Women Artists and the Museum

By Reina GattusoMarch 202416 Minute Read

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Edmonia Lewis, Anna Quincy Waterston, ca. 1866, carved marble, 11 7⁄8 x 7 1⁄4 x 5 1⁄8 in. (30.2 x 18.5 x 12.9 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, CC0.

Most of the artists named in Curationist’s partner collections are men, part of a broader exclusion of women from art history. Feminist, queer, and anti-colonial movements have challenged this underrepresentation. In this seven-part series, Curationist highlights women artists from our partner museum collections.

Introducing Curationist’s Series on Women Artists

Humans of all genders have made art for millennia. Yet women artists are largely underrepresented in the collections of large museums, including Curationist’s partner archives. This is especially true for women without wealth, social status, or other privileges. In particular, Global North institutions have continuously overlooked art by women of color and those from the Global South.

Worldwide feminist, queer, and anti-colonial movements have pushed back against this underrepresentation. Through activism, artmaking, and scholarship, these movements have sought to recenter women’s and gender-diverse people’s histories, and support their artistic expressions.

Drawing on this rich body of scholarship, this essay introduces Curationist’s seven-part series on women artists in our partner collections. The series is meant to be an entry point into learning more about women artists and their work.

The series examines women’s creative expressions through the diverse contexts in which they worked—from convents to imperial workshops, anti-colonial movements to the contemporary art market. In doing so, Curationist hopes to highlight common themes and unexpected connections between women creators across time and place.

Considering the limitations of any archive compared to the vastness of human history, it’s impossible to build a comprehensive catalog of women’s creative expressions. Instead, by spotlighting women’s creative work and making connections across eras, geographies, materials, gender systems, and methods of production, we can complicate dominant categories, elevate undertold histories, and inspire further learning.

Gender and the Museum

Locating women’s art in museum archives can be challenging. To identify and interpret art made by women, we have to consider the institutional underrepresentation of women, the division between “art” and “craft,” and the culturally specific nature of gender categories.

Lack of Representation

Many artists represented in the collections of Curationist’s partner museums are unnamed, and their genders unknown. Those artists who are named are majority white men. A 2018 study of 18 large art museums in the United States, including several of Curationist’s partner institutions, found that 87% of represented artists are men and 85% are white.1 As a result, browsing the digitized collections for works known to be made by a woman can often feel like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Category of Gender

At a practical level, Curationist’s search tool does not allow users to filter by artist’s gender. Only one of our museum partners (as of January 2024), the Statens Museum for Kunst, offers this function on their website. This kind of search category may seem like a simple solution to the difficulty of finding works of art by women. Yet generalizing a gender filter across diverse collections raises additional problems, namely the issue of defining gender.

Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788)
Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788)

Gender is a cultural category specific to time and place.2 A particular culture’s gender system can be binary or nonbinary. Even when gender systems have some equivalent of the English words “man” and “woman,” the cultural roles and expectations attached to those categories are diverse.3 Further, in many parts of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, European colonization often marginalized women-centered social practices, and the social roles of nonbinary genders, in favor of patriarchal binaries.4 So filtering artworks by the modern, English-language categories of “man” and “woman” might inappropriately impose Euro-American understandings of gender on contexts where they do not apply. A binary search tool might also leave out important cultural categories, such as third gender categories.5

When searching for and interpreting works through the lens of gender, it’s important to consider the artist’s historical and cultural context. In this series, we’ll use the English word “woman” as a placeholder for a variety of historical gender identities tied to bodies and social roles that a particular culture considered feminine. Without first-person testimony, we can only guess how a specific historical person understood their own gender. Thus, not all of the artists we include in this series would necessarily have identified as women.

The Division Between “Art” and “Craft”

Institutional distinctions between objects labeled “art” and “craft” can marginalize women artists. Definitions of what counts as art are historically specific. The category of art as it’s understood in most Euro-American museums is a modern European invention.6 The objects art historians include in this category have changed over time. These shifting definitions reflect social power, including institutional sexism and racism.7

Similarly, institutions often devoted less research to objects they labeled “craft.” In many historical contexts, women have been more likely than men to labor in the home. They have created functional and beautiful objects for household use, often working collaboratively in mediums like textiles and ceramics, traditionally categorized as craft. However, many of these objects were not preserved, often due to scarce resources, the perishable nature of their materials, or lack of institutional interest. Museums’ valuation of art over craft thus tended to marginalize women creators.8

Because of these considerations, feminist art historians, starting largely from the 1960s, have paid renewed attention to objects made in the context of domestic labor as a way to center unnamed women’s work.9 Art historians have also searched through existing archives to reexamine women artists whose names might be documented but whose work is understudied.10

Feminist Approaches to Art History

Feminist art historians have developed a number of inventive strategies to identify art made by women and gender-diverse people in museum archives, and to interpret that art.

