Where are all women artists? An analysis of gender inequality in the realm of the arts

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait, 1790

"Who are truly the great names of poetry since the last century?" Viginia Woolf wonders in 1929 through her renowned essay A room of One's Own on the supremacy of men in literature. Depicting this ever present hegemony as well as the many economical, social walls female writers have to face due in part to marriage and motherhood, she concludes that "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Acknowledged as an iconic and influential work in the history of feminism, Woolf's essay seems to hold as true as ever in our modern society even a century later. As a woman, one is faced even now with steep difficulties in the arts. Almost all artistic fields count less women in them, who are less paid and whose work are often less acknowledged, as compared to men.1 Such a sidelining stems from the past: no women appears in The Story of Art2 by Ernst Gombrich, one of the most popular book on art history. On an altogether unrelated note, of all drama played in french national theatres in 2016, only 16% of their authors are women.3 If one were to dwell on it, one would surely realize how difficult it is to name women conductors, stage directors or architects in contrast to the sheer amount of names one would think of for their male counterparts.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1618-1619

In the 1960s, second-wave feminism has given a new life to female artists' creations. This newborn interest for historic female figures such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kauffman or Rosa Bonheur in the history of art lead to new study branches, among which feminist art studies.4 This movement was carried on by female researchers like Eleanor Tufts, author of Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists published in 1974, or Linda Nochlin who, in her pioneer article "Why have there been no great women artists?", published in 1971, controversially claims that there is yet to be any great women artist ever: social institutions were then subjugated by men in power and number.5 She takes as example the representation of the nudes, that was forbidden to women for reasons of decency and propriety. The topic of women marginalisation has attracted far more than art historians and women to study: it has beckoned researchers in social and political domains as well, sociologists or even economists. As such, Tyler Cowen, ranked as one of the most influencial economist of the 2000s by The Economist, has too analysed this phenomenon. In "Why women Succeed, and Fail, in the Arts", he analyses artistic carrers, focusing primarily on opportunity costs and economical or social ressources management. Tyler thus pinpoints several factors that explain the small place for women in the history of the arts.6

Angelica Kauffmann, Self-portrait, 1784

Several factors explain these inequalities

One of the first explanations is education, that was for a long time closed to women. One should be reminded women had to wait until 1987 until the reknown École des Beaux-Arts officially opened their doors to them. Before that time, women's artistic education was but private education. It is therefore that the complete majority of female artist from the 17th and 18th centuries have been home-taught within brethern of artists, oft from a painter father himself. It was so for Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, court painter for Louis XVI and famous for some portrait paintings of Marie-Antoinette, and for Angelica Kauffman and Lavinia Fontana as well. They did not only benefit from the extensive knowledge and skills their fathers had to offer, they also had the priviledged access to the required and most expensive materials such as workshops, canvases, paint... Indeed, the everlasting marginalisation of women in arts, and education thereof, is entangled with gender stereotypes, and particularly the idea then conventionally admitted that the arts are intrinsically masculine becase of the qualities they require, such as dexterity, rigour and determination. Hereby, women who took part in artistic activities were seen as hobbying, a hobby that could not and should not go farther than genre painting or still life. Those who were to really step in artistic carreers, to try and pursue work in this field, were mocked and belittled as subversive beings, and insulted by their masculine peers.7 It shall be noted that some women artists have reclaimed masculine attributes so as to legitimize their works and gain a greater leverage of defense, in another word: To be part of the Arts. Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the greatest female artist of the 17th century, was enjoying a freedom and autonomy both unheard of for a woman in such times. Despite her tragic story —among which she endured rape, court, and torture— her sheer amount of will lead her to fiercely take traditionnally men-reserved religious scenes with an unprecedented passion and violence under her brush.8 Two centuries later, Rosa Bonheur, famous for her animal paintings, reclaims the codes of masculinity by showing off near the women of her life, smoking, and refusing vehemently to wear dresses. She would later say that "My trousers protected me well".9

Lavinia Fontana, Bianca degli Utili Maselli, holding a dog and surrounded by her six children, before 1614

