A Feminist Perspective

26 Minute Read

By Susan KingsleyMore from this author

A taboo was broken when the word "feminist" was used in the review of "Form Beyond Function" in Metalsmith (Spring 1987). In the context of craft, the word "feminist" has been avoided more than any other "f" word in the language. It is like a whispered "communist" must have been in the 1950s.

A Feminist Perspective

The first feminist was Christine de Pisan. She began writing in defense of women in 1399.

In the last 20 years the women's movement and feminism have produced major changes in our lives and culture. Yet the total absence of any mention of feminism, or the significance of women's involvement, in the current American craft movement and in metalsmithing suggests that these are issues that have not simply been overlooked, but avoided.

The field of metalsmithing has a masculine self-image. Despite the fact that probably two-thirds of American metalsmiths are women, and that many teachers indicate that their metalsmithing classes are predominately women, men have defined the field. With few exceptions, men are the accepted old masters, the leaders, the thinkers, the judges and the juries.

The Facts and Figures of Gender

  • In the last 10 years, there have been 92 monographs about artists in Metalsmith and Goldsmiths Journal. 77% were about male artists and 23% were about female artists.
  • Since 1980 there have been 43 articles in Metalsmith expressing the opinion of the author. 86% were written by men and 14% by women.
  • 18 people have been elected to the SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) board over the last 10 years. 12 were men and 6 were women.
  • In the larger craft context, numbers tell the same story. The catalog essay for "Poetry of the Physical," the opening exhibition at the American Craft Museum, stated, "It is probable that among the leading craftspeople working in the United States today, women form a slight majority," 65% of the artists chosen for that exhibition were male.
  • The 1984 NEA Craft Fellowships were awarded as follows: men received $515,000 and women received $240,000; $25,000 awards were awarded to 3 men and no women; $15,000 awards went to 25 men and 9 women; and $5,000 awards were made to 13 men and 21 women.
  • Of those who are turned down for NEA Artists Fellowships, 85% of the males try again; 85% of the females do not.

There are no simple explanations for these figures. Should we assume that men do better work? That equally qualified women did not apply for fellowships? That women cannot write art criticism nor judge quality? That women are less career-oriented? That men need higher incomes? Or should we continue to assume that gender does not matter.

It is necessary to look at the facts and to challenge: our assumptions. It matters that the generic "artist" and "metalsmith" are male. If you doubt that this is true, try to imagine an art history in which all the great artists were women; or think of our field with the gender hierarchy reversed.

The purpose of counting is to initiate a discussion of the larger issues in metalsmithing, craft and art that are related to gender. Placing blame, naming individuals and discussing personalities accomplishes nothing. But ignoring these statistics, and avoiding the issues that they raise, makes them self-perpetuating.

Gender differences are not biologically determined. What we think of as feminine and masculine characteristics exist, to be sure, but they are learned. Women are nor born patient, intuitive, good-with-their-hands. emotional and vulnerable. Men are not inherently stronger, capable of leadership, decisive, logical or aggressive. Feminine and masculine are terms that describe different ways of experiencing and expressing our shared humanity, and both ways need to be valued.

We are all alike. We are all human beings. Our system of describing things in opposite terms, in which one thing is usually "better" than the other, promotes conflict and maintains a hierarchy. When we think of masculine and feminine as opposites, we create a hierarchy with masculine better than feminine.

All of us, women and men, have inherited biased views of gender, our culture and our history. The enemy is not men, but hierarchy. The purpose of feminist discourse is not to seize power, because power controls and limits, but to reverse the hierarchy.

Feminists feel that recognizing and discussing gender differences is necessary in order to understand this hierarchy. They expose and discuss issues of gender not to separate women, but to enable us to recognize and value what is feminine. The purpose is not to seek special status for women. In the future, or in an ideal world, when feminine and masculine have equal value, this would not be necessary. The feminist movement is not over, and cannot be, until this has happened.

