Where Have All the Women Gone?

by Lisa

      One of our earliest female professional painters–Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun  (I often look like this when I paint.)

      Help me out. Women are stereotypically the emotional half of the human species. We are sensitive little flowers until we are scorned, and then we are likened to snarling creatures of other species. We naturally want to delve deep into the psyche of our partners, and insist on knowing how they tick when our male counterparts are far more interested in satisfying a more singular desire. We have a propensity for stubbornness and tenacity because we concoct such complicated goddam reasoning in our heads the likes of which no poor man could ever be expected to untangle.

       Why then, is it that there are a disproportionate number of men as artists compared to women and always have been? Artists, in theory, should be sensitive and introspective seeing what others do not, no? Don’t artists bring new interpretations to the table? Aren’t artists stereotyped as being just a tad CRAZY???? I rest my case. Now. I became a painter when I was not working because my son was little. While he was in school I had time to take classes and learn to paint. Lots of moms do this. I know, because as an instructor now, 95% of my students are women.

       What’s up with this? Why have men dominated art history? Why do men dominate the pages of the art magazines today? I really do want to know your opinion. As long as it agrees with mine. Just kidding.

       I do not want any hate mail please, from men or women. I will delete you like a fly zapper.

       Kidding again.


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31 Responses to Where Have All the Women Gone?

  1. wrjones says:

    I thought that was you.

  2. ivdanu says:

    Bill is kidding too, as usual…

    I also asked myself that question…And if male domination and the male world etc. could account for the XIX century and BEFORE that, the late XX century is not the same thing… Still, apart Geogia O’Keffee (not sure about the orthography of the name but you know who I mean) and Alice Neel (some friends made me the honour to compare me to her) I really cannot remember a really great and renown woman artist. Ok, the present company excluded, Lisa!

    Well, there is also Camille Claudel but she was a sculptress – and crazy too…

    But in the medium renowned and medium good range women outnumber greatly the men, I think… At least here, in Quebec, Canada, there are plenty…

    Why? I haven’t the slightest…

  3. Unfortunately, Lisa, I think the reason for male dominance is, simply, a matter of confidence. (I was going to say “gall” but I had to make a quick check on its spelling … Bill is watching my editorial skills for a possible position as dog walker & editor!)

    Seriously, women tend to lack confidence to show their work, to be (or risk) critique. You can’t become known for your work as an artist if you’re not will be put it out there for the world to see!

    Well, that’s my opinion anyway!

  4. Oh my God! I made some serious grammatical errors. Darn! There went that job offer.

  5. grfxho says:

    A few ideas/thoughts:

    1) women were/are too busy supporting family and raising children to pursue artistic endeavors

    2) History, society, and culture have been male-dominated for those in western civilization (and beyond)so our accounts of “the greats reflect that. It’s generally the same for writers, photographers, singers, actors, etc. Women did not permeate any career fields until it was more socially acceptable for them to do so. In conjunction with them not being in the professions as much, it also wouldn’t have been acceptable on a social or moral level for a woman to be alone with a nude subject (let alone a male one!) or even a clothed gentleman subject.

    Unfortunately, we went through some horrible time periods where women were raised to be something akin to lapdogs. They could have hobbies, but not careers.

  6. As grfxho suggests, many women are busy with the babies and other family duties. It’s pretty difficult to take along a nursing infant, a toddler or even a 6-year old when carting paintings to a gallery or art event.

    Talking business on the phone can even be hard with children crying in the next room, actually pulling on Mom’s shirt and asking questions, or fighting at her feet when she’s trying to sound professional.

    Unlike wives of ambitious male artists, it’s the rare husband who is willing to set aside his own goals to help his wife achieve hers.

    Consequently, single or childless women might be better able to pursue artistic success then men. Mary Cassatt comes to mind, although there are examples in history of popular women artists who were married with children.

    Also, consider that historically, access to nude models was a problem for women.

