The Need for Separatism?

The Need for Separatism?

Last weekend I attended the 3rd annual Feminist Art History Conference at American University in Washington, D.C. While it was great to be surrounded by scholars with similar research interests, I found myself wondering how much longer we (as feminist scholars) will feel the need for a separate sphere, so to speak.

To be sure, conferences and organizations devoted to women’s histories have performed, and continue to perform, important roles. We offer alternative voices to patriarchal histories, not only recuperating individual women but reexamining through the lens of gender the kinds of histories that are told. We make visible marginalized herstories.

College female students studying. (Wikimedia)

In my own fields, artists and art historians have proven very adept at feminist critiques and interventions. We’ve now seen many, many hundreds of important feminist publications, exhibitions, conferences, and dialogues around art, not to mention an entire Feminist Art Movement. Our professional organization, the College Art Association, has a number of gender-focused affiliated societies – the Committee on Women in the Arts, the Women’s Caucus for Art, and The Feminist Art Project.

And yet, when I attend conferences, even ones that are not gender-focused, I see that more and more of my colleagues are women. The vast majority of my graduate school peers were women. And now, my female students significantly outnumber my male students. A New York Times piece from 2006 noted that men were not only outnumbered but also consistently outperformed by women in college; at that time, men made up only 42% of the college population, a number that has stayed relatively stable in subsequent years.

Female at male students at college.

So with the so-called feminization of American higher education, will there come a time in which separatist organizations devoted to women’s histories no longer need to exist? Can we assume, for instance, that the increased numbers of female college graduates and increased numbers of women in positions of authority will automatically change the patriarchal culture?

Unfortunately, I fear not.

Students from the Lakewood, NJ area 1914-18. (Flickr)

I would hope that American women are better off today than they were decades ago, in both the scholarly realm and in culture in general, but there is still far to go. In the elections earlier this month, we voted in a record number of women to Congress – who now make up a whopping 20%. Women still earn far less than their male counterparts, and women remain more likely than men to be poor. As Stephanie Coontz cogently argued in a September New York Times editorial, “the ascent of women has been much exaggerated.”

The activist art collective that calls themselves the Guerrilla Girls continues to document the inclusion of women in museums – specifically, the number of women artists whose work is on display versus the number of female nudes that are on display. Sadly, the numbers have not improved much, and in some respects have worsened. Compare, for example, two posters that chart the progress, or lack thereof, of women at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Guerrilla Girls poster, 1985
Guerrilla Girls poster, 2005

I am heartened by the strides made by women in public during my lifetime, and proud that my children will see women as vital members of historical events and as active participants on today’s world stage. When I attend feminist conferences, however, and hear scholars reflect upon the continued marginalization and recuperation of women, particularly women who don’t fit into the white heterosexual form, I believe that our work is not yet finished.

Featured image caption: Joint Classroom, The University of Sharjah. (Flickr)