Gendered working roles

Aunt Jemima is in part rejecting the job she has been assigned--a mother to white children and a menial in a white household. She reminds us that for much of history employment has been gendered. As we have already seen, from the Renaissance on, men have been depicted in a variety of working roles--doctor, scholar, soldier, art collector, astronomer, school teacher, and farmer; here are even ordinary businessmen in New Orleans engaged in the cotton trade.

Degas, Portraits in an Office--The Cotton Exchange, New Orleans, 1873

From about the 17th century, working women have been often depicted, but they have largely been lower class women. Here are a number of examples.

Vermeer, The Lacemaker, c. 1671-2; Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c.1659-60; Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

Courbet, The Grain Sifters, 1855; Daumier, The Burden (a Laundress), c. 1860; Degas, Laundry-girls ironing, c. 1884

These are of course the women who worked since wealthy women had everything done for them. Sometimes the women who do this back-breaking or blinding work are depicted sympathetically, but no artist is quite as hard hitting as the contemporary Chicana artist, Ester Hernandez, who reminds us that such gendered (and racist) employment has large implications.
In Sun Mad a skeletal female figure holds the grapes which the box says are "unnaturally grown with insecticides, miticides, herbicides, fungicides."

Ester Hernandez, Sun Mad, 1982

Occasionally the history of art makes us aware in dramatic ways of the situation of women who attempt to work outside their defined roles.
In this lithograph (1844), the French artist Daumier satirizes women who write books rather than attending to their proper roles, housekeeping and tending children.

In contrast, the woman artist Emily Mary Osborn at about the same time in England painted Nameless and Friendless, a painting which tells a story sympathetic to a working woman's plight.

Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, 1857

The woman in black (a recent widow perhaps) depends on her artistic abilities to make her way in the world. At the art gallery she is not asked to sit, a clear sign that she is poor, while her work is inspected by the art dealer who holds her fate in his hands. At the same time she is inspected with prurient eyes by the men on the left.
All this makes clear the precarious and vulnerable position of a working woman in Victorian England. (Martin and Meyer 40). It makes clear that women can be objects of desire in the world of art, but they are unwelcome in the world of the art market.

Osborn is in fact reflecting the reality. Poor women often resorted to the world's oldest profession. Women have been represented in this gendered role since at least the 17th century.

Left and center: Vermeer, The Procuress, 1656
right: Judith Leyster, The Proposition, 1631

They are of course temptresses, not victims. The men are scarcely to blame. A woman artist, however, revises this history. Judith Leyster, a Dutch woman painter, takes the usual theme of a man proffering money to a woman and instead shows the woman as innocent, as unwilling to meet his gaze or demands, even though he nudges her shoulder insistently. Male artists represent women as wanting to be persuaded.

In the 19th century, Manet shows this sexual employment as almost glamorous. Here is Nana, as Linda Nochlin says, "staring brazenly out at us, accepting her status as object with a wink of complicity, the pictorial embodiment of the male chauvinist dreams of Second Empire Paris" (29). 2 Contrast, for example, Manet's Portrait of Zola, the author of the novel about prostitution in which Nana occurs. He is dignified and cultured, an intellectual surrounded by books and works of art. According to the artist Manet, Zola's is the life of the mind, Nana's the life of the body.

Manet, Nana, 1877
Manet, Portrait of Zola, 1868

Go to page 6: Critiques of gender roles

© 2002 Mary Ann Sullivan.

Page created by Mary Ann Sullivan