    And really, one has to ask, what is success? For many women, including artists, seeing their children grow into responsible moral adults after having invested their own lives, might be more rewarding to many than success as an artist. It’s hard to compare the rewards of family with financial success.

    It may also be that the men are better known than the women, just because. Factors including the way fame is recorded in history and even current media slants, may be part of why we think there are/have been more successful male artists than female artists. A woman who worked in cooperation with their husband or father contributed to the man’s reputation rather than her own. The women artists have always been there. I think perhaps we just don’t know about a lot of them.

    Don’t you have a lot more women in your classes than men? I know I sure do, anytime I teach a workshop or go to one.

  7. grfxho and Diana Moses Botkin make good points. And, on the wall right in front of me is a plaque that says “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” -George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans)

  8. Melinda says:

    There are so many reasons, many that have already been noted, but I think there are three really glaring reasons:
    1) It wasn’t until the 1990s that art historians started to write art history books that included women artists. That would tend to suggest that there weren’t many previously.
    2)Until suffrage and the feminist movement, women were saddled with 99 to 100% of child care and household duties. Culture is extremely powerful and rejecting it nearly impossible…Besides, even artists want to have families!
    3)After WWI and WWII, there was an existential trauma from all the war. This inspired the Abstract Expressionists who were also responding to the new cult of the macho movie star. There WERE prominent female Abstract Expressionists, i. e., Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, etc., but who got more press? Who wrote the press stories?!
    I’ve watched some DVDs about Beatrice Potter, Mary Cassatt and others who were vilified or troubled by their culture of the day. Did you know that Mary Cassatt was the first non-academy painter to get into the 1868 Salon? Those rascally Impressionists (Degas, Monet, Cezanne…) were rejected. Why is this not common knowledge?
    Check out Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (circa 1612-21) and let me know if she might really have titled this, “What have you done with my art supplies!”
    Rosa Bonheur is another eye-popping favorite.

  9. I don’t know the answer to this, LIsa, except that I find it odd like you do. I’ll tell you one thing, it’s nice when I get a few males in my workshops to mix things up a tad more! On campus, there seems to be an equal amount of males and females amongst the college age students. I love teaching at Sacramento City College, because it is a total mix of ethnic and religious (or non-religious) groups. Did you know that the USAF Thunderbirds have two women pilots? I don’t know if they paint or draw however.

  10. Nava says:

    From a foreigner’s point of view: seems to me that women here were brought up to be less assertive, less opinionated, and more towards being Stepford wives. It shocked me when I came to the US, as I thought that was the ultimate country of equality and all, but I found a much higher rate of women who stay at home and do not pursue their own career. Plus, the majority of women who paint tend to dismiss it as a hobby and put it aside. When it comes to couples where both the husband and wife paint, the wife’s work is put aside so she can help her husband promote himself, even if she is no less good as an artist. So she ends up marketing her husband’s work making refreshments for the his receptions.

    I wonder if the reason is that women may be less inclined to market themselves, fearing it will be perceived as being too aggressive or not feminine enough.

    Sad, really.

  11. I agree with all the above mentioned comments. I find that the support men receive is totally different than the support women receive. In my own life it has often been viewed as a nice hobby that I have. Once when a male friend asked is I was still painting I asked if he was still breathing. He looked surprised and then I added. Its one in the same only if you got the opportunity to paint as infrequently as I get to paint you’d be dead.

  12. lori says:

    Nava, I HATE marketing myself, its just so hard. I would much rather paint. I try my best at marketing but I feel I am not doing things right.

    I am pretty well known in my town, I am leader of the Plein Air Painters of the Treasure Coast. I am also vice president of the Treasure Coast art association. I feel like I am being too full of myself to even mention this stuff here. It sounds more impressive than it is, the TCAA is a half-dead organization that no one else would agree to be vice president. The other one, nobody else would lead either.

    But where does it get me? So far I make enough money to buy my art supplies and live under a bridge. (I do live in a house but its not because of the money I make selling paintings.)

    Some of the women artists I know are in horrible straits, one trades her paintings for fish to eat. Many others sell their paintings for a few dollars or donate them to charities.

