her, and “Notes on Cutting My Hair,” about a specific moment in Iowa City women’s history, provides a feminist perspective.

3 thoughts on “Ain’t I a Woman, Part 2: The Iowa City Haircut

  1. The cutting of hair is often a symbolic act, and there’s a line or two in a Colette story about this which I can’t recall exactly but it’s to do with the liberation the woman feels and the safety aspect as well, as she recalls the race memory of her sex being pursued by men who could catch hold of their long flowing hair….


  2. It’s more than cutting, it’s the whole style thing. The pompadour was the ideal during my early high school years, but I could never achieve anything but a silly imitation. A few years later it was the beehive, but by then I knew better than to try.

    Today I just walk into one of those mega-chain haircut places and say “give it a trim.”


  3. Oh, the beautiful Colette! I don’t know the story, but she DID cut her hair, didn’t she? It really suited her. In one of the Claudine books–Claudine Married?–she gets sick and her hair has to be cut. She has mixed feelings…

    Nancy, yes, I agree about style. It comes, it goes. I’ve never done anything special to my hair: no curls, no perms, nothing. But certainly over the years I’ve seen pixie haircuts, long straight hair, big hair, perms, lotsa layers, and the bob! It all comes back eventually.


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