This article was originally published on December 2, 2015 but we think it still rocks!
It’s an unfortunate occurrence all too common to chemistry but history, for the better part of the 19th through 21st centuries, has proved the tale almost archetypal in its commonness: a woman rises to prominence only to have a man lay claim to their successes. It was Charles Annan who, in 1868, entered the shop where Margaret E. Knight’s paper bag machine was being invented and decided the patent would look better bearing his name; Otto Hahn who took the name of German professor Lise Meitner—Germany’s first woman professor—off the monumental co-authored paper that would announce the idea of nuclear fission; and Charles Babbage who would initially come to receive full credit for Ada Lovelace’s inauguration of computer programming. But while Annan, Meitner, and Babbage would each receive their respective reckonings, what remains insidious are the curious cases of women’s contributions being overshadowed in the world of art.
“It’s tough,” Björk told Pitchfork in a feature depressingly titled “The Invisible Woman.” “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times. Girls now are also faced with different problems. I’ve been guilty of one thing: After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learned—the hard way—that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they—men—had the ideas.”
“I can’t use an outside engineer,” Grimes echoed the statement in an interview with The New Yorker. “Because, if I use an engineer, then people start being, like, ‘Oh! That guy just did it all.'” It happened to Georgia O’Keeffe the same as it did to both the female members of Krewella, and even to Alice Glass, the vocal powerhouse formerly of Crystal Castles.
All but shocked at her ability to circumnavigate what he called “Male Shackles,” in his essay “Woman in Art,” in not only laying claim to O’Keeffe’s success, photographer Alfred Stieglitz probes what is perhaps the fundamental misgiving behind these sorts of situations. As detailed by Vivien Green Fryd in Art and the Crisis of Marriage: Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, Stieglitz writes, “The Woman receives the world through her Womb,” explaining that for women, the creative impulse “is childbearing.” “Having nurtured her creativity and helped to mold her an artist,” Fryd states, “he reasoned he had given birth to his wife [O’Keeffe] as an artist.”
Which is a gross thought, in and of itself, but not grossly uncommon enough that it can be so easily rooted out of history’s annals. Yet. “That’s the way the game is played,” Dr. Solomon Snyder so graciously clarified after being given the Albert Lasker Award in 1979 for then-graduate student Dr. Candace Pert’s discovery of the brain’s opioid receptors, an award which Pert’s name was entirely left off of. Pert’s obituary in The New York Times features a photo of her and Snyder side-by-side, Solomon unfortunately caught in a gaze that screams “How can I keep this discovery for myself?” It’s a cunning gaze neither uncommon to Salvador Dalí in photos with wife and muse, Gala, nor Charles to partner Ray Eames.
But beyond depressingly standard sexism in too many industries, what is it that accounts for the consistency of backlash in art? Why now, for instance, is Ulay suing to get his name on Marina Abramovic-held projects? Some say it’s biology—in a press release surrounding a 2013 study of the effects of women’s success on men, psychologists Kate Ratliff and Shigehiro Oishi found “evidence that men automatically interpret a partner’s success as their own failure, even when they’re not in direct competition”—but our best guess is bad habits built up over time.
In a perceived “Dude World,” a woman’s success is something we feel the need to justify, to mansplain. And even if well-intentioned, it’s this kind of thinking that perpetuates this kind of fraught historicizing, in turn perpetuating old-hat ideas—*cough, copyright*—that stifle innovation while generating friction between sexes and identities. In changing times like these, it seems best to combine guidance from two venerated women artists. “There are always those who want to tell women that their experiences are not valid or not important whenever they speak up,” says artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
Says Marilyn Minter, on female artists getting the dues they deserve: “I think if you have something to say, I really believe that it will be seen. You may not be alive but the body of work that you make, the zeitgeist, will hit it.”