    I think the only reason I can paint is because I can paint fast. With running the house and trying to sell paintings I have very little energy left.

  13. lbtowers says:

    Great GREAT comments all. Your opinions are so interesting, and I’m very glad I wrote this post. Several of you talked about marketing, and I am extremely poor at that myself and know that it is largely to blame for my lack of greater success. I rarely ever enter competitions for instance. Shame on me. It is part laziness, part lack of time for those details too. And then there is the other part. Someone recently asked me if I was afraid of failing. I thought about it, and I said, “No. I’m afraid of succeeding”. And yet I don’t know why.

  14. Thanks for your nice congratulations email! I am very happy to have been juried in to the show, but it hardly qualifies as “flying in the face” of this post!!
    I know several women artists who are successful enough to support themselves with their art… (You included, I believe!) Not me. I’m thinking there are just as many successful women artists as men, but perhaps because of economics and our society’s view (even today) that men are the bread-winners they aren’t recognized by history. Perhaps the same quality of artist is considered an “artist” if a man but a “hobbyist” if a woman.
    Who knows… who cares….
    Alyson Stanfield, who advises artists on their careers, asks prospective clients what their art goals are… Is the goal to make money? … to make a name? or to make art?
    Honestly… for me I’m not sure WHAT MY goals are… I THINK it’s just to improve my skills… But how does one evaluate improvement??? Hmmmmm… I guess shows and awards or money play a part in that, don’t they….
    Darn… It’s pretty much catch 21.
    I wonder…. Who BUYS more art? Women or Men??

  15. Alice Neal was a super kick ass artist!!!

  16. Edgar says:

    I can’t back this up with numbers, but my suspicion is, that if you polled people in the US that self-identified as artists, you’d find a lot more women than men. But, when I think back on the history of artists (as opposed to art history), I know that “painter” was a lowly trade, compared to the respectable ones like ‘smith’ or ‘mason.’ It was never considered one of the “professions” until the 20th century.

    Aristocratic women were always (in the 17 and 18 hundreds) trained in arts and letters, and practiced a number of them to pass the time — Jane Austen’s full of it. But they didn’t ‘sell’ their art, as that would have been absurd, unladylike, crass and beneath them.

    But today, everyone and their younger sister seems to be an artist… although few make a living at it, so times haven’t really changed much from Austen’s day. Even your Blogroll is dominated by women.

    And I don’t question that women are at least as well suited to make art as men, for all the reasons you list, and many others. So the question is really, “Why are the women artists invisible?,” isn’t it? Historically, I’ll say “amen” to all the astute reasons listed by other commenters: both historian’s bias and lack of knowledge/opportunity to market a talent… but in the contemporary world, I think women are being well represented in my local galleries and co-ops, and in “cutting edge” magazines and books.

    The place I still feel women are being under-represented is “the standards”, like Art in America, and Southwest Art and the like… but I don’t have numbers to back that up.

  17. Nava says:

    I’m going tomorrow with an artist friend to see the “Women Impressionists” exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco – which aligns nicely with this post.

