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Women in the Arts: How They Can Change Your Life

by Barbara Kahn

The arts—film, theater, music, literature, comic books and graphic novels, fine arts and crafts—influence the image of women in the world, whether we are ignored, misrepresented or stereotyped. Lack of funding and other support puts the depiction of women in the hands of those who are self-sufficient, who have significant financial resources or who consider women as less than equal in the world.

A recent study of 25 women’s funds showed that only 1.5 percent of their grant dollars and 3.3 percent of their grants went to “Arts and Culture.” The study "Accelerating Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women’s Funds," was released in April by The Foundation Center and the Women’s Funding Network in New York.

It is vital to impress upon women funders that supporting the arts will significantly assist them in reaching their goals of equality in human rights, education, healthcare and other areas.

The arts determine how the world at large sees us and our potential, as well as how we see each other and ourselves. The long road to full recognition and equality is not possible without women determining our own destiny and insisting that the world follow suit.

In the 1960s and 1970s activists in the women’s movement knew that they must first tackle the public perception of women before they could successfully work for social change. There were obstacles to overcome in both academia and popular culture in order to explore and restore to visibility women’s place in history. Activists challenged and fought the stereotypes and second-class citizenship of women depicted in the arts and media. They demanded that women be shown in all our diversity and potential -- as scientists, athletes, professors, carpenters, plumbers, rock musicians and all the other roles that were considered primarily men’s careers, off limits to women.

Women artists defied racial stereotypes, encouraging and inspiring all girls to see themselves in the full possibilities of their dreams and passions. They insisted that women artists be supported in greater numbers. Historical struggles and protests led to women’s studies programs in colleges and universities that recognize women artists of the past and acknowledge contemporary women artists. They led to equalizing scholarship funding for women athletes. Many historians were encouraged to seek out and write about women who shaped our past, but were written out of it in our curricula. Women artists were determined to take our image in our own hands.

A wonderful example comes from a century earlier. Charlotte Cushman, the most famous actress of the 19th century English-speaking- theater, used her fame and wealth to sponsor American women artists, particularly Native American and African American, who were denied access at home. She arranged for them to study in Europe, then helped them to get enough commissions to return home as established artists.

Despite the progress, there is a long way to go. Obstacles still persist, and there is always the danger of progress being reversed. So long as the arts are not given full recognition, women making art will not be able to be full partners in the fight for equality. Pitting the arts against “more pressing financial needs” is a false comparison.

The pressing needs of women for proper healthcare, education and safety are brought to the attention of those who can fulfill those needs by the expression of them to the public. A prime example of this is the current Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined by Lynn Nottage, which brilliantly depicts rape of women as a tool of war. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler brought the body image of women out of shadows and whispers, and created a worldwide movement for the protection of women. The movie series Aliens and Lara Croft and the television series Xena the Warrior Princess opened up and expanded girlhood fantasies of physically strong and courageous women.

These and countless other examples empowered women to demand equality in education, healthcare, politics, athletics, the publishing world, employment and other areas. If the public at large continues to see our position as second class, they will be less likely to give us the attention we deserve in order to effect any social change. And those with the power to effect progress will be less likely to include women in that progress in any significant way.

September 2, 2009

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Barbara Kahn is an award-winning New York-based playwright whose plays have been presented in the U.S., France and Germany. She specializes in historical plays about women. Like many women playwrights, she often relies on grants in the pursuit of her lifework.

Also see ”Art World Insiders Struggle to Address Disparity” in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

“The Dickflick Defined” by Janis Hashe in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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