The Passion of Donna Ferrato
HOLY? The dominatrix and the swinger, the woman with a bloodied face—holy? Yes, says MaDonna. They are women, and, contrary to what the priests told her, women are sacred. Away with the pallid wine and wafer! This transgressive photographer wants real flesh and real blood. Her sacrament, her true communion, is to witness and click that shutter. To tell the truth about women’s lives.
For the last half century, Donna Ferrato has been photographing her story and the story of American women’s rise to power. Donna, after all, means woman in Italian, and ferro is iron. Woman of Iron. Her father was Italian, her mother, Irish, so fight is in her blood. The nuns at St. Joseph’s couldn’t take it, and finally expelled her in eighth grade. Luckily, she got into an all-girls school, a template for her life’s mission: Women rule.
Stop. It is all about sex. Married females—who had sex and children—were, in common law, essentially property. Women got the vote in the U.S. only a hundred years ago. When Donna graduated from her Ohio high school in 1968, women could be denied credit because of their sex. They could be fired for getting pregnant. They had no legal recourse for sexual harassment at work. Their husbands could beat and rape them. Domestic violence, now called intimate partner violence, did not become a federal crime until, thanks partly to Donna’s ferocious advocacy, enactment of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Sex. The women’s movement has always been about sex, about women reclaiming their sex lives, abortions, births—agency over their own wombs and futures—from men who try to control them.
Look. Back in the day, Donna shot and developed rolls of film in a darkroom. There were no digital cameras, laptops or mobile phones—and not that many female photographers. No #MeToo movement, for sure. All bedhead and Leica and outrage, Donna charged through the corridors of Life, Time, and other publications, pressuring editors to let her tell the stories she knew were important, stories about sex and love and violence—and battered women, where the three are twisted together. “I used my voice to normalize sex and do stories most photographers wouldn’t touch,” she says. The provocateur,the wild card, the raging one.
Click. NEW JERSEY. A man punches his wife in the face. Click. TENNESSEE. A mother and her boys celebrate their escape from her abusive mate. Click. NEW YORK CITY. Gay Pride marchers parade topless down Fifth Avenue. Click. MINNESOTA. A daughter learns to be strong. Click. WASHINGTON DC. Protesters urge the Supreme Court to keep abortions widely available.
Listen. That protest was recent. Donna is not done. After making amazing gains, women’s power is being undermined in our increasingly polarized nation. Religion influences policy, eroding personal decisions about health care and enacting laws in which women are, once again, chattel. What’s at stake is a woman’s right to control her own destiny. And Donna is still a rebel with cause. “I want women to stand up for their rights and not be submissive to the patriarchy, the man, the priest, the president,” she says. “The father and the son and the—holy mother of god!—we can’t even be in the trinity! Women have the power to create life!”
And so, she has birthed her own version of the trinity: the Mother, the Daughter and the Other, representing the Holy Spirit of hope. That bright spirit of curiosity and erotic transgression will, Donna prays, lead another revolution into a future beyond the binary, one of intersectional wholeness. She doesn’t know what shape it will take, but she can see the shimmering of its wings.
Donna Ferrato set out to make the profane—the archetypal Eve who proffered the forbidden fruit—sacred. To disobey, to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is not, in Donna’s Eden, the Original Sin. The real sin is to not seek knowledge. Woman of Iron Donna Ferrato has won just about every accolade in documentary photography. In the process, she may have broken several of the ten commandments, but never this one: Thou shalt not bear false witness. No fake news. Her covenant: To witness and to tell the truth. Wholly.