To consider the position of women in arts, it is necessary to also exmaine the role of women in society more generally, especially relative to marriage and motherhood. In the realm of the arts as anywhere, then as now, women stop their careers sooner and more frequently than men; long constrained to houseworks and specifically to children's education, how many were they to eventually relinquish their artistic aspirations throughout history. In Our Hidden Heritage, Eleanor Tufts portrays 22 female artists, 8 of which are childless even though it was customary then to have many. In such a context, marriage has long been impeding women. As pointed out by american writer Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930) "The real hindrance to the success of a woman is her impossibility to have a wife", pointing out at the plethora of domestical chores women were attributed in couples. On the other hand, weddings were for a whole generation of 20th century avant-garde women astist one of the only ways for them to advertise their works along with their spouses', as it happened to Sonia and Robert Delaunay, or Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp. This truly is a mark of their lack in both independence and recognition.10 Conversely, sculptor Camille Claudel, muse and lover of Auguste Rodin, embraced the role of an accursed artist when leaving him to lead her personal carreer through her own means: alienated, spiraling into darkness and madness, she would die in utter anonymity, society disregarding a now recognized talent of her.

Camille Claudel, Young woman with closed eyes, environ 1885

Moreover, an economical approach to the history of arts sheds light upon mechanics that condition female artists' productions and that acted on their marginalisations. We have touched upon the matter of an artistic education, specifically its reach, yet the cost of the chosen medium has been times and times again a decisive factor too: women often used cheaper media. Before the 20th century, painting —specifically watercolor painting— has seen an overpopulation of women within its field, while sculpting —a way more onereous form of art— has been almost devoid of them. Most of all, they were a vast majority in so-called domestic arts such as embroidery, most likely for those activities allowed for their artistic practices to meet with their roles as women. However, due to their strong feminine connotations, those arts have never been lauded as canonical, valid forms of art: even now they are still classified as secondary and lesser. Nevertheless, the walls they face through their artistic journeys are far from being only economical in nature: women are historically under-represented in architecure, a world where social ressources management —such as teamwork or social network— is vital. Nowadays in France, there is only one female architect for three men in this field, and they were only 7.5% back in 1983.11 Other artistic media such as photography, newborn and novel on their apparitions in the 19th century, have been more open to them. Upon its popularization, photography has not been exclusively reserved to men and since no school of photography were to exist, no particular artistic education was required for it. The same went for Naïve Art, a style of painting given birth by amateurs and self-taught artists during the 19th century, characterized by vivid colors and perspectively unsound lines and shapes. In the World Encyclopedia of Naive Art, the ratio is of 212 women mentioned for 594 men. Upon their popularisation both media were criticized and perceived as lower form of art to the point where there were no possibilities for them to be an art form. More recently, in 1970, women claimed over performance art. They often performed in feminist viewpoints, questioning gender identities and norms, as well as bodies connections through this subsersive medium that is performance, that would jostle art as was then known.12 The french artist Orlan, specialist of body art, strives with her performances to reappropriate the feminine body against social, political and religious pressures, transforming her own body through cosmetic surgery.

Detail of embroidery, Mogao Caves, Tang dynasty (618-907)

A difficult rebalancing

The number of women artists has been ever increasing thoughout history together with the democratisation of art, becoming more accessible thanks to a more open artistic education and decreasing costs (pencils becoming widespread among the poorest families, the apparition of paint tubes during the Industrial Revolution), but also thanks to women's emancipation. The 20th century has seen the apparition of a new generation of women artists in almost every fields, sculpting included. However, gender inequalities are still present in great number. As a first example, positions of authority, conductors or stage directors for instance, are still widly held by men. A 2016 study conducted by the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (Society of playwriters and compositors) shows that female conductors or directors are only 6% total. In the realm of theater, save for some institutions that try to respect parity, directors in france are about 25 to 30% female. Thus, this segregation of positions leads to a drastic income difference. It also translates into a professional instability that affects women, forcing them into a second job and into stopping work sooner than men. Another repercussion is that women suffer from a lack of visibility and recognition in their artistic work: since the debut of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946, only one woman, Jane Campion in 1993, ever received the Palme d'Or. Likewise, since 1980, 144 men have been selecting for the stage directing Molière prize, whereas 12 women were, only 3 of which received the prize. Such a discrimination is even present at the level of the State : in 2004, only 5% of art works bought by the French State have been crafted by women.

