Here we are in 2015, approaching 90 years since women got the vote, being urged to celebrate all that we’ve achieved in honour of International Women’s Day. And there’s a lot to celebrate – we are not only more visible, we are also playing more of a leading role in society, politics, the economy and the arts.
However, there’s no denying that the struggle isn’t over, we’ve a long way to go yet. It’s a road we’re still building never mind battling our way across. And it’s full of potholes.
A prevalent theme is the challenge of being both independent and depended upon, as a career woman, a mother and/or a wife.
Can we have it all, should we want it all, who or what is stopping those of us who don’t? Is it a choice we make or one that’s forced upon us?
At this week’s Accenture UK conference (4 March 2015) marking International Women’s Day (8 March), Clinical Psychologist and Professor in Public Understanding of Science Tanya Byron, noted that even if women have everything, it doesn't mean they have to do everything.
It’s a point that has been raised by several leading ladies of the arts. Most recently, the inimitable genius that is the musician and producer Björk, commented on the double standards she’s experienced in her 30-year career to date.
“It’s tough,” Björk told the magazine Pitchfork in an interview notably headlined ‘The Invisible Woman’ - casting the dye or reflecting the artist’s own image? “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.”
Broadcaster and presenter Clare Balding echoed the sentiment at the Accenture conference, noting that an idea is just an idea these days until a man validates it.
Tracey Emin made a similar point recently, arguing that not only is it unrealistic for women to aspire to have it all, telling The Independent: “There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”
Is this just the harsh truth of the women’s movement in stasis rather than flux, or the absorption of a second class identity inherited through the years?
Nietsche once said that “No artist tolerates reality.” The idea of art as conscious rebellion is wonderfully dissected by Siri Hustvedt in her latest novel, The Blazing World. Through the multiple lenses of philosophy, art, feminism, neuroscience and the myriad of other disciplines in which she characteristically submerges herself, we learn of the complex nature of what it means to be a woman ferociously battling against preconceptions and misinterpretation.
The central character, Harriet Burden, so frustrated by her invisibility in the male dominated art world, plays a grand hoax to assert her worth by assuming the identities of three different male artists and releasing a series of artworks that attract more attention that she might ever have hoped to as her true self. Hustvedt has Burden confess that her fantasies were partly prompted by “a growing sense that I had always been misunderstood and was madly begging to be seen, truly seen”.
Art imitating life? Not necessarily so.
One magnanimous exception to the rule is Barbara Hepworth, who without a doubt was one of the defining artists of her time, arguably even ahead of her time, producing outstanding work during and after emancipation. In her own words:
“The feminine point of view is a complementary one to the masculine...The women’s approach presents a different emphasis. I think that women will contribute a great deal to this understanding through the visual arts, and perhaps especially in sculpture, for there is a whole range of formal perception belonging to feminine experience.”
Hepworth found no contradiction in balancing motherhood with lifelong success as a sculptor: “It formed my idea that a woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children...one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.”
It’s that self-defining trait that is behind the brilliant Smart Girls website, a virtual community spearheaded by the actor, comedian and writer Amy Poehler to empower and inspire the next generation of women. Smart Girls’ motto is “change the world by being yourself”. Hear, hear.
Initiatives like Smart Girls are the way to approach the future, without lamenting the hangovers of the past. Without a doubt they’ve emerged from the legacy of women’s struggle for a voice that’s as audible as any man’s. But the point is that we don’t need to share a platform from a position built on weakness.