When researching objects whose creators are unnamed, art historians can use context to help fill in the gap. Information about the gendered division of labor in a particular society can point toward women’s authorship of specific objects. Written historical texts, oral histories, and the practices of contemporary descendent communities can all provide information about a society’s gender system and the roles women played in artistic creation at a given time and place. This context can help us read the museum archive for women’s histories which have been unrecorded or erased.

For example, in its digital object record, the Metropolitan Museum of Art does not include (and may not have) specific information on who created the ornate Incan textile pictured here. Spanish colonial officials violently suppressed Incan people and culture, erasing records of the past.11 However, historical texts describing Incan imperial weaving workshops, as well as the oral histories of contemporary Andean people, suggest that women played a major role in creating prestige textiles.

We can’t say for sure that a woman made this particular tunic. But the tunic’s historical context provides a starting point for further inquiry. Next steps in learning about this object and the world it came from could include, for example, an internet search for indigenous Andean people’s historical writing, in order to learn about gender in the Incan empire.

A Reader’s Guide to the Women Artists Series

Because art is a historically specific category, not all of the creators highlighted in this series would have considered themselves artists or their work art in the modern, English-language sense. They may have primarily considered themselves ritual specialists, craftspeople, healers, or in other roles. For example, the nuns featured in “Women Artists and the Divine” may have considered their works primarily sacred objects rather than aesthetic creations. Because of this diversity, in this series, we’ll use the words art and artist as placeholder terms for a variety of objects and creators.

When browsing the archives, it’s important to remember that each object ended up in a museum through a series of historical processes. Collectors acquired most of these objects—with varying degrees of consent and force—from their original contexts. Various collectors, dealers, and curators bought and sold the objects over years, often transferring them from their regions of origin to the Global North. Provenance records, listed alongside the object record, can provide hints of an object’s journey. Yet museums often don’t have or haven’t shared full information about an object’s travels from its point of origin to the museum. And even complete provenance records leave out important social and cultural context, including information about gender.

Through both collaboration and confrontation, various groups such as museumgoers, scholars, collectors, activists, artists, and communities of origin make new meanings with and about these objects. We can listen to what these objects, and those who love and care for them, tell us about the past. By studying these works, we can make connections between women, feminine, and gender diverse people across time and place—and put their creativity back at the center of art history.

The following presents a brief overview of the next six features in our series focused on women artists in Curationist’s partner collections. Each of these summaries includes a link to the corresponding feature.

Women Artists and the Divine

Whether through archaeology or oral history, global peoples have sought to identify the origins of human creative expression. People have often ascribed special creative powers to women, feminine people, and people who give birth. Across cultures, female deities are often associated with the arts, particularly textile production and ceramics. Their artistic expression parallels the power of people with wombs to craft human life.12

Bifolium from the "Nurse's Qur'an" (Mushaf al-Hadina)
Bifolium from the "Nurse's Qur'an" (Mushaf al-Hadina)
ca. A.H. 410/ A.D. 1019–20

Learn more about women artists and divinity.

Court Artists and State Production Systems

Across time and place, rulers have patronized the arts as a means of glorifying themselves. State-sponsored production systems reinforced ideologies of social cohesion and hierarchy.13 Imperial rulers frequently supported lavish workshops where artists produced objects for the state treasury, diplomacy, religious functions, or the personal enjoyment of elites.

Learn more about women artists and different types of patronage, in royal courts and state production systems.

Sovereignty, Kinship, and Care

Across time and place, women have created beautiful, useful, and ritually powerful objects that reinforce networks of kinship and care. In some societies, women hold customary rights to specific motifs, techniques, or compositions, which might signify cultural, political, or spiritual power.14 Sharing art across generations can help women ensure continued group identity, including in conditions of enslavement, genocide, and displacement.

The associated feature focuses on the work of Native American, Black American, and indentured South Asian diasporic women and their descendants. Drawing from their distinct historical experiences, these women expressed enduring community sovereignty, sustained creative practices, and developed new, syncretic artforms.

Learn about how women transmit cultural values through art.

Enlightenment and Extraction

In the early modern period, scholars in Europe enacted a broad shift in scientific and philosophical inquiry, often referred to as the Enlightenment. Merchant and other urban classes used profits from the colonial system, including from transatlantic slavery, to purchase art outside traditional church and royal patronage.15 European and Euro-American women artists increasingly pushed past male gatekeepers to gain recognition in these emerging markets.16

By studying European and Euro-American women’s works within this global context, we can trace the development of art markets as part of emerging world systems. And we can acknowledge these artists’ underrecognized talent while critiquing their complicity in colonialisms that harmed people worldwide.

