Glass Slipper to Glass Ceiling
Once upon a time, little girls were told fairy tales about beautiful young women who languished in dungeons or towers. Evil stepmothers, wicked queens, poverty, toil, and hopelessness characterized their lives. Sooner or later, through an unlikely encounter with a handsome prince, their luck changes. Ultimately the prince will come to rescue the maiden from her captor and/or break the evil spell, carrying her off to live happily ever after.
While these tales were taken, one hopes, with a grain of salt, children of the last millennium—particularly American women of the Baby Boomer generation—were still fed a diet of fantasy in the guise that once they attained a certain age their lives of personal ambition and struggles would come to an end, the happy ending for Boomers consisting ideally of marriage, family, and a house with two cars in the suburbs.
A vast array of social changes swept the nation in the 1960s and 70s. The second generation of feminists, following on the advances made by early 20th century suffragettes, launched the Women’s Liberation movement. Also, the invention of the birth control pill changed the lives of women forever, enabling them to postpone the onset of motherhood until a much later age…or to avoid that role altogether. Women were continuing their educations, earning graduate degrees in unprecedented numbers, and their ranks swelling the work force. If all seemed to be headed to a happy ending for these liberated women, this story here takes an ugly twist.
The gears of the women’s movement were stripped, the common misconception being that women had already “been given” too much. Lulled into a misguided sense of complacency, that the fight had been won, new generations of women—the Gen Xers, and the Millennials—turned their backs on feminism. Because the new forms of sexism are less obvious does not, unfortunately, make them less prevalent. Girls and women proceed blithely in their educations and careers until one day it hits them, as they are overlooked for opportunities and promotions, watching their male colleagues with similar skills and credentials rise easily in the higher ranks of academia and industry. They instead bump their heads against the subliminal prejudice that still serves to keep women in their place—subservient.
If the myth of a life of ease, the “glass slipper” of a sheltered life of domesticity, has been shattered, in its place we have the reality of women expected to compete on an uneven playing field, where deep-seated societal assumptions and prejudices about what women can or should do keep most safely restricted by the “glass ceiling” of lowered expectations, and opportunities. Women are routinely expected to work harder than their male colleagues in order to prove their worth, and in certain fields, such as the tech industry, a poisonous culture of male superiority is, sadly, still the norm.
Coming to focus on the trajectory of this exhibition, a bit of history. In 1993, artist Kerry Vander Meer founded an artist’s group called The Beauty Project, inspired by Naomi Wolf’s eye-opening The Beauty Myth (1990), which focuses on the issue of how a woman’s success is often closely linked to her physical appearance. Our work at the time explored themes of being held to unreasonable expectations of appearing perpetually youthful and attractive. (For more information on The Beauty Project, please refer to my article in the current issue of WEAD Magazine #8 Feminism Now http://weadartists.org/the-beauty-project, also visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheBeautyProjectArchive/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel.)
After several shows, most notably our ambitious “Measuring Up” exhibition at Richmond Art Center in 1994, the group’s energy began to dissipate. Although we drifted apart, perhaps shifting to other concerns in our artwork, many of us have stayed connected. When the 20th anniversary of our group arrived, we commemorated it by gathering together, and also discussing plans for an anniversary show.
With a renewed focus on feminist issues, “Glass Slipper to Glass Ceiling” reunites eleven artists from the core group of The Beauty Project. With a broader emphasis on how women’s lives are affected by issues of empowerment, artists Monica Bryant, Emily Duffy, Nancy Mizuno Elliott, Gigi Janchang, Joanna Katz, Ines Kramer, Liz Maxwell, Charlie Milgrim, Barbara Morris, Kerry Vander Meer, and Lorraine Weglarz address issues ranging from personal or political histories of identity as defined by gender and race, ongoing issues of self-esteem related to appearance, weight, or aging, reflections on the double-edged joys and sorrows of motherhood, inequity in terms of opportunities and income for female artists and other professionals, meditations on mortality, and the thorny question of what it means to embrace feminism in the 21st century.
We remain outraged by the global subjugation of women, by the horrific abuses perpetrated against women and girls who continue to be treated as less than fully human, and by the continuing specter of human trafficking. We see the frightening assaults on human rights here in the United States, including the conservative backlash against women’s reproductive rights. And the continuing nightmare of domestic violence is an issue that transcends barriers of geography, race, and class. All are signs that the war is not over, the fight has not been won. The issue is a complex one, and solutions will certainly not be easy, but this ongoing call to eliminate gender bias is a sound that needs to be amplified, rather than silenced.