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Uncovering America

National Gallery of Art Library Digital Collections: Women in Art

National Museum of Women in the Arts

National Women’s History Museum

Researchers Explore Gender Disparities in the Art World,” Hidden Brain, NPR

Elizabeth L. Haines, Kay Deaux, and Nicole Lofaro, “The Times They Are A-Changing… Or Are They Not? A Comparison of Gender Stereotypes, 1983–2014,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2016): 353–363

Christopher Knight, “Review: A groundbreaking show to confront the gender bias in art: ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism,’” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2017

Guerrilla Girls, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (New York, 1998)

Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, eds., Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 2007)

Helena Reckitt, ed., The Art of Feminism: Images That Shaped the Fight for Equality, 1857–2017 (San Francisco, 2018)

Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, eds., Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970–1985 (New York, 1987)

Women and Art

Guerrilla Girls, When Racism & Sexism are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989

Guerrilla Girls, When Racism & Sexism are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989, offset lithograph in black on wove paper, Gift of the Gallery Girls in support of the Guerrilla Girls, 2007.101.6

How is feminism expressed? What forms does feminism take on a personal level (by an individual) or on a larger scale (by a society)?

How does gender inequality intersect with injustices related to race, ethnicity, religion, age, or other markers of identity (visible or invisible)?

What tactics have artists used to confront gender inequality?

The Guerrilla Girls is an activist group formed in 1985 whose members are female artists, curators, and writers. Their work focuses attention on gender and racial discrimination in the art world through demonstrations, performances, and “public service messages.” When Racism & Sexism are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth? (1989) comments on the fact that many US museums have been built their collections around the work of white, male artists. The text suggests that their work has been overvalued—in the art market and culturally—while female artists and artists of color have been undervalued. Another work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988) describes the frustrations and ironies of trying to succeed in a world that does not value your contributions. Using humor and data, it points to the systemic gender and racial bias in the works audiences see in museum collections.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, women in the United States mobilized to demand gender equality in their civic, educational, home, and professional lives. The women’s movement was part of a climate of social activism and questioning inspired by the civil rights movement and, later, by protests against the Vietnam War. The social activism of the period extended to the art world, as female artists began to confront and defy long-standing biases and traditional gender roles that had limited their careers.

Women in the art world were galvanized by a now-famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin. She argued that the real issue was not that there were no great women artists, but rather that they were historically invisible, unknown, and fewer in number than men because of systematic obstruction to education, patronage, and opportunities to exhibit art. Nochlin’s essay led to new research resulting in the rediscovery of many long-forgotten women artists, a process that continues to this day.

While the 1970s contained many watershed moments in the women’s movement, incremental change has occurred over centuries. Research shows that female artists working prior to that time, during the 19th and 20th centuries, pioneered new forms and materials with which to express their ideas. They created works that gradually broadened the possibilities for art and its audiences, although their achievements sometimes took decades to register with mainstream culture. The widespread recognition of the work of female artists has accelerated as they continue to produce works that complicate and challenge our understandings of gender, identity, empowerment, and expression. From the innovative and powerful abstract paintings of Joan Mitchell and Alma Thomas, such as Salut Tom (1979) and Tiptoe Through the Tulips (1969), accorded recognition relatively late in each artist’s career; to Betye Saar’s tiny sculpture, Twilight Awakening (1978), which offers a reimagined and potent mythology with a Black protagonist; to Rozeal’s afro.died, T. (2011), a mash-up of culture and concepts of female beauty—their art conforms to no expectations.