Gender and Art
Georgia O'Keeffe Abstract

The men liked to
put me down as the
best woman painter.

I think I’m one of the
best painters.

Georgia O'Keeffe
It could be argued that the history of women in the arts is no different than that of women in every other sector of society – government, business, technology, the military, religion -- all of which were traditionally male fields of endeavor. For millennia women were considered, in essence, second-class members of society. Opportunities for women to engage in the world equal to those of their male fellow humans were few and far between. The rare enlightened father -- or husband -- would create opportunities for daughters and wives, but bucking then-current acceptable roles for women was not generally well received by a male-driven society. The story was similar for other marginalized groups – people of color, gay and lesbian people, and people without means.

The art that women created, such as clothing, rugs and tapestries, for many centuries was considered at best (and often disdainfully) as “craft” or “decorative art” – and kept within the domestic sphere. At the same time, and even into the 20th century, the men who controlled the field of art and art history did not believe that women could actually possess artistic talent. An often-told anecdote illustrates this perfectly: in 1937, artist and instructor Hans Hoffmann said in a “compliment” to his then-student Lee Krasner: “This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” Of course, Lee Krasner went on to do pretty well; she’s one of the few female abstract artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art. 

Women writers, subject to the same male skepticism of their talent, very often wrote under male pseudonyms. The Bronte sisters, for example: Charlotte went by Currer Bell, Emily went by Ellis Bell and Anne went by Acton Bell, keeping their real initials. In selecting their pen names, they looked for names that were gender ambiguous but would be assumed to be male by the public. Charlotte has been quoted as saying, “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

In the 20th century, the social shifts that began with WWI and WWII picked up steam with the women’s rights and feminist movements of the ‘60s, leading to, among many other changes, a significant jump in women studying and teaching in art schools across Europe and the US. Contemporary female artists used their art to address the concerns of their times, ranging from personal rights to political stances to environmental issues. Feminist art addressed issues of gender norms, bias in the art history canon, inequality and discrimination, and women’s experiences in society and the world at large. Famously, the Guerilla Girls came into being in the ‘80s to tackle the question: “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?” Unfortunately, their work continues to be both necessary and relevant today. 

If there’s specific resistance to women making movies,
I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons:
I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.

Kathryn Bigelow

As we start the 21st century, statistics regarding women in the art world continue to reflect society -- and society is not yet equal. Women artists of all genres are tackling today’s issues – gender roles and expectations, sexuality, equality, political rights, equal pay, objectification, press coverage, religious practices that control women, to name a few – with thoughtfulness, urgency, and loud voices. Women artists are showing us that art shapes and is shaped by culture; that it conveys cultural ideas about beauty, gender, and power; and that it can be a powerful tool to question issues of race, class, and identity.