Nearly 20 years ago, the growing consciousness about the status of women in our culture, gave rise to a reexamination of history, literature and art. Both the exclusion of women from art historical discourse and the supposedly impartial methods of art history have been exposed as biased and inadequate. Feminists challenged the assumption what art history is limited to the history of what men have made. They wanted to know what women have created, and under what circumstances. They wanted to know if women artists were recorded in their own time, and why women's achievement has been erased from history.

The growing body of knowledge about women's past achievement in art allows women, for the first time, to see themselves in the context of history. The consideration of sexual attitudes and assumptions on art and art history has opened the possibility for new insights and enrichment.

Until this year, H. W. Janson's History of Art, the standard college text, did not include a single woman. Art history books, as we all know, have also excluded craft. There was no general history of craft until 1981, when Edward Lucie-Smith's The Story of Craft was published. And there still is no Complete History of Metalsmithing.

From a feminist perspective, one that questions assumptions, and challenges hierarchies, the next questions are obvious:

  • Could there be a connection between the exclusion of women and of craft from art history?
  • Is it because we have defined art in a particular way, that both craft and women have been eliminated from discourse?
  • And is it possible that the ideas of art and craft have been placed in opposition, creating a hierarchy that is similar to the gender hierarchy?

A review of art history, including both women and craft could be revealing.

Gender and Art History

In the beginning, everything made was craft, made by women, and skills were passed from mother to daughter. In time, when a particular craft left the domestic environment and became a means of earning a living for an entire family, it became a man's occupation as well. The special skills of craftworkers usually set them apart and sometimes set them at the bottom of the social scale.

Early in the Middle Ages, under Christianity, handwork acquired dignity for religious reasons. Women in convents produced illuminated manuscripts, and noblewomen, nuns and even queens did needlework. Women also worked along with men in workshops on secular estates. During the late Middle Ages, craft became very specialized and a complex system of guilds arose. Goldsmiths, at this time, enjoyed a special position among craftsmen. Knowledge of the craft was passed on in an empirical way.

During the Renaissance, fine arts and artists came to be perceived as entirely different. As admirers of antiquity, Renaissance men adopted the social hierarchies suggested by Aristotle. The art of painting was esteemed and thought to be a worthy pursuit for gentlemen. Occupations that involved working with the hands were considered menial.

It was believed that success in art was due to inborn genius Vasari said that Michelangelo was "directly inspired by God, enabling mankind to see the fateful results, when an artist of sublime intellect, infused with divine grace and knowledge, appears on earth." In reality, men who showed artistic talent were given encouragement, a lengthy education and the opportunity to travel and study human anatomy.

Women were not expected to be geniuses, nor inspired by God. Unless they were to become nuns, women were not educated. They were not free to travel to study art or anatomy. Only women born into families of artists had any access to training, and until the 19th century, almost all women who made names for themselves as painters were relatives of male artists.

It appears that women did not have a "Renaissance." A new division between personal and public life made itself felt, and the modern relation of the sexes made its first appearance. Women were increasingly removed from public concerns, and Renaissance ideas on love and manners required a new subordination of women to their husbands.

During the late Middle Ages, misogynist ideas were popularized by vigorous, crude, vernacular literature that criticized women, marriage and love, and promoted the idea of sexual conquest and abandonment. Even clerical writing contained loathing for women and the female body.

The first feminist was Christine de Pisan. She began writing in defense of women in 1399 to protest their declining position and argue against misogyny in the attitudes and reading of her time. The literary debate she initiated, which argued for a more universal idea of humanity, lasted over 400 years.

And so the course was set. Painting was an intellectual pursuit, suitable for gentlemen. Great artists were men, who were inspired by God. Personal life and private life became separate. Because craft had economic value, it was practiced by men. Craft was equated with technical skill and was considered menial. Women were not educated. Women were excluded from public affairs, and dependent upon husbands. Misogyny was a popular pastime.

"Progress" in the 19th Century

The next significant changes in thinking about women and craft occurred during the last century. The Industrial Revolution had changed two things. Manufactured, standardized objects had, by this time, almost completely replaced those made by craftsmen. And a division of labor had occurred, which separated women from the labor force and placed them at home with their children.

