Blog / 2010 / On Being an Artist and a Feminist

June 21, 2010

To hear my family tell it, I was a feminist before I was an artist, but I remember the story a little differently.

When I was five, I discovered that the United States had never had a female President. And I must have made something of a fuss over it, because my father gave me a book of portraits entitled The First Ladies in order to appease me. Instead of being further outraged that the first wives were supposed to make up for there never having been a first husband, I was thrilled to be given my first book of beautiful art.

a book of portraits of the First Ladies

In other words I was distracted from my feminist goals by a bit of shiny.

It’s not a proud moment for me, but it is a telling one. My identity as an artist has always come easily to me, but I’ve struggled my whole life to assume more fully my role as an activist for women’s rights. Maybe it’s a function of being a millennial feminist—maybe the cultural waters are muddier these days—or maybe I’m just too scared to be forceful about my feminism.

The truth is that it may not be easy to be an artist, but it’s a whole lot more difficult to be a feminist. Artists are thought of as cranks and scammers, radicals and bad influences, feckless, starving, and utterly unreliable, but at least they aren’t viewed as whiny victims whose ideals are passé and who must, by definition, be unsexy.

an African American woman as the President of the United States
Gwenn Seemel
The Next President (African American, Chandra)
2007
acrylic on denim
34 x 31 inches
(This painting is part of a series about what it means to be an American.)

Twenty-some years after the First Ladies entered my life, I am looking to respond to that book and to everything it represents to me. I’m tired of being one of those women who believes in everything that the women’s rights activists from the 1960s (or from the 1860s for that matter) fought for but who sometimes lets inequalities slide in public and then rages in private about those same inequalities while making art about them.

When I call myself a feminist, I want to feel like I feel when I call myself an artist: strong, not vulnerable.


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