Why aren’t there more women artists?

The more I blog about the lack of females front and center in kids’ media, it all seems to come down to this: Why aren’t there more women artists?

The obvious answer is that so many women lack access to money and power as Virginia Woolf told us years ago. In order to create, you need a room of your own.

I read another great theory in a book I love called Goddesses in Every Woman. I first read this book in a feminist theory class in college. I re-read it every few years and can’t wait to give it to my daughters when they are old enough. The  author, Jean Shinoda Bolen, writes that artists need someone to hold their dream, to believe in them. Many men get this faith and support from the women in their lives, but how many women get the same from men? Partners can give lip service to supporting art, but how many allow for the time and mental obsession it actually requires? Or are secure enough to tolerate the exposure art can result in?

I have a theory as well. I think that the whole “tortured artist” archetype doesn’t apply to most women. This is not to say that women don’t experience pain and despair. But rather, if women are going to create, especially mothers, it’s fairly impossible to get stuck in those emotions. And getting stuck is the closest definition I’ve found to sickness. I think in health, you experience the same range of emotions, just as intensely if not more so, but there is movement instead of stagnation. That movement is key to creating.

Please read my blog post on the book Against Depression titled: What if van Gogh took Prozac? The author, Peter Kramer, shares his fascinating theory on how the origin of our standards for measuring great art came from the depressed Greeks. We’ve been stuck in that warped and limited model ever since. I love this theory because, as a former philosophy major, I am no fan of how those guys screwed up our views on reality and women.

Update: The Guerilla Grrls suggest that a better question would be: Why aren’t more women artists noticed? While I understand this sentiment and agree that much more art by women needs to be recognized and celebrated, so much of art has to do with communication; it’s challenging for it to exist in isolation. I believe that more women need to dedicate themselves to creating.

Women, please write, make art, and change the world.

19 thoughts on “Why aren’t there more women artists?

  1. I also want to chime in about this. I consider myself an artist who works with the medium of words. I write fiction and poetry. I am also a licensed social worker. And I am a mother. I believe that our society has twisted ideas about work for both men and women. I once had a great deal of trouble with a boss just because I was getting engaged. I was working in the social work field and he decided that I was not a dedicated enough social worker and sought to get rid of me. I don’t think he would have done this to a man because a man would have “followed the rules” and put work above his personal relationships and family. This man I was working for was nothing special when it came to the field of social work and did not contribute that much to it. I believe that by becoming a wife and mother, I became a better social worker. I became a better writer and a better

    As a Christian, I also know that my Lord and Savior, Jesus, wants all of his followers to use all their talents to the fullest. We live in a fallen world that tries to prevent this. I have a friend who had a vivid dream in which Jesus came to him and showed him a stack of books. My friend asked if he was supposed to read these books and Jesus said that no, he was supposed to write them. The description of that dream has always stuck with me. There are books and paintings and other creative things that we are all meant to create. Jesus wants us to use our talents to the fullest. Some of these talents will be artistic.

    I also have looked at the work of female artists of the 20th century and they are as good or better than the men. Why are the men recognized? Because there is an historical bias towards them and away from women. And once educators latched onto a few names of artistic men, then, those are the only ones we heard about. We also only hear about famous male scientists and famous male patriots and famous male whatever.

    It is mostly Public Relations. Who is writing the narrative? Women are mostly the ones taking care of children and the elderly. That gives us a unique perspective on life. Maybe it also takes time from art, but living also has to be a part of art. Someone in a vacuum who is pampered for their talent, is just showing a small slice of life in their art. Let me see art from people who have really lived. Some of those people are women.

  2. What saddens me isn’t that there aren’t enough women artists (or scientists), but that so many sincerely believe recognition is the same as success.
    It has always been thus, in the world of art. We rarely question our pre-conceived notions and when we do, we rarely think the answer is ‘women’. Recognition has been sorely lacking since time immemorial – think about it…don’t you just kind of assume that cave painting were done by women? In antiquity, we often don’t have the slightest idea HOW a thing was accomplished, but frequently credit a man with work. Why?
    Like all fallacies, though, the perception is hardly the truth. There are, and have always been, great women artists, and I mean in every form of art. Not just the ‘women’s’ arts, but in every medium and every school. It distressing that, because YOU don’t know more about the subject, you THINK it’s the truth. I would direct you to the National Museum of Women in the Arts http://www.nmwa.or, as a good way to start.
    I know, I know, you are specifically talking about the illustrative arts (ie comic books), but don’t you think if the truly great women artists were held in the same esteem, more women would dedicate themselves to art,than telling them that they are reinventing the wheel, from the disadvantaged position of being a gender that has NEVER been particularly successful, creatively?
    Finally, if you doubt a woman artist’s passion, I recommend you read the story of Artemisia Gentilescu (and look at her art), and tell me that she couldn’t hold onto her passion!