  18. Amy Sullivan says:

    This is question that has its own permanent space in my brain.~ I have been an artist my whole life. Like so many woman, I knew I was an artist from the time I was a little girl.And~ I worked on my art,I worked very hard. In high school, I was known as an artist, I won scholarships, I interred shows & won awards. I was passionate. Then , I went to college.This was 1979-84.
    I was a realistic painter, I wanted to learn the figure. I wanted to refine my work, study the model.And, all around me were students and teachers that were doing abstract art.Fine for the instructors, they had already been to art school. I was like~ aren’t we supposed to learn the rules before we brake them? I love abstract art~but~ I also like to know that there is a history behind that work.~At any rate, out of all my mostly older male instructors, only two got what I was trying to do. Which was study the figure, take advantage of the fact that this was time in my life that ,I had a model to work from and time to spend on my art.~So, I was called too secretive, a romantic.If you said that to me today~ I would say “thank you very much”. But, back then, it started to ware away at my confidence.And~ shame on me for letting it happen.
    So~ there is that word CONFIDENCE. Mine was drifting away from me.So~ that was the turning point for me.I see it very clearly now.
    But~ I never stopped making art. But~ a great deal of that driving force to succeed as an artist had been lost.Very sad really.
    I did start to build some success and then the choice to be a Mom came.I wanted my babies, really as much & more than I wanted to be a success as an artist.As everyone has stated above, both being a Mom & a full time artist take an enormous amount of love,time, hard work & passion.
    So~ here I am age 48, all 4 children in school. I never stopped being an artist, I just did not give it my full attention.~ 48 and feeling a bit like I am just starting. But, not really, because I have all that history behind me.~ I think that many woman artists are “late bloomers”~ if they have not completely lost themselves in the process.
    But, one thing for sure is that every female artist I know w/ children, walk a fine line. And, tend to be very tired.~ My husband is always behind me and my children are rooting me on.It is my tendency not to ask for help, that makes things hard today.Sometimes I think, what if I did nothing but art for a month. No laundry, no dinners, no cleaning, no running around w/ children, no shopping…Now, that is a crazy thought.I would loose far more than I would gain.
    This just one story, but, I believe it is pretty common.~~Even as I look at what I wrote, I think, does this give any reverence to the question or am I just being self indulgent.And~ do I hit the submit button. ~Amy~

  19. lbtowers says:

    Amy, I’m really glad you did hit ‘submit’. That is a classic tale. Although in my original post I talked about how I began because I was at home when my son was little, I only had one. With only one the distractions, then and to this day, are enormous at times. I have often said I wish I had a wife (see Nava’s comment as well)!!!

    And that is a good point Edgar, that perhaps we are just invisible. I think it is really the upper eschelon of the art world that I am talking about–the biggest galleries/museums, the fanciest magazines. Your suspicion that female numbers swell the middle rank sounds right to me too. Do men run the galleries, museums, and magazines and create the bias? I don’t know. Interesting subject, and Marian’s question is a really good one–“Who BUYS more art? Men or women?”. That could hold the key.

    At any rate, RISE UP GIRLFRIENDS!!!!

  20. Amy says:

    I meant to write ” sensitive” not secretive. I am rarely secretive. :)amy

  21. It seems, Lisa, that you have hit quite a nerve with many of us women. I, too, attended college late in life with the intention of specializing in science illustration (after a lifetime in typesetting and proofreading for book publishers). Unfortunately, for me at least, all I heard from my professors is “Why do you even NEED a degree?” My answer was “Well, I want to earn an M.A. or M.S. in medical illustration … seems there’s this silly rule that one must have a bachelors degree first!”

    In short, I “let” them chip away at my determination, my confidence (it didn’t help that while earning my degree, I was diagnosed with breast cancer).

    I’ve taken a break and, with “some” distance, I feel my determination and my confidence coming back. Still, “life” does pose some obstacles, even without children.

    But your question and the numbers of responses! Well, they were good for me to read too. Thank you for posing the thought!

  22. Obviously this post has resonated with many… I love Amy’s comment and want to cheer her on…. I’m looking forward to seeing her in those “standards” magazines in the very near future….. You too Lisa… You could if you wanted to.

  23. Very interesting discussion here. I’ve often wondered the same thing, and have come to a similar conclusions to what grfxho and Diana had to say.

  24. Ah, the preception is:
    Men are serious, career artists.
    Women are hobbyists.

    We’re conditioned to think that anything a man does carries more gravitas.
    Even a deep baritone voice carries more weight than that does a womans.

  25. Melinda says:

    Spot on, Kathleen! When you mentioned the “deep baritone voice,” I think it may be one of the main reasons we have such a difficult time out in the world. As women, we have often found that lowering our voices in pitch gets more respect than a higher frequency, right?!

    I think too, that men can put up with messier environments, especially in order to get the ‘job’ done. And, for cultural reasons, we think artwork is in addition to any job we think is necessary. Are we more practical than men…?