Around the middle of the last century, the emigration of available young men to the West created a problem. Society had no place for the growing numbers of unmarried middle-class women. Marriage was the only sanctified means to social recognition, status and security, and the idea of "work," for a "lady," was a contradiction of terms.

Art was viewed as one of the few suitable occupations, as it could be seen as an extension of the traditional female accomplishments. It also would not threaten the social order nor take jobs from men. Women could be employed as art teachers or in the newly developing area of industrial design.

For this reason, a number of schools of art and design, exclusively for women, were established both here and in England. Among them were the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, 1844; The Worcester Employment Society, 1856 (which became the Worcester Craft Center in 1940), the Cooper Union in New York, 1859, and later the Newcomb College Pottery of New Orleans, 1895.

Women who wished to study fine arts in the last century, however, had to struggle for adequate instruction and the high standards that would allow them to be professional artists and competitive with men. Fine arts was still considered man's work, and the resistance to women seemed to be as much economic as social. One of the greatest difficulties was that women were denied the possibility of drawing from nude models, when the important forms of art depended upon the ability to depict the human body.

Despite negative social pressures and the difficulties in obtaining training faced by women artists in the 19th century, many succeeded as professional painters and graphic artists. During the latter hall of the century, many women studied in Europe. A remarkable group of American women sculptors, sometimes called "the white marmorean flock," lived and worked in Rome.

Throughout the 19th century, women worked for equal rights and suffrage. The first women's rights convention took place at Seneca Falls. New York in 1848. The 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, was not passed until 1920.

The debates of this century are not much different. A proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the same rights as men has yet to be passed. And the issues of separatism raised by the recent opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts were debated more than a century ago, when there was a separate Women's Pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

The exposition was important in bringing about the Aesthetic Movement in America. The ideas and artifacts from England, the carved wood, pottery and needlework by American women, and the beautiful esthetic objects from many other countries had an enormous effect upon the ten million viewers. Individually and collectively, the work of women artists could not be ignored. They received qualified support by men who thought "feminine art" (in its own separate sphere) should be encouraged if it would "keep women busy" and away from the ballot box.

The Aesthetic Movement, and the closely related Arts and Crafts Movement, encouraged women to enter the field of art. It provided them with paying work and a sense of self-worth. However, there was still enough resistance to the idea of women working for wages that most did not question the lower pay they received.

Since craftwork was seen as similar to the traditional female accomplishments, the judgment "amateurish" was often attached to women's work no matter what its quality. Money had taken on such importance in the estimation of intrinsic value, that something not done for money was seen as of little value, and therefore low quality.

In the workshops where there was a division of labor, women did the more menial jobs. Much of the work not requiring a studio or workshop was done in the isolation of the home, which prevented women from a sense of intellectual equality with men. In England, gender-separate arts and crafts organizations further reinforced the hierarchy.

Despite the intention of rejoining fine and decorative arts, a goal put forth by John Ruskin. William Morris and others, just the opposite occurred. The hierarchy became fixed and clear. The fine arts were a public professional activity, comprised of forms of artistic expression open only to men. The fact that craft was domestic, both in its intended use and because much of it was made at home, by women, was significant. Craft objects themselves, and their materials, have little to do with the distinction.

Although metalsmithing had the tradition of being a male occupation, it was not thought an unsuitable artistic pursuit for women. Jewelry and holloware could be done in a small home workshop and fit the accepted assumptions about women's natural capabilities for intricate work. However, jewelry was not a major focus in either the Aesthetic Movement nor the Arts and Crafts Movement, in England or in America.

At the turn of the century, misogyny reached its alltime peak. There appears to have been an unprecedented attack on women by philosophers, writers, scientists, artists and intellectuals. They believed that women had not been able to participate in the great evolutionary process that was guiding the intellectual male.

And so the course continued. Women were defined by their domestic functions. Painting continued to be considered men's work. Women were encouraged to become artists but in ways that would not threaten men economically or intellectually. Forms of art that didn't require genius were suitable for women. Craftwork was domestic art, and therefore appropriate. Art was considered preferable to political activism for women. Middle class women were considered amateurs and their work inferior. Misogyny ws pervasive.