Learn more about the connections between women’s art and European colonialism. [To be published in May/June 2024.]

Modernity and Modernism

The 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed seismic shifts in global power. Colonization and decolonization, the growth of capitalist markets, and the rise of new technologies aided the rapid spread of global aesthetic movements. Women artists from diverse contexts fought to participate in public artmaking.

This feature highlights the foundational, if often underrecognized, work of women in forging the aesthetics of global modernist movements. It focuses on the works of Katsushika Oi, Edmonia Lewis, and María Izquierdo.

Learn more about women in global modernisms. [To be published in May/June 2024.]

20th Century Movements to the Contemporary Moment

In the late 20th century, women created an outpouring of art in solidarity with anti-colonial, feminist, and Indigenous self-determination movements. Many women artists played a vital role in creating postcolonial artistic movements that forged national cultural identities. Indigenous women artists revived and innovated on creative forms of significance to their communities. They navigated and transformed the capitalist art markets in which they sold their work.

This feature focuses on women artists working in settler colonial or postcolonial contexts, much of whose work engages with themes of land and indigeneity, often through the lens of women’s bodily experience. It includes Lygia Pape in Brazil, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag in Sudan, contemporary Pueblo women potters such as Margaret Tafoya, and women from the Aboriginal art movement including Kathleen Petyarre.

Learn more about contemporary women artists. [To be published in May/June 2024.]

Reina Gattuso

Reina Gattuso is a content writer on the Curationist team, and an independent journalist covering gender and sexuality, arts and culture, and food. Her journalism connects analysis of structural inequality to everyday stories of community, creativity, and care. Her work has appeared at Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, The Lily, POPSUGAR, and more. Reina has an MA in Arts and Aesthetics (cinema, performance, and visual studies) from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, where her research focused on sexuality in Hindi film. She writes and teaches writing to high school students in New York City.

Suggested Readings


Hedges, Elaine and Ingrid Wendt. In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts, 1980.


Topaz, Chad M. et al. “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums.” PLoOS One 14(3): e0212852. 20 March 2019.


Women’s Work.” The Brooklyn Museum.



Topaz, Chad M. et al. “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums.” PLoS One 14(3): e0212852. 20 March 2019, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212852. Accessed 24 January 2024. Women’s work is also devalued in the international art market. See: Burns, Charlotte and Julia Halperin. “Female Artists Represent Just 2 Percent of the Market. Here’s Why — And How That Can Change.” artnet, 19 September 2019, https://news.artnet.com/womens-place-in-the-art-world/female-artists-represent-just-2-percent-market-heres-can-change-1654954. Accessed 31 March 2023. For the role of racism in the production of hierarchy in the contemporary art market, see: Banks, Patricia A. “black artists and elite taste culture.” Contexts. 20 July 2019, https://contexts.org/articles/black-artists-and-elite-taste-culture/. Accessed 27 April 2023. These issues of representation don’t seem to be changing as fast as museums suggest. See: Burns, Charlotte and Julia Halperin. “Museums Claim They’re Paying More Attention to Female Artists. That’s an Illusion.” artnet, 19 September 2019, https://news.artnet.com/womens-place-in-the-art-world/womens-place-art-world-museums-1654714. Accessed 31 March 2023.


Zevallos, Zuleyka. “Sociology of Gender.” The Other Sociologist, November 28, 2014, https://othersociologist.com/sociology-of-gender/. Accessed 1 April 2023.


Hasty, Jennifer et al. “Performing Gender Categories.” In Introduction to Anthropology. OpenStax, 23 February, 2022, https://openstax.org/books/introduction-anthropology/pages/12-2-performing-gender-categories. Accessed 26 January 2024.


For a global overview, see: Nelson, Camille. “Matrilineal Societies Exist Around the World — It’s Time to Look Beyond the Patriarchy.” The Conversation, 23 March 2023, https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-matrilineal-societies-exist-around-the-world-its-time-to-look-beyond-the-patriarchy-200825. Accessed 21 April 2023. Gender practices remain diverse throughout the world, and many groups choose to consciously revive matriarchal, matrilineal, and nonbinary practices within a broader program of anti-colonial resistance. Many contemporary Native American peoples, for example, continue to practice matrilineal systems led by women. For example, see: Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “The Indigenous Roots of Modern Feminism.” Beacon Broadside, 11 March 2020, https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2020/03/the-indigenous-roots-of-modern-feminism.html. Accessed 21 April 2023. See also: Enos, Tony. “8 Things You Should Know About Two Spirit People.” Indian Country Today, 13 September 2018, https://ictnews.org/archive/8-misconceptions-things-know-two-spirit-people. Accessed 17 April 2023. For contemporary Indigenous artists creating work beyond Eurocentric gender binaries, see: Mishan, Ligaya. “The Queer Indigenous Artists Reclaiming a Fluid Sense of Gender.” T Magazine, 22 February 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/t-magazine/queer-indigenous-artists-gender.html. Accessed 5 February 2024.