Sophie Taeuber, Vertical-horizontal geometric composition, 1926-1928

Finally, despite art studied nowadays being more feminine than masculine, the arts stay a hostile and unforgiving environment for female artists. However, cultural institutions are repeatedly trying to make the push for gender equality, and from this several measures and initiatives have sprouted. In 2009, the Centre Pompidou has initiated a special exhibition in their permanent collection named Elles@centrepompidou aiming to emphasise women's works. Though this initiative has been the topic of several controversies, it surely did help others to (re)discover some artists. In the world of theater, more and more managers offer gender-equalizing programs, as was the case in 2016 at la Comédie Française. The art job market is thus striving to appear as more equal, and this is particularly visible in the recruitment process: blind auditions are gaigning in popularity in orchestras and lyrics institutions. This process aims to forego any biases in choosing musicians and offer more opportunity to people who would be dettered from it. The need to preserve artistic patrimony has lead to many projects: AWARE, Archive of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions is a directory that gathers creations made in the 20th century by women artists, also proposing conferences and guided tours. In 2013, under the supervision of historic feminist activist Antoinette Fouque, the Dictionnaire universel des Créatices (Universal Dictionary of Female Creators) has been published: a large monography of creations from women not only in the arts, but also in science, exploration, sports, or activism throughout the word and since the beginning of History (including Women History!) However, it should be reminded that the history of art has remained on the West in their perspectives, and while women artists' situations is seemingly improving, this improvement is mainly taking place in the West: elsewhere, many women are still striving to reclaim the arts.

Angie Hiesl and Roland Kaiser, Performance: china-hair-connection Beijing-Cologne, 2008. Photograph by Jasper Goslicki, under license CC BY-SA.


  1. Observatoire de l’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes dans la culture et de la communication 2017, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Paris, 2017. 

  2. Ernst Hans Gombrich, The Story of art, Phaidon, London, 1962. 

  3. Source: Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, 2016. 

  4. Annie Boulon-Fahmy, « L’art a-t-il un genre ? Les arts plastiques au féminin », Genre et éducation : former, se former et être formée au féminin (colloque), Université de Rouen, 2006. 

  5. Linda Nochlin, « Why have there been no great women artists? » in Woman in Sexist Society : Studies in Power and Powerlessness (dir. Vivian Gornick, Barbara K. Moran), New York, 1971. 

  6. Tyler Cowen, « Why Women Succeedn and Fail, in the Arts? », Journal of Cultural Economics, 20, 1996, p.93-113. 

  7. See the scandal Suite de Malborough au Salon 1783, an anonymous lampoon in which women artists of the time (Elisabeth-Vigée Le Brun, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Anne Vallayer-Coster) are violently insulted. 

  8. Marthe Coppel-Batsch, « Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) : sexualité, violence, peinture », L’Esprit du temps, 2008-8, 2008, p. 365-387. 

  9. Albert Boime, « The Case of Rosa Bonheur : why should a woman want to be more like a man ? », Art History 4-4, 1981, p. 384-409. 

  10. Marie-Josèphe Bonet, « L’avant-garde, un concept masculin ? », Itinéraires, 2012-1, 2012, p. 173-184. 

  11. Source: Ordre des architectes, 2016 

  12. Anne-Julie Ausina, « La performance comme force de combat dans le féminisme », Recherches féministes 272, 2014, p 81-96. 

  13. Source: Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, 2016. 

  14. Philippe Coulangeon, Hyacinthe Ravet, Ionela Roharik, « Gender differentiated effect of time in performing arts profession: Musicians, actors and dancers in contemporary France », Poetics, 2005, p. 369-387. 

  15. Annie Boulon-Fahmy, « L’art a-t-il un genre ? Les arts plastiques au féminin », Genre et éducation : former, se former et être formée au féminin (colloque), Université de Rouen, 2006. 

  16. Nathalie Ernoult, Catherine Gonnard, « Regards croisés sur elles@centrepompidou », Diogène, 2009/1, p. 189-193 

  17. « La Comédie-Française au féminin pluriel », article du Monde par Fabienne Darge, 01.06.2016 

  18. « Ecouter sans voir : l’impact du paravent sur le recrutement des musicien-ne-s des orchestres de Paris et d’Île-de-France – Rapport final Janvier 2015 », OFCE – PRESAGE Sciences Po, Paris, 2015. 

  19. See the case of contemporary Chinese artists: Phyllis Hwee Leng Teo, « Alternative Agency in Representation by Chinese Contemporary Women Artists », Asian Culture and History, 2-1, 2010.