It has only been in the last 20 to 30 years that women have had available to them the conditions necessary to become artists, the conditions that men have always had: freedom from social restraint, to own property. to travel independently, and access to a professional education. In addition, women have, for the first time, the means to control their fertility without denying their sexuality. For most of us, this is our lifetime, and we aren't aware of the newness of this situation.

The idea of women as artists is new; it is still, today, almost a contradiction in terms. We are only aware of the history of male artists in painting and sculpture. No one challenged that "real art" required male genius. A 19th-century writer stated it clearly: "So long as a woman refrains from unsexing herself by acquiring genius, let her dabble in anything. The woman of genius does not exist but when she does she is a man."

Around 1970 some women artists began to have a new consciousness about their femaleness. The fact of being discriminated against by the art establishment was only part of it. They realized that their work was not being understood in the way it was intended because it didn't rely on the same conventions and assumptions as male-dominated mainstream art.

They also recognized that what they had thought were their personal experiences as artists, were shared by other women. Instead of trying to make it as "one of the boys," they began to work together. In order to provide a context for growth and promote understanding of their work, they formed women's art centers and held exhibitions of women's art.

There was a growing awareness that the current definitions of art, and the criteria used to judge it we're not adequate. Critic Lucy Lippard, one of the first to recognize the situation, said in her book of essays From The Center: "Some women artists are consciously reacting against avant-gardism and retrenching in esthetic areas neglected or ignored in the past, others are unaffected by such rebellious motivations but continue to work in personal modes that outwardly resemble varied art styles of the recent past."

She said that looking at women's art challenged all her assumptions. "I thought important American art was large. I found women working small, both out of inclination and necessity. I thought important art had to show a formal 'advance' over the art preceding it. I found that I could be moved more by content than by context. I was accustomed to male artists coming on with a veneer of self-confidence, jargon, articulation of formal problems. In other words, 'knowing what they were doing.' I found some women were confused, unsure of themselves, much more vulnerable, but at the same time far more willing to open up themselves and their work to personal and associative readings on the part of the viewer, willing to participate in the sharing of their art, their experience, and their lives. It is no coincidence that the advent of a behaviorist, autobiographical art coincided with the rise of the women's movement.

One of the most discussed issues to have been raised is the issue of female sensibility. Lucy Lippard said that after looking at the work of virtually thousands of women, that she can no longer deny that there is a uniquely female expression, whether it is innate or a result of social conditioning. She said that ". . .women's social, biological, and political experiences are different from those of men; (and) art is born of those experiences.

Qualities which have been described as feminine include softness, biomorphic shapes, layering, fragmentation, repetition, patterning, the use of grids, circles, domes and central core images. Beyond imagery the qualities become more vague but have to do with intimacy and emotion.

If art is a kind of visual communication, a comparison with verbal communication confirms the idea that women and men express themselves differently. Linguists tell us that women's language features more indirection and qualification. Women often end their sentences with a question. They feel less comfortable with direct, authoritative, categorical assertion. This may be because their social experience has made them less confident, but it also allow for a richer inclusiveness, wouldn't you agree?

On the other hand, some see the issue of "sensibility" as a way to stereotype women's work and thus make it more easily dismissable. They argue that there is no separate tradition of women's art, and no feminine sensibility traceable in the work of women throughout the course of western art history. It is their separate position in society, rather than any innate or stylistic difference, that distinguishes women's work.

As women turned to their own lives as source and tried to use their own images, they saw the need to address the use of the female image. Throughout history, "women" have been defined by the images that men have made of them. As nymphs and goddesses, as virgins and whores, as playmates of the month and as Miss "you-name-it," women have been depicted as silent and powerless, as objects for others to behold.

Some women identified with the sensuality of natural forms, and used it in a metaphorical way, deliberately rejecting its opposite, "culture," which is male. Some used overt sexual images in order to boldly claim ownership of their own eroticism, countering years (and centuries) of repression.