Feminist historians have engaged in long debates on how and whether to apply gender categories to historical analyses. See, for example, Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” The American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 5, December 1986, https://doi.org/10.2307/1864376. Accessed 25 January 2024.


For a brief overview of the historical development of both “art” and “history” as concepts within European modernity, see: Glass, Robert. “What is Art History and Where is It Going?” Smarthistory, 28 October 2017, https://smarthistory.org/what-is-art-history/. Accessed 31 March 2023.


Writing of the creation of this inequality in the 19th century, scholars Deborah Cherry and Janice Helland describe it as the result of “systems for assigning cultural value and worth, systems which all too often differentiated men’s art from women’s craft, Western art from Native artifact.” Cherry, Deborah and Janice Helland. Local/Global: Women Artists in the 19th Century. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006, pp. 8.


“Women’s Work.” The Brooklyn Museum, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/womens_work. Accessed 27 January 2024.


For example, see: Hedges, Elaine and Ingrid Wendt. In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts. The Feminist Press, 1980.


For example, see: Parker, Roszika and Griselda Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Feminism is a multifaceted and diverse set of traditions. Women from various communities have posed important challenges to Western feminist art historical perspectives. For example, scholar Nancy Mithlo writes: “Native women's lives and bodies have historically been incorporated into the Western feminist movement as an expedient means of advancing predetermined theoretical aims, but not often as a viable alternative dimension of gender analysis. In a related manner, Native American activists and scholars have often themselves claimed a unique space apart from a totalizing gender discourse that appeared unwilling or unable to accommodate an interrogation of central feminist tenets.” Mithlo, Nancy Marie. “‘A Real Feminine Journey’: Locating Indigenous Feminisms in the Arts.” Meridians, vol. 9, no. 2, 2009, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40338781. Accessed 1 February 2024.


For example, Spanish colonial officials destroyed quipu, an Andean symbolic system that used knotted strings to record information. See: Andrien, Kenneth J. Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness Under Spanish Rule. University of New Mexico Press, 2021, pp. 113.


Feminists working in the psychoanalytic tradition have developed this idea to great depth. For example, see: Bergren, Ann. “Female Fetish Urban Form.” In Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19, 2008, https://chs.harvard.edu/chapter/weaving-in-architecture-the-truth-of-building-10-female-fetish-urban-form/.


For a historical survey of the role of artistic production in the creation of hierarchy, see: McCurdy, Leah. “Why Do They Have More Than Us?” In Where Does Art Come From? Mavs Open Press, 2022, https://uta.pressbooks.pub/wheredoesartcomefrom/chapter/why-do-they-have-more-than-us/. Accessed 27 April 2023.


See, for example, Yolŋu women’s songspirals (as presented by the Bawaka Collective), which some women have customary rights to share: https://bawakacollective.com/book-extract; the Haudenosaunee Women’s Nomination Belt: “Iakonikohnrio Tonia Loran-Galban,” Minneapolis Institute of Art, https://new.artsmia.org/hearts-of-our-people-native-women-artists/hearts-of-our-people-audio-tour/iakonikohnrio-tonia-loran-galban. Accessed 31 May 2023; and Warli women’s art: Minj, Nolina. “The Women Who Are Reclaiming Warli Art.” Scroll, 15 June 2022, https://scroll.in/article/1026111/the-women-who-are-reclaiming-warli-art. Accessed 5 June 2023.


Wollerstorff, Nicholas. “The Early Modern Revolution in the Arts.” In Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art, Oxford University Press, 2015.


Hyde, Melissa and Jennifer Milam, eds. Women, Art, and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Routledge, 2003.

Reina Gattuso

Reina Gattuso is a content writer on the Curationist team, and an independent journalist covering gender and sexuality, arts and culture, and food. Her journalism connects analysis of structural inequality to everyday stories of community, creativity, and care. Her work has appeared at Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, The Lily, POPSUGAR, and more. Reina has an MA in Arts and Aesthetics (cinema, performance, and visual studies) from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, where her research focused on sexuality in Hindi film. She writes and teaches writing to high school students in New York City.

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