Thursday, 27 May 2010

Women in Culture - swept under the proverbial carpet?

Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci...

Where are the female painters in this list?

And hang on... Where are women in our cultural history at all?

I'm listening to 'In Our Time' with Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4, about the lasting influence of artist and biographer Giorgio Varsari's revolutionary 'Lives of the Artists', which he published in 1550. The only female speaker on the programme, Evelyn Welch, Professor of Renaissance Studies and Academic Dean for Arts at Queen Mary, University of London, commented upon the lack of inclusion of women artists in contemporary accounts of art. A point which could probably be applied to the entire recorded history of human innovation and artistic endeavour.

The idea strikes me, perhaps unoriginally, that it isn't the absence of prodigious female talent that prevents women from taking the spotlight in our cultural history, it is the biased coverage that doesn't showcase their talents.

Not a new idea, but sometimes the old ideas take their time to fully percolate the grey matter; a branching element of the point that History is written by the winners, the conquerers, the powerful, the wealthy.

Which of course, equals Men. With a capital 'M'.

The capital 'M' strides across the ruled line of writing, on two legs, leaving 'W' waddling in its wake. Yes, if you place the two together, they form a neatly symmetrical figure, but look where that doodling unity leaves women. On the bottom.

Men, with a capital 'M', because how else to capture the strength, vitality and natural grace of our gender counterpart? As opposed to Women, with a capital 'W', to capture the sturdiness, solidity, and dumpy, uninspiring half of the human race. Woman, the sex with less wit, humour, intelligence, agility, and initiative.

If you didn't know better - if you read the history books - this is the space that women naturally occupy. (Natural is a word that far too often justifies men in their discussion of gender dynamics: Men are naturally funnier, naturally more entrepreneurial, naturally more business-minded. It's boring, and tiresome, and patently untrue. I'll concede that often, men are naturally more able physically, they're faster and stronger, and in that sense, of course, it is natural.)

This sweeping statement on the bias of history books, I'll admit, doesn't take into account some of the creative and pioneering women that spring to mind, who have been represented in critical historical and cultural accounts - Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Christina Rossetti, Wilkie Collins, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Pankhursts, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop... (Of course this doesn't cover much of twentieth-century developments, but for the sake of constraints on time, which I currently am spending far too much of on this blog post, I'll omit)
But where are the striking women of culture before the fifteenth century? Before the seventeenth century? In this instance, I can't call any to mind. Maybe that's my fault, but that goes to show that women of cultural significance have not truly penetrated my conscious, have not been as integral a part of my historical education as men, have not existed within the broad base of cultural exchange that I have consumed as a young girl, and woman.

I'm sure that someone with an in-depth knowledge of gender studies in literature and history would be able to articulate this point far better, but I can't hold back from expressing my worry and sorrow for all the women who have been swept under the heavy carpet of History, which they so diligently hoovered/took-out-into-the-garden-and-beat (pick your era) themselves first.


In Our Time, with Melvyn Bragg that can be listened to in a podcast at - follow the links to "In Our Time", feat. Martin Kemp

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