What does a feminist graphic design history in the United States look like?

Why are women’s contributions to society systematically overlooked and obscured? Design is no exception to the rule. There is a disturbing lack of literature on women’s impact in the history of graphic design. During this year’s Women’s History Month, I will share a curated collection of twelve artifacts, from the fifteenth century through the twentieth century, that offer, from a feminist perspective, a counter visual story to the traditional white male and widely received narrative in graphic design history. Before diving into contextualizing this work, I want to briefly explain my position and how I came to focus my research on illuminating female narratives.

As individuals, we are all irradiating complex systems defined by society along with our nuanced multilayered identities. When I walk into a room, at the most superficial level, one can read that I am a woman. I am light skinned. I have tattoos. When I start talking, my French accent suggests that I am from another country than the United States. I am indeed from Morocco and I am Arab. Living in Morocco was violent in many ways. My gender was enough to be constantly harassed since I was a teen, judged on every single thing I did and ultimately made me feel like an outsider every day. I came across the word feminism in high school. It made me feel somewhat normal that my mindset was not unique. But I did not understand the divide within feminism at that time until very recently. I just knew I did not want to be subject to anything or anyone. Freedom (from patriarchy) has always been a fight to be my own person and fulfill my own purpose. As a result, my work will always have a feminist point of view. 

Because I am proposing a curated collection in design history with a feminist DNA, I would like to define feminism shortly. This concept is, at its essence, a fight for equal rights. Beyond gender equality, in Gender, Space and Architecture, feminism is described as depending on “an understanding that in all countries where the sexes are divided into separate cultural, political and economic spheres and where women are less valued than men, their sexuality is held as the cause of their oppression. […] The best way of understanding what constitutes the basis of a particular feminist approach is to consider the accounts given of the ways in which differences of sex, gender, race, class and sexuality structure society.”(1) Before moving to the United States, I did not realize that there was a difference in feminism across identities. My feminism is not the same as a White woman, a Black woman, a Hispanic woman or any other woman because we are not all experiencing the same levels of gender discrimination. I naively thought all women were put in the same bag. We are more like in the same boat; and, as we know, there are different compartments in boats. Some still get to sit in economy class while others can be left with the pipes. Indeed, Crenshaw describes “how dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis.” (2) She advocates that Black women are erased in favor of a subset that distorts the analysis of racism and sexism. That is, “because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” (3) My work attempts to be inclusive, taking into consideration multiplicity as an effort to “reconsider the “stories we tell” and to critically interrogate the affective pull of prevailing stories about our discipline(s), its histories and futures” as Nash invites us to do in her book Black Feminism Reimagined. (4)

The paradigm of oppression has invisible constructs. Sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu defines the concept of symbolic violence as internalized submission by the dominated, recognizing (not from free will) the oppressive conditions as legitimate. Various systems and practices are put in place to sustain the reproduction of symbolic violence. (5) Design can reproduce dysfunctional ideologies, coming from a traditionally white hetero patriarchal and capitalist narrative. This is particularly visible when I refer to Colwell later in my collection. But also, I can relate to that personally. When I started studying design, I, myself, was unconsciously trapped in methodically following the rules of “good design” from this same narrative. And yet, design can be a tool of our collective liberation. Making traditional assumptions visible creates reflection, repair and the possibility for positive change. Weisman writes that “we will not create fully supportive, life-enhancing environments until our society values those aspects of human experience that have been devalued through the oppression of women, and we must work with each other to achieve this.”(6) So how do we document an intersectional female counter-narrative to the white male dominated one in design?

As designers, researchers, curators, teachers and students, we must produce a collective effort to recognize the impact women had on the history of design, while embracing the complexities of our identities. According to Tuhiwai, “each individual story is powerful. But the point about the stories is not that they simply tell a story, or tell a story simply. These new stories contribute to a collective story [where everyone has a place…]—the story and the storyteller both serve to connect the past with the future, one generation with the other.”(7) That is, the point of completing a story that has been reduced to a single truth on purpose is to challenge, even oppose the complacency of a toxic, limiting narrative, inspire an inclusive discourse and unfold future possibilities for empowered, unified women.

It is my hope that this digital collection can be considered a humble contribution to the ongoing feminist effort in design. There are multiple limits in this collection. There is a disturbing lack of literature on women’s impact in the history of graphic design, independently of their background. I have narrowed down this collection to the United States. I have included two artifacts from men who painted women in a feminist light and one example that depicts women with a violent discourse. This latter example provides an important cue of women’s portrayal and condition in the history of the country. Due to the lack of documentation of women from marginalized communities, it was challenging to make this body of work intersectional. I don’t think I have succeeded in doing so. If I had to do it again, I would not limit this collection to any country. However, by consciously framing the scope of my research within the United States, being one of the most “advanced” countries in this world, and facing holes across time only proved the wrongful acts in graphic design history. I argue that this failure reveals the urgency to construct an archive that documents women’s voices, work and representation in the context of their respective multiple realities. Dekker writes “in the last decades, the notion of archive has expanded, from various institutions trying to secure evidence, memory and history to a proliferation of ad hoc archives that are generated by everyone, many of which circulate on the web. It could be stated that today everything is archive and everyone an archivist. People everywhere constantly create, collect, document, make lists, inventories, classify, store, retrieve, and reuse all kinds of information.”(8) Please join me in telling our story.

Manuscript

Manuscript of The Book of the Queen

Christine de Pizan, Collected works (also known as The Book