Women in art history

Throughout history, women in art have faced oppression and erasure due to the vast impact the patriarchy has had (and still possess to this day). Society and its rigid belief that male authority is absolute has meant that women have been unable to reach their full potential, or if they’ve been able to achieve their goals, that they’ve had to work ten times harder for the privilege. 

From architects to entrepreneurs, scientists to mothers and carers, women have been forced to live in the shadows of men, men who controlled almost every aspect of their lives, thus ensuring they were unable to break free of its shackles. Arguably, the most marked ways in which control was exerted was through finances, land ownership rights, marital engagements, and even laying claim to the rights of a woman’s body. Women who sought to defy this mold were met with skepticism, abuse, and were often ostracised from the rest of society — they became an “other”, deemed lesser than their identity of being female. 

Guerrilla Girls artwork 'the advantages of being a woman artist'
The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist 1988 Guerrilla Girls

Women in art today

Even in today’s world, centuries later, many people still regard women as pretty things to have and/or control; they’re destined to only ever assume the role of muse but never take the reins as the creator. The pigeonholing of sex and gender has maintained a status quo, even in spite of demands women have made for equality. We only have to look at the #MeToo Movement to see that while female voices are being amplified, finally, there’s still many who explain away the abuse done to women as acceptable.  

Naturally, with so much inequality still in our society and culture, this leads to a series of questions regarding women, their femininity, their identity, and who they strive to be. If we narrow this down further, we have to ask about the women of the art world — do they represent women for women, or are women in art unintentionally furthering the male gaze? If the latter is true, the more pressing question needs to be asked of whether such lenses can be removed in order to allow the female gaze to come through. 

Facing erasure

In order to address all of these questions and the various facets they open up, it’s important to start from the beginning of art history and culture as we know it. Despite it not being well talked about, women artists have existed for just as long as male artists have; much like any other profession and/or hobby, for every male there’s been a female counterpart also taking up that mantle. However, unlike men, the amount of influence they’ve been able to wield upon art history has been systematically limited, and even sometimes erased, due to conventional, patriarchal social patterns. 

We’ve been taught that anything a woman creates is pretty, but not awe inspiring — it can’t possibly move us the same way Picaso does. Coupled with this problematic mindset, the narrative of women in art as being “crafty” has also emerged, in which women have been seen as only capable of creating pretty, fluffy, cutesy pieces as opposed to anything with depth. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with those who adopt the crafting title with pride, but more that we need to be aware of this limitation being placed on the women within the art community. 


In light of this, it becomes incredibly clear why Gajewski commented on the limitations of education in the arts. Education and training in the arts sector has been designed to minimise the opportunities of the women who work within this field. This is why it wasn’t until the 1960s that women — aided by the second wave of feminism — began regaining these spaces that had been taken from them.

They led by teaching, learning and sharing knowledge related to arts, as well as giving a voice, face and name to all of the women who were robbed of their talent and recognition. By raising their voices and demanding to be heard, they were able to push for the inclusion of their work in galleries and museums, places which have predominantly allowed art history to tell of the male vision of female beauty and intelligence over that of women themselves. 

These stories and voices, however, are beginning to gain the traction and recognition they deserve, thanks to the continuous efforts of women pushing for change. As the world becomes more aware of the injustices done to the marginalised, fuel for new art movements, new theories, and a new place for women is allowing them to assume a position with more power. It isn’t perfect, and there’s still work to be done, but it’s a good start. 

Guerrilla Girls artwork, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum
Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?
Guerrilla Girls, [no title], 1985-90, screenprint on paper, 28 x 71 cm, (Tate)

Feminist Art

A prime example of this are groups like the Guerrilla Girls, women who have dedicated their lives to fight sexism in the arts; they’ve publicly exposed important issues in a humorous, accessible, and loud manner in order to draw attention to history’s cruel treatment of women. You only have to look at the picture above, in which a gorilla is yelling that the Met Museum has more naked women than women artists displayed, to see how jaded and sexist art is.

Their efforts are giving women more exposure and representation in art spaces, galleries and in history on a level they’ve not been given before. However, although their work is commendable, there’s not only the Guerrilla Girls who are at the fore of these changes. Yoni art is making headway for female empowerment, and it’s doing so by shaking off the oppressive societal norms that have programmed us to believe female bodies and sex shouldn’t be viewed unless for pleasure. 

For those not familiar with the term, ’Yoni’ is a Sanskrit word for the internal and external reproductive organs of the female body, e.g. our vulva and vagina. By placing yonis at the centre of such art, it shines a light on female sex and sexuality, their bodies, and the importance of gender positivity. In fact, some Yoni Art even challenges the notion of gender altogether, instead choosing to focus on the yoni as a beautiful, intimate, and human part of the body as opposed to being gender specific. It may sound crazy that something as simple as a painting of a vagina can empower women, but you only have to see how many women are joining this movement to see the truth of its empowerment.

Taking the power back

In the past, men have held the narrative on the way women look, which is why so many women have fears and misconceptions about their vulvas, their breasts, and their bodies as a whole. The male gaze has done such damage that even women themselves can perpetuate the dangerous ideologies we’ve been force fed.

Fortunately, women are now taking their power back by authentically representing themselves and their bodies. Yoni Art is a means of embracing the differences and uniqueness of vulvas. Although the style may be impressionistic, realistic, or anything else in between, what’s being portrayed is an authentic depiction of yonis around the world. Women artists aren’t changing the shape or size to fit beauty ideals of what the perfect body should be, they’re using diversity to express how varied our bodies are. 

Put simply, Yoni Art is reformulating the status quo, and therefore allowing women to embrace aspects of themselves they’ve previously been ashamed of. This is arguably because the importance of such art lies in seeing the vulva without erotic objectification, sexualisation, and removed from the male gaze. Masculine pleasure isn’t part of the experience here; the vulva simply is what it is, and doesn’t ask to be viewed as anything else. This is what gives Yoni Art such depth and importance within the art scene, and within our culture in general; at its core, it’s about taking the power back.

By Katie Lloyd and Emma Louise Flint