Women in the Art World: A Continual Struggle

“Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western History?” is a question that was coined by the Guerrilla Girls, but has crossed the minds of almost every woman who has sat through an art history class. According to a mythological Roman story dating back to the first century C.E., the first drawing ever made was by a woman named Dibutades who, in the throws of passion, traced the silhouette of her lover on a wall. Despite this, her female successors were systematically excluded from the art industry. 

Art is often considered the product of the time period and the social, political, and religious context in which it was created. Correspondingly, women were barred from studying anything remotely sexual between the 16th and 19th centuries. This proved difficult for women in the art field, because the ability to depict nudes was considered to be essential for academic training.

However, a few female artists prevailed despite these obstacles. Among them were Artemisia Gentileschi during the Renaissance period, Mary Cassett who began painting during the Impressionist movement, and Judith Leyster, a painter in the Baroque era. Though they received copious amounts of acclaim from contemporary art enthusiasts, their art was dismissed as being ‘simply decorative’ and they were considered to be ‘inferior artists.’ 

Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr, Artemisia Gentileschi

Despite our society’s more progressive views on women and the rise of third wave feminism, women are still struggling in the art world. “A recent data survey of the permanent collection of 18 prominent art museums in the U.S. found that out of over 10,000 artists, 87% are male and 85% are white” (Public Library of Science). This piece of data begs the question, “Why are there still so few successful female artists?"

Many attribute the inequality in the art world to the fact that it services the upper class or, if we take a closer look, wealthy Caucasian males. In order for an artist to succeed, they must maneuver through their personal networks. However, these efforts can often be exhausting and ineffective when gatekeepers and tastemakers in the art world are discriminatory. “Women still lag behind men in directorships held at museums with budgets over $15 million, holding 30% of art museum director positions and earning seventy-five cents for every dollar earned by male directors” (Association of Art Museum Directors). The gender disparity in leadership cripples women artists, especially women of color.  

"What Guerrilla Girls BroadBand does is stand in the art world and relate it back out to the rest of the world. What’s really important about the continued inequality of representation of women and people of color in the art world is that the whole of American society is still incredibly racist and anti-women in certain ways. We see the art world as part of the world,” Minnette De Silva, one of the members of the BroadBand Collective, explained about the importance of critiquing certain institutions. Hopefully as more women attempt to break the glass ceiling, we will begin to see more women in the art world.


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