You Say Yes, I Say No

looking more closely at the infamous baez sisters’ “girls say yes to boys who say no” draft resistance poster.

I thought it was clever. The feminists hated it because it said “girls” and because the women shouldn’t have to answer to anyone, especially men, yes or no. They wanted the poster taken off the market. I honest to god didn’t know what they were talking about. But I kept running back and forth to the kitchen, bringing them sandwiches and lemonade, while they nudged each other and looked in exasperation at the ceiling…. — Joan Baez, And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir

The provocative poster gets your attention. “GIRLS SAY YES to boys who say NO.” Made in 1968 from a Jim Marshall photograph, it featured the Baez sisters—Joan, Pauline, and Mimi. The poster appeared on many a dormitory wall as the anti-Vietnam War movement itself expanded in the last years of the 1960s and early 1970s. It shouted its opposition to the war in capital letters and, for young women, was perhaps a way they too could put their bodies on the line to stop the violence.

Is the poster also sexist? Yes, of course it is. Like the women’s liberation activists of the time who confronted Baez when the poster first appeared, so too historians often cite the poster as shorthand for the male chauvinism of the antiwar movement and the New Left. But are they really seeing the poster for what it is? The particular qualities of the poster’s gendered politics demand closer scrutiny.

To my my ears, the saying “girls say yes to boys who say no” is a bit tongue-in-cheek in that it refers to what was already, by 1968, an outmoded way of talking about sexual relationships. It’s a 1960s parody of a 1950s saying. After all, the poster does not exclaim, “Women, you must have sex with men who resist the draft or you are a fascist pig!” To be sure, as with many jokes, the humor reveals power relations by trying to mask them in the funny. Nonetheless, is there not only an antiwar politics here, but also, at a certain level, a critique of a passé (and by 1968 potentially of the past) female sexual passivity?

Fellow historians, allow me to throw down the methodological gauntlet for a moment to make this point: here is a case in which I think social, political, and intellectual history really has something to learn from the approach of cultural history. In that we can benefit from investigating the source material more carefully and developing a reading of it, rather than merely use artifacts as flattened, one-dimensional proof of this ideology or that. What does this cultural artifact actually contain if we examine it more carefully? How do we interpret its details? What are they signaling. Cultural history insists on the richness of the past’s sources: they deserve our attention; otherwise we are doing bad history.

So, take a closer look at the poster.

What stands out to me especially are the gazes of the Baez sisters, as well as their body postures. Joan Baez takes no guff in that gaze. Her sisters neither. And look at those hats, worn askew, rakish, cool as can be. Look at their clothing, which is not scanty hippie garb. It bespeaks hipness far more than sexual availability. Yes, their lower legs are visible, but this is very different from, say, Janis posing nude in bed with the rest of Big Brother and the Holding Company for the proposed (and ultimately censored) cover of their first Columbia Records album, or a naked nymph goddess on a psychedelic rock poster (such as Wes Wilson’s image, pictured below), or the groupie stereotype that would emerge in a report in Rolling Stone magazine published in 1969, with photographs by Baron Wolman.

Of course, the politics of sex and gender with Janis, psychedelic poster art, and the original groupies were themselves quite complex, but let’s stick with the Baez sisters photograph for now. Whatever these three women are, they are most definitely not girls. Which is part of what makes the joke of the text above them work. Girls say yes to boys who say no, but all that’s old fashioned anyway. These are real women, and its implicitly therefore real men who would be brave enough to say no. Which of course makes for a certain kind of reiteration of age-old gender norms and stereotypes: the sexually-wise woman, the potentially de-masculinzed company man who must reassert his virility and independence by saying NO to THE MAN. But that’s a quite different kind of sexual politics than the one the poster usually gets accused of portraying, which is about passive female sexuality. It’s almost the opposite to that, in fact! Now the women are actively using sexuality’s links to issues of masculinity and emasculinization as a wedge in the antiwar movement as well as the slowly emerging Women’s Lib movement.

My point is not to suggest that this kind of use of female sexuality is unproblematic. It is merely to pay closer attention to the historical artifact in order to complicate any simplistic, clunky use of the poster as simply case-closed proof of a misogynistic antiwar movement. These three women are not to be trifled with and the photo presents them as strong, smart, sophisticated. They are not passive, and they do not read to me as suggesting easy sexual availability. Yes, they are young and beautiful. And famous. Sure, one might read a bit of playful flirtation dancing across their faces, a willingness to engage, even perhaps a hint of need or desire. But the male gaze of the camera looks at them and what do they do in return? They look right back, with defiance.

The surroundings in the photograph double down on this message. The Baez sisters are not sprawled out on a bed. They are not posing for a Playboy spread. They sit together on a couch. They are not being touched by, or even accosted by, any men in the photograph. This is an all female setting of sisters, in a sort of bohemian apartment setting. A cool blanket covers the couch. An art print is on the wall, surrounded by two instruments, which these “girls” know how to play. All of which is to say that if you are a man to which the text is directed, you better bring your manners, wit, style, and smarts to this photo’s fantasy if you plan to try to ask one of these women on a date, and you better have your antiwar politics figured out first and foremost.

The poster certainly reminds us that the 1960s antiwar movement took place within the larger patriarchal culture of America at the time (a culture which continues to dominate American public life, as the last presidential election’s tone, tenor, and results indicate). Just as the antiwar strategies among mother’s of GIs in Vietnam did, the Baez sisters’ poster drew upon and worked within these dominant ideologies to advocate for struggling against the Vietnam War and all that it stood for in American life. The mothers turned to the American sentimentalism about maternal love, harnessing it to speak their rage, transforming their grief into political grievances. The Baez sisters turned to the power of their daughters, who were now, for the so-called Wise Men running the war machine, “beyond your command,” to quote a lyric written by Baez’s one-time lover, Bob Dylan. They were not protected prizes, but rather active sexual and political agents engaged in resistance—not only to Vietnam, but also, perhaps, in a more subtle way, to the conformist, restrictive gender and sexuality politics of the Cold War era out of which the Vietnam conflict arose.

Agree, disagree? The comments section is open.

One thought on “You Say Yes, I Say No

Leave a Reply