Recent work by women metalsmiths displays many similarities to feminist art. Some of the similarities may seem stylistic, but I believe that they are ideological. Their thinking seems not to be adopted from the feminist movement but has evolved individually, often in isolation. If women share a common belief in the field of metalsmithing, it is the idea that art should be derived from and be relevant to life. In a culture that is unaccustomed to the idea of well-crafted metal art objects made by women, their work is frequently misunderstood.

Because women cannot fully identify with the history of art, and because a "long tradition of metalsmithing" has not been clearly defined, contemporary women see an opportunity to participate in its creation. Many women have concentrated on formal problems and design, enjoying the lack of a preexisting "male" tradition as well as all gender issues.

Because they do not identify with western art history, or the current meanings of jewelry in our culture, many women have looked to other cultures—prehistoric, ancient, primitive and ethnic—for overlooked and forgotten meanings for jewelry and for art. Because our culture has separated art from life, they search for ways of reconnecting them.

Metalsmithing, itself, makes this connection. In some cases, the choice to work in a craft media was made in order to avoid the patriarchial history of painting and sculpture. The notion of great inborn artistic genius has no counterpart in craft. As craft is still thought by many to be dependent upon learned skills, women have sensed that they would have an equal chance for success. Women no longer doubt that there is anything that they cannot learn to do.

Mastering a craft has a special meaning to many women. Because positions of power have been denied women in our culture. having perfect control over materials can be a kind of revenge. In the studio, she can become the ruler of perfection. It is not until someone comments on her mastery, or good craftsmanship, that she realizes that she can't get credit in her own name.

Because women's lives often seem fragmented by their multiple roles, many are drawn to long, repetitive, obsessive processes that offer an opportunity for intense, focused attention. Working becomes a meditation, or what Lucy Lippard describes as a ritual "antidote to isolation and despair. Repetition can be a guard against vulnerability . . . a bullet proof vest of closely knit activity woven against fate."

Because women's lives often seem "used up" in doing things that are invisible to others, undervalued or impermanent, many women find satisfaction in the sense of permanence that metalsmithing provides. Metal keeps the shape it is given, solder is forever and effort is permanently recorded.

Because women may have ideas that have not been expressed in art before, they develop new techniques and technologies for expressing them. Women metalsmiths have taught themselves, and others, to wrap, knit, etch, weave, marry, inlay, electroform, paint and press metals in ways that men have not. Technical innovation in art is an innovation in itself.

Because women wear jewelry in our culture, they understand meanings for jewelry that men cannot. They understand the wearing of jewelry as a dramatic performance, a transforming experience or as a medium for self-expression. They understand the subtle qualities of jewelry that its physical presence on the body create; its weight, sound and movement.

Because women have learned to interact with others in ways that foster the other person's development, they teach workshops and share their knowledge freely. This apparently recent and distinctly American custom in crafts, the widespread sharing of technical innovation and information should probably be credited to women.

Because women reject being passive decorative objects themselves, they do not tend to make passive decorative objects. Many women charge their work with emotional currents: the themes of restrained violence, and unresolved confinement, noted in the previously mentioned review of women's sculpture in "Form Beyond Function." Many women make their work a statement about their own condition; what you see is one thing, but what is hidden and what you "get" is something else.

And finally, because women and men are not opposites, it is likely that many men share with women these connections to metalsmithing.

Crafts and the Hierarchy

The current craft movement has been greatly influenced by the social changes brought about by the women's movement. Increasing numbers of women expect that their lives will include meaningful and satisfying work and have chosen careers in art. This is certainly true in metalsmithing, and it would be impossible to imagine the field without the contributions of women over the last 20 years.

Yet metalsmithing, like the other crafts and the "fine arts," has been dominated by men. There are, of course, successful women. But despite "new" opportunities for women to become artists, they have not achieved success in proportion to their numbers in the field.

Feminists have exposed and rejected the stereotypes that have kept women separate as well as the restrictions of the accepted definitions of art. They have refused to be confined, ignored or contained and seek a new meaning for the word artist that doesn't need to be qualified by the word woman.

