When the National Museum of Women in the Arts launched the #5womenartists hashtag for Women’s History Month this past March, it (sadly) knew it’d be a challenge for people to name five women artists, but to the museum’s surprise it was actually a lot more difficult than it anticipated. Go ahead, name five—I’ll wait.
Among the things the social media campaign brought to light—apart from a collective implicit bias—was art historian Linda Nochlin’s landmark essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Or, perhaps a subtitle would be, why don’t we know about them? And though this essay was written in 1971, it’s a question we’re still grappling with today (your cue to cringe).
What artists and designers have to say matters a lot, and of course with great visibility comes great responsibility. There’s been a lot of public chatter about feminism lately—about what it is, what it isn’t, who’s in, and who’s not. Actress Shailene Woodley isn’t; Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly can’t be for business reasons; Beyoncé is, but only reluctantly. Does anyone else find it a touch frustrating that merely mentioning the word is still newsworthy?
In Feminism Unfinished, Astrid Henry wrote that “the most defining feature of this generation of feminists is its inability to be defined by any single political goal, ideological perspective, or way of being feminist,” with the proliferation of feminism hashtags running “the risk of being merely an identity to claim without any political content.” While it’s a good thing that feminism has become so omnipresent that it’s not limited to any single group or “type,” it also seems that the term “feminist” has become watered down enough to be appropriated by just about anyone, without awareness of its history. The term has become both meaningless and, at the same time, alarming by others.
Just how is feminism being defined right now? It seems to depend on who you ask.
The recent “Redesigning Feminism” panel hosted by AIGA’s New York chapter aimed to break down the current state of women—and of feminism—in art and design. (For a crash course, watch writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “We should all be feminists,” below). But even though this talk was geared towards creative professionals, as I listened I realized just how many of the questions and concerns raised apply to issues the workforce has been facing for decades and across industries.
When asked how she defines feminism for herself, Parsons School of Design professor Hala Abdul Malak said, “most of the problems lie in the nuances. We’re plugged into an existing structure… 90% of the students I teach are women, but only 5% of women are [practicing] at the top level. What happens in between?” The stats bear this out. According to a study conducted by the UK Design Council, 70% of graphic design students are women, but women make up only 40% of the design workforce.
“This is a problem,” wrote Rebecca Wright, program director of graphic communication design at Central Saint Martins in London. “As in many other walks of life, the higher echelons of the industry do not reflect the demographic it purports to represent, neither the future of the industry nor the audience it serves.” This disparity becomes even more staggering as fewer women make it to the top of the corporate ladder. It’s even worse in other professions: less than 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And any purported improvements over the past several decades have hardly made a dent. Approximately just 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries in the United States are women. Yikes.
Earnings ratios are disparate in art and design, too. According to the Department of Labor, women in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations earn 85% of what men in equal positions make. And ongoing workplace issues such as state-subsidized child care and paid parental leave are most often felt by (and detrimental to) women across all fields, art and design included.
The problem is more than just quantitative. Know any emerging women designers? On top of all the challenges faced by newcomers to any field, you can bet those women have some additional hurdles to jump, like the lack of women mentors, even when, as Abdul Malak put it, “The older I get the more I want to see other successful women like me.” Another panelist, Céline Semman Vernon, designer and founder of Slow Factory, has an idea, though. “Woman was always the muse. With artist couples, you wouldn’t learn about the woman… What if we become our own muse?”
Creative director and AIGA national board member Gwen O’Brien defines feminism “as women being equal to men—in all areas of life—whether it’s business, personal life, in society. I think about the Declaration of Independence and the ‘unalienable rights’ of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those are all very powerful, but I don’t think I’ve truly thought that they applied to me and my life. Especially liberty—the power to do or choose what you want.”
Narrowing the focus to feminism’s presence in the design process, at Slow Factory, Vernon hires non-traditional models like Barbie Ferreira to create campaigns that tell a different story (just ask her about beauty ideals she experienced as an adolescent in Lebanon). Through her research, Abdul Malak spotlights women designers who might otherwise remains hidden. Jiajia Fei, digital director of the Jewish Museum, uses the internet to redirect her audience toward what she thinks people should think is important. It doesn’t always mean hitting a quota.
In the feminist movement of the early ’70s, women often met in consciousness-raising groups—small, leaderless groups that came together to talk about their lives. As historian Linda Gordon describes in Feminism Unfinished, these groups framed women’s limited opportunities and secondary roles as political problems, and put them face-to-face with other women whose work and life experiences mirrored their own. In the years since, groups like this have only grown. Take our own initiative, AIGA Women Lead, which aims to turn talk into action.
Coming from a family with five older sisters, AIGA national board member Agustín Garza knows that men and women “are different, but shouldn’t be valued differently… I grew up with sisters being productive, tremendous leaders. Compassionate, kind, yet successful. That was my model of a woman, and I never questioned it until I came to the U.S. [from Mexico]. Feminism is being the best you can be in a society that needs all of our inputs. It’s a movement to create that environment of equality. The women that really seem to be examples of that aren’t fighting, they’re doing.”
When it comes to talking vs. taking action, Abdul Malak champions the role of the designer. “This is how design works: we deconstruct to find a new way.”