Sustaining the New Women’s Movement: Inspiring Women-Artists with the Herstory Studio Project

By Saydi Callahan Keefe (introduction by Kevin Basl)

On January 21, 2017, a women-led protest march against Donald Trump swept through hundreds of U.S. cities and many countries abroad, including India, Mexico and China. The Women’s March on Washington D.C., which rapidly turned from a Facebook event into an organized movement, overshadowed Trump’s inauguration attendance 3 to 1. An estimated half a million came for the main march in Washington; New York saw 400,000; a staggering 750,000 marched in Los Angeles. 30 protestors even demonstrated aboard a ship in Antarctica. 

The Women’s March was more than just a response to Trump’s misogyny, as evidenced in the now infamous audio recording of him bragging about sexual assault (adding to the long list of chauvinistic name-calling that blemished his campaign). But while Trump may have sparked it, this movement didn’t come from nowhere. Since its last major cultural revolution, in the 1960s and 70s, feminism has been kept alive in activist circles, academia and art studios.

 Over the past two centuries, women’s movements have focused on suffrage, women’s liberation and, more recently (in the 90s and 2000s), dismantling patriarchy through critiques of class and race. Now, we seem to be at the dawn of a new women’s movement, as we consider not only threats against Roe v. Wade and the culture of white patriarchy Trump’s regime represents, but also how climate justice, Islamophobia and LGBTQ rights overlap with feminist issues.

 Following the Women’s March—possibly the largest protest in U.S. history—many are asking, what’s next?

  

Saydi Callahan Keefe, artist and art educator, offers an answer with the Herstory Studio Project:

So often we trust our limited, personal experience to tell us what is true for everyone; so often the story is much more complicated. But we can find unity in realizing we have more similarities than differences.

The Women’s March seemed a revelation for many. Every gender, age, and ethnicity was represented. Many men marched with us. They realize the women they love and stand by are still harassed, paid less, and receive little to no maternal leave; our government still involves itself in our reproductive rights. Further, women of color have long felt that most white feminists have not been inclusive or interested in addressing racism. At the March, white women held Black Lives Matter and anti-Islamophobia signs; men wore pink knitted hats. We have the potential, however, to go beyond the symbolic: If we close our divisions, then we evolve into a powerful movement that can make real change.

I’ve long thought about how I can help women organize and realize our fullest potential. How could I use art to help close racial, ethnic and class divides among women, as well as initiate discussions and connections with men?

Not surprisingly, art history is white-male dominated. Until the turn of the 20th century, women were invited to be models for artists’ works more often than they were invited to be artists. As a rule, women were not encouraged to make art, nor was art considered a suitable career for women. Art schools would not enroll or allow women to partake in activities like figure drawing until the late 1800s. In the history of art, the female narrative as visual expression is a relatively new concept.

Herstory Studio Project is an initiative to provide studio space for female-identifying artists and non-artists to create visual narratives. We find inspiration in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf writes, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I believe this also applies to visual art-making. Herstory Studio Project provides a studio environment in which women of any age, race, ethnicity, and artistic skill level can share their experiences through creating a self-portrait that they work on both individually and collaboratively. During the workshop, we use writing prompts to recall memories and experiences, focusing on what it means to be a woman. Sharing and discussing these writings, women realize their similar passions and challenges, especially in workshops with greater diversity. It’s encouraging that so often—especially with teenage women—beautiful stories are shared about brothers, male friends and fathers who are supportive of their dreams and understanding of their struggles.

Art must be shared in order to communicate the artist’s vision and, ultimately, have value. The exhibition of the self-portraits is important. Here, the public—men especially—witness women-participants’ stories and, in viewing the artwork, are encouraged to listen. Ideally, they can then become greater allies in the women’s movement, standing beside us in protest and in our everyday lives.

We cannot let the Women’s March be a wave that crests only to break on the shore. Undoubtedly, President Trump will continue to enrage us and—perhaps ironically—unite us. If we work to sustain our unity, the rhythm of our movement can become a healthy and passionate heartbeat.

Saydi Callahan Keefe participating in the historic, world-wide Women's March on Saturday, January 21, 2017 Photo credit: David Keefe

Saydi Callahan Keefe participating in the historic, world-wide Women's March on Saturday, January 21, 2017

Photo credit: David Keefe