And what about craft? By not questioning the assumptions and stereotypes that keep it in a secondary position, "craft" has continued to operate within the hierarchy, and, in fact, supports it.

How can an art historical tradition, based on archaic assumptions and a distorted and limited vision of human potential possibly claim intellectual superiority?

Can anyone explain why reason and tradition are more important than skill and imagination?

Is there any reason why art that is "public," made to decorate white-walled galleries and museums, is more worthy of consideration than that which is personal and meant to enhance a person's body or immediate environment?

Is there any reason why the exclusion of artists working in craft media from publicly funded art museums is not a political issue?

And finally, has craft challenged the relevancy of "mainstream art" to contemporary society?

By participating in the hierarchy, crafts actually support the leading position of fine arts by playing second fiddle to it. The American Craft Museum, for instance, assures that craft remains separate and in second place by providing a reason for art museums to not show it. It creates the division and provides justification for galleries and art critics to see it as separate and to continue to exclude it from serious an discourse. (This, of course, is why most feminists have refused to support the National Museum of Women in the Arts.)

Success for a craft artist seems to be defined as having broken into the system, by being an "exception" to the rule, much as successful women artists of the past were considered freaks of nature. As exceptions, they reinforce the idea that craft is not art. Most of those who have "crossed over" and are accepted into the world of fine art are men, reinforcing the idea that rare "genius," found only in males, is the necessary ingredient for success.

An increasing number of craft artists have magnified the scale of their work. Larger scale work holds the possibility of shifting the emphasis from domestic to public, making it eligible to be called art. The public intention, then, makes it possible to overlook the craft material. Unfortunately, it does not lead people to conclude that small work can also be successfully made out of the same material, but reinforces the idea that important work is big.

Another phenomena that works against craft is that big-time artists, when they work in a craft context, still produce only minor work. Picasso's ceramic plates and Calder's jewelry are rarely mentioned when their work is discussed.

Finally, the qualities that may, "elevate" craft into the realm of art are often those that refer to and support art history and its theories. Robert Arneson, exasperated, makes a plate comparing himself to Leonardo; and Donald Kuspit has a light bulb go on over his head. It's art! He's made it into the club! We congratulate Bob but have to realize that it is no victory for those who are committed to the small scale domestic tradition of craft. And for women, it underscores the additional difficulty that there are no female Leonardos to compare ourselves with.

Accepting its place in the hierarchy, the craft world seems to be endlessly waiting for the boundaries between art and craft to disappear. By trying to be as intellectual as, as public as, as financially successful as and as star-studded as the fine art world, craftsmen participate in and support the system. From a feminist perspective, this approach is totally inappropriate.

A feminist perspective makes possible a more complete view, somewhat like seeing with two eyes instead of one. We see a world that is not flat. By challenging our assumptions about gender, and everything that follows, we can see that we have had a limited and distorted view of ourselves. In human terms, it is like discovering that the world is round. We double our potential.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, perhaps the increasing participation of women, in all aspects of society, will lead to a true rebirth. A balance between masculine and feminine values could make possible a New Age, and create a new meaning for art that reflects the complete range of human potential and participation. Women and men could then be seen as human beings with equal potential, and craft and art would no longer be opposites.

This paper was presented at the annual conference of the Society of North American Goldsmiths at Cranbrook Academy of Art, June, 1987.


The author extends her thanks to all the women who helped on the research of this article by replying to her questionnaire.

Selected Reading
  • Burke, Doreen Bolger, et, al., In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986
  • Callen, Anthea, Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870-1914, New York: Pantheon/Random House, 1979
  • Greer, Germaine, The Obstacle Rac: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Works, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979
  • Kelly, Joan, Women, History and Theory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984
  • Lippard, Lucy, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976
  • Lucie-Smith, Edward, The Story of Craft: The Craftsman's Role in Society, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1981
  • Parker, Rozsika and Pollock, Griselda, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, New York: Pantheon Books/Random House, 1981
  • Susan Kingsley is an artist metalsmith who lives with her husband and children in Carmel, California.
By Susan Kingsley
Metalsmith Magazine – 1987 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Susan Kingsley

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