Society tends to lump people into categories. People lump people into categories. It basically is a worldwide epidemic. Race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender are just a few of the categories that divide people but there are a multitude of boxes in which to fit ourselves and each other. People, as a term not a species, should be inclusive but it’s not — because people often assume a race (white) and a gender (male.) Generally speaking white, heterosexual, males are seen as the default even among women and people of color. Society also alters, in some fashion, other terms that are similarly gender-neutral to mean male. Like …
Best Actor and Best Actress for the Oscars. The actual definition for actor makes no special designation for gender. Actor, as a word, applies to males and females interchangeably. But then how would we know if the actor was male or female, right? The term Female Artists is used by Huffington Post in their Art and Culture section which effectively separates women from their discipline into a category based solely on their gender. The phrase Women Authors serves the same function in literature. Singers, performers, musicians, artists, and authors are all gender neutral classifications so society adds the necessary qualifiers: female, black, gay … but not white or male unless it’s a black male, of course.
Why is this an issue?
Because male people rarely pay attention to the work created by known female people. For example, how many men do you know have read Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, or Maya Angelou? Yet how many women have read J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and John Grisham?
On occasion, female people have difficulty seeing a place for themselves in the work created by and for male people because gender has been made so salient in everything that people (male and female, trans and cis) do. Other times they can’t find examples that relate to their own experiences. In the art world, or the worlds of science, politics, engineering, etc., when women are excluded from the history, or when their contributions are seen not as a part of the field but as an addition to the work done by their male counterparts it adds to the sense of women’s contributions being considered inconsequential.
Judy Chicago, in the book Frida Kahlo: Face to Face, quotes historian and author Gerda Lerner (you can read a short piece of work here) who said, “women do not know what women before them taught and thought.” Chicago then goes on to comment that she believes that female artists are caught in a cycle of repetition, unable to build upon each other’s accomplishments. I found this to be an incredibly insightful comment because as art moves forward every artist, in theory, builds on what has been done before. New approaches to old problems, new insights on old tropes. Everyone has a pieta but no one’s looks like Michelangelo’s anymore. If women are not acknowledged, or only acknowledged separately, the continuity necessary for the contributions of other women to fit and make sense within the field is disabled. It’s like the original work never existed.
All of that could sound like an argument for a separate history, a herstory as it is commonly referred to in feminist circles, but there are a few basic problems with studying the work of women separately from the “official” history. The first problem is that Women’s Study classes are populated by mainly women. Men don’t take Women’s Study classes anymore than they read Toni Morrison. So while you do educate women about what women thought, addressing Lerner’s observation, that knowledge doesn’t travel far. I think the expression used frequently around here is “You are preaching to the choir.” And, to go back to the idea that artists build on one another’s work, you are completely leaving males out – assuming that they wouldn’t want to build on the work of a female. And a second issue is that then, in addition to Women’s Studies, there would need to be Black Studies, Gay Studies, Latino/a Studies. All of which would leave a biracial, transgendered woman in a real bind with time management and a heterosexual, white, man to believe that only the ideas and opinions of white, straight guys matter. It seems far better to just be inclusive in the first place and have everyone learn the history of our species. In other words don’t build more boxes (categories), instead tear down the dividers.
A herstory also never addresses the elephant in the room problem with our societal gendering habit. When work is known to be from a female it is devalued and if many women work in a particular profession that occupation suffers a loss of prestige and ultimately pay (shout out to the predominantly female teachers of the U.S.A.) To read more about a fairly recent example of this phenomena in a field more quantifiable than literature or teaching check out this article and the actual study can be found here. So, essentially, when an awards show or news outlet uses the term Female Artist they are reinforcing the importance of gender and perpetuating, intentionally or not, the marginalization of women.