    Lisa, why are you afraid of succeeding? I sympathize as I have a similar fear, but why? If you can answer that question for yourself, perhaps all cultural questions are made irrelevant.

  26. lbtowers says:

    What stops me from wanting success at this badly enough to pursue it with a vengeance? Perhaps I fear being MADE to do it once I have established a reputation. That can suck the life blood out of the passion for it. (In fact already has to some degree.) Perhaps I fear never being able to really make enough money at it to want to continue. (Who the hell does well at this but David Hockney and Thomas Kincaide?)Then there is the existential pressure to perform for the posterity of my own progeny. I tend to want to speak my mind through my pieces that I value the most, but who the hell am I to say?

    And back to the happy place…

  27. Melinda says:

    Very, very good points. Perhaps it’s time to re-define success:

    Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Brown, Alice Neel, Francoise Gilot, Mary Ann Currier, Annie Leibovitz, Louise Bourgeois, Linda Nochlin (“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews January 1971), etc. How did they answer the same questions?

    What if, for the rest of the year, you only mentioned WOMEN artists when referring to great work?

    You are the creator…of art. So…YOU say! The freedom to produce what you want, when you want, how you want, is a gift you give yourself, whether you’re making a million dollars at it or no money at all.

    I’ve linked your wonderful post at my blog because I think you’ve opened up an important subject. Stay in your happy place and best wishes always.

  28. Full disclosure: I’m a dude… but this isn’t hate mail. I’m genuinely interested in the subject, and think that women artists have been, and still are, being under-recognized in the art community. I’m trying to understand it, but admit I can never be as invested in the question as the women addressing this post.

    I can see that, in a conversation like this one, there is a problem about defining what it is that qualifies as “recognition”. I reframed the question earlier as “Why are women artists invisible?”, partly out of wrestling with the ambiguity in these terms. Now the discussion is being posed in terms of “what is success?”, which may be the best form of the question.

    As an example of what is clearly wrong about what we think/are taught/know about women artists, I’m obliged to confess that I needed to look up the names of almost all of the women I’ve listed below, since I knew they existed, but went blank on their names. If I were asked to name the (male) members in “Die Blaue Reiter,” I’d have to look them up too, but that just proves the point: I’d never blank on a name like “Pablo Picasso.” We have our icons, and we have a whole bunch of excellent and admirable “also-rans”… and all the icons are men.

    I think some of my fuzziness in my previous post (gallery representation, publications) is that I think that some change is occurring… but that would be too slow, and too little comfort, for a woman in today’s art world.

    But here’s my list of under-appreciated, great woman artists:
    Barbara Kruger, Natalia Goncharova, Kathe Kollwitz, Isabel Bishop, Jeanne-Claude, Susan Rothenberg, Audrey Flack, Miriam Shapiro..

    And a list of women artists that I think have gotten better recognition:
    Melinda K. Hall, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Laurie Anderson, Anne Taintor

    I don’t list these to say that “this is enough recognition”, but that I could use the reminder of how many great women artists are out there.

  29. lbtowers says:

    Dear Edgar (aka Edna),

    You are a brave man indeed to be so involved in this conversation here.

    Of the names you listed, only two, Kahlo and O’Keefe are “household” (no pun intended-no hate mail please) names. Mary Cassatt is another. The point is one could go on and on listing the men who are household names. The nature of women’s roles sociologically through history certainly explains this discrepancy as grfxho points out earlier here. I guess I am confused as to why it is not reversed now. However, after reading my last brooding confession and Melinda’s before it, I am willing to take some of the blame for the fact that we women do not, as I say, dominate the pages of the art magazines. I think along with being the more sensitive half of the human race, we are also the less agressive half. That’s it. I have the answer: testosterone injections. We’d be out there pounding the pavements, with a fistful of paintings, telling the gallery owners they NEED us. And some of us would wear lipstick. I think I’ll write a book (once I start my injections) and that will be the title of it.

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