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Bonnie Basté was born in 1899 in Louisburg, North Carolina. Even with only a seventh grade education and no formal training in cosmetology, she successfully owned and managed Bonnie’s Beauty Box, a beauty salon in Raleigh, North Carolina. Basté was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers Project. This document is now housed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Southern Historical Collection

Biography

Early life

Bonnie Basté and her two sisters were raised by their father in a modest house in the small town of Louisburg, North Carolina. Her father worked as both a carpenter and a farmer, and, between the two jobs, provided adequately for his family.[1]

Married Years

At the age of nineteen, Basté hastily married a World War I private, only to later find out that he had already been married twice, and was still legally the husband of two other women. Her second marriage to Pedro Basté, an upper-class Spaniard, produced one son, who was named after his father. However, her commitment to her work interfered with the success of this marriage, and she again divorced. Not much is known about her third marriage, other than the fact that it was also unsuccessful. Her fourth and last marriage ended with infidelity on the part of her husband.[2]

Later life

Following her last divorce, Basté reopened the beauty salon she closed during her last marriage. After such marital failure, she gave up on the institution of marriage and dedicated the rest of her life to her career and her son. Despite vicissitudes of success and hardship, she worked as a hairdresser from childhood into late adulthood.[3]

Social Issues

Shifting Views of Marriage and Divorce

Marriage during this time period was in the process of becoming an increasingly economic and commercial entity rather than a social structure. Women of this time period began to become caught up in consumerism, in climbing the social ladder, and in using marriage to advance their personal interests as opposed to striving for marriage as an ideal social and economic situation.[4] Basté was a woman who seems to have taken advantage of the increasingly important role women were being offered in the sphere of paid labor during the early twentieth century. However, even Basté, with her motivation and life goals, fell prey to social injustice through the rigidly sex-typed career for women which she assumed.[5] Her multiple husbands supported the pervading ideology of the time by not taking Basté’s participation in the labor force very seriously. They did not particularly support her in her career; multiple tried to convince her to give it up, claiming that it was not conducive for a successful marriage. She blames the lack of success in her marriages on this attitude she faced from her various husbands. Basté relied on the stability in her work in the absence of committed relationships, and in the end chose work as a priority in her life.

Shifting Views of Beauty

The beauty culture during Basté’s adult years, based on popular images like the Gibson girl, helped Americans differentiate between the social perceptions of women before and after the millennial change. The “painted woman” or “hussy” of the late nineteenth century and the “lady” of the nineteen twenties who used cosmetics as a medium of self-expression in a consumer society were, visually, the same. However, society’s views on women’s appearance changed as a more established ‘beauty culture’ was formulated and organized.[6] Basté stressed the difference between views of made-up women in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, and how social judgments of “painted women” changed radically in that time period. The more striking, sexual beauty image that arose has been seen as an attempt by females to compete with both other females in the unbalanced gender ratio caused by WW1 and with other potential employees in the work force. The adoption of this image during this period of time was accompanied by radical changes in beauty ideals and the process of beautification.[7]

Career Availability for Women during the Great Depression

As an entrepreneur, Bonnie Basté was directly affected by the economic situation during the Great Depression. However, as a woman, she was not only faced with the bleak economic situation at the time, but was also affected by social obstacles in her career-related pursuits.[8] When considering the impractical and uncommon lifestyle necessary to support the true flapper image in the twenties and early thirties, the supposed female freedom of this era left working class women relatively unaffected.[9] Basté, as a member of the lower, working class, was forced to face the deterioration in women’s economic position during the1920’s and 1930’s in her attempts at cosmetic entrepreneurship, and also her attempts at marriage. She ultimately had no access to the economic freedoms supposedly inherent in this time period.

Federal Writers Project

The Federal Writers Project was a part of the New Deal’s Work Projects Administration. It was intended as a method of providing jobs for the unemployed, but ended up as an invaluable source of information about Depression society from the view point of lower, working-class people.[10]

Basté’s interview, combined with thousands of others, formed an aggregate collection of previously unheard voices. Like other white, working-class females, her opinions on social issues may not have been heard without her involvement in this project. Her interview was conducted by Harry Fain on January 2, 1939. It took place in her beauty parlor on 211 South McDowell Street, Raleigh.

Notes

  1. Baste, Bonnie. “Bonnie the Hairdresser.” Federal Writers Project. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 2 Jan 1939. Print.
  2. Baste, Bonnie. “Bonnie the Hairdresser.” Federal Writers Project. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 2 Jan 1939. Print.
  3. Baste, Bonnie. “Bonnie the Hairdresser.” Federal Writers Project. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 2 Jan 1939. Print.
  4. Kollm, Stephanie. Divorce and the American Novel: The Shifting Definition of Modern Marriage. Diss. Villanova University, 2009. Pennsylvania: UMI Dissertations, 2009. Print.
  5. Milkman, Ruth. "Women's Work and Economic Crisis: Some Lessons of the Great Depression." Review of Radical Political Economics 8.1 (1976): 71-97. Print.
  6. Peiss, Kathy Lee. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan, 1998. Print.
  7. Charles, Gibson D. The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings of Charles Dana Gibson. New York: Dover Publications, 1969. Print.
  8. Ware, Susan. "Women and the Great Depression." Gilderlehrman.org. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Web. 17 Nov. 2012.
  9. Humphries, J. "Women: Scapegoats and Safety Valves in the Great Depression." Review of Radical Political Economics 8.1 (1976): 98-121. Print.
  10. Penkower, Monty Noam. Abstract. The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1977. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.
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