    • Believe it or not, I am much better written (and spoken) than the above comment would appear. I was chasing my 3yo grandson, and my response became disjointed. I can’t edit it (and am still on Oma duty), so I will have to leave it and hope you can decipher the abrupt changes in tense and misspellings.

  3. I have been an artist all my life and made a good living doing so. I feel I must comment on the question as to why aren’t there more females in the art field: You are mistaken. There are many female artists in the profession of the visual arts. Usually, artists are not in the show room. They are in the attic or the basement. We are usually the last one’s hired and the first one’s fired.

    The problem is that an advanced degree in visual arts is unnecessary because we are judged for hire on the basis of our knowledge of the field and our portfolios. I traIned an artist once who went back to Philly and was hired by one of the best because he knew what he was talking about. He knew the “business” of art as well as having a good portfolio. Most colleges do not teach the because the instructors were never taught the .They specialized in the historic of art, not the of art.

    If you want to know about The business of art, please contact me at bobalou.smith2@g mail.com .

  4. As an artist, I would say that there actually are a good number of women in art. I recently got a BFA and probably 90% of the class was female. At least 7 of my main professors were female too. Thing is when I tell “normal” people that I am an artist I hear people say Oh my wife is an artist too, but she didn’t have to go to school for it. This meaning she draws in her spare time for fun. It was kind of an insult to me, and well all artists as a career type people. This isn’t to put her down but the art field is looked down upon by a mass of people in general and I get the feeling it is perceived to be a feminine hobby by a lot of people and in no way a true career path. Anyways regardless of this there are tons of creative people in this world, many of them trained and active many of them hobby enthusiasts. It is proper recognition of the good ones that need reinforcing and celebrated. I will say I have seen many venues, gender exclusive for women artists, grants for women artists and classes devoted to women in art.

  5. I like this topic, but I don’t like most of the reactions to the question in title. I am not sure why though.

    I like this part of your post, “I have a theory as well. I think that the whole “tortured artist” archetype doesn’t apply to most women. This is not to say that women don’t experience pain and despair. But rather, if women are going to create, especially mothers, it’s fairly impossible to get stuck in those emotions.”

    I am a mother of three who just this month decided to give up on my oil painting career. Not because of a lack of work or success, but because of the emotional trauma it seemed to create in me and my family.

    In the past, painting has been difficult for women regardless of their talent and skill. One painter in the late 1800s wrote that the one thing working against female painters is that they do not have a wife. I found that true. My children needed me in a way that took me away from painting. Teachers of art began accepting students in the 1900s, and many of them asked their female students to remain unmarried if they chose to be in the school.

    I think that female artist will always have a hard time watching their children suffer because of mom’s devotion to her art. If a woman wants to be an artist, perhaps a life of artistic monasticism would be best. This is just a theory, but many artists devote their entire soul to art; why try to split your soul between art and family? In my experience it was too painful. So for the time being, I am leaving painting. If my children are ever to the point where they are truly autonomous, then perhaps I can reinvest my soul into oil painting, but for now my happiness comes from my relationship with my children. Perhaps I won’t be influencing society at large, but in a handful of lives this has meaning. This is my art.

    So far this decision has given me peace and hope.

    I am glad that you are discussing this on your blog. Thanks for your post.

    • Hi Lauren,

      That makes me sad you gave up painting but I understand what you mean about how your devotion to art affects your family. I know I am a better mom when I am writing. When I don’t write, I am technically more available but I am cranky and resentful. But this is how I am managing now: I am writing a middle grade book with my husband. It gives us time to be together and it also really makes me pay attention to what my kids are interested in in a way that serves me as well. I think I’ve found a way– for now– where my being obsessed with what I’m writing is working for everyone. Wonder how long it will last?


  6. The idea that there aren’t female artists is absurd. There are many, many women artists–I go to art school and I am surrounded by them; at least half, from my observation, of the faculty is female.

    The trouble is not the absence of female artists but the fact that they are less often recognized and honored.

  7. There is an idea that I read somewhere…I think the Guerrilla Girls used it. ‘Why aren’t there more women artists?’ is not the question we should be asking, it is ‘Why aren’t more women artists noticed?’

  8. My guess would be that there are roughly as many women as men artists, they just aren’t getting public attention. Which, really happens to (I think) the majority of artists, how many people do art just as a hobby? It’s not a sure thing to bet on something that only gets money as it gets public appreciation, most people do art only as a plan B. Kind of also explains why a lot of artists came from rich families.

    • Aninha,

      Public attention is pretty key. Art is about communication. Especially if you are talking about men’s and women’s are since the beginning of time. Most artists, writers, composers, musicians on record are men. I am sure women created but we don’t know about most of them.


      • Yes, especially because at some point, being a woman writer, for example, was the equivalent for your family as having become a prostitute, so many female writers had male pseudonyms. Not to mention the people who really wrote for the sake of writing so much more than getting recognition for their name that they had a group of friends all writing under the same pseudonym. Like the Bourbaki group: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Bourbaki.

        Then we had to consider the time when a lot of women wouldn’t be taught how to write at all, then the books recycled because paper was really expensive, then the writings lost because no one took the time to preserve them. It really isn’t so much that women don’t do stuff, but more that it stays underground.

        If you want to check art by a female naturalist, buy Beatrix Potter works, or watch the cartoons based off of them (you can watch them on youtube last I checked).

  9. Bhakta the weird thing is you can go 50 years back, 100 years back, 200 years back and find people rather like us saying “there used to not be any women doing X and now there are lots!” To me it’s like the crest of the wave is always pointed out as new — and we are on it — no matter when “now” is. That is both heartening & sad, though.

  10. It matters less what we actually do and how good of artists or writers we are. What gets said about us and how our work and lives are framed is what creates “geniuses” as much as access to time and space and power, I think. Have you read How to Suppress Women’s Writing? It’s quite relevant!

    From reading lots of prefaces-to-anthologies and book about artists and writers I keep seeing patterns that at any one time in history there will be one woman deemed to be almost good enough to be included (almost almost) maybe in a footnote while the men all do work that refers to and is informed by & inspired by each other but if you dig into it you find that that footnote woman actually was part of their circles too and had other women around also working and doing stuff. So much of it is in the framing.

  11. Historically, we don’t hear of as many women artists because of sexism; as with women scientists etc.
    But today there are tons! Maybe more women artists than men because men ate taught to make money, not follow their hearts, help people, or improve society.
    I know way more female artists than male.

  12. I definitely agree with you. I am trying to be a female artist, my main subject tends to be the naked female form. You should try convincing a man that no, you are actually the artist stood next to your drawing. Not your Dad, or boyfriend who happened to be there on the day helping to set up your exhibit stall. Another thing I don’t get, why is it that when people talk about a muse it is always female? I know the original nine muses were female, but the definition of a muse is also a being, or simply just a feeling. My muses, do tend to be male, and yet inspire me to draw women with the feelings they give me. We should be allowed to have muses as well, who should be as famous as any of the male artists muses.

  13. You’re definitely on to something here.

    In order to create, you need a room of your own.

    Find me a hundred households with a man and a woman in ’em, and in 99 of them, the man will have a room of his own and the woman won’t. (In the hundredth, neither one of them will have such a room.)

    And here we come to the thing feminists hate to admit: Men end up with a room of their own, because it is a uniquely male burden to try to find a place where he won’t be told he needs to get out of the way. People pursue artistic endeavors when they try to be sociable, and receive those little messages that they’re not wanted in the social circle and don’t belong. You see it in little kids all the time. The best artist in a classroom is someone with very few friends, who doesn’t circulate much…but interestingly, in my recollection, and it seems this continues to be the case, about half of those are girls. By the time we make it to adulthood, males have their lock on this particular vocation, because in adulthood it’s okay to tell the males their best isn’t good enough, they’re not wanted, why don’t they just go away.

    Feminists will tell you I’m way off base, since nobody ever gets rejected in any way except girls.

    Any man who’s been through a divorce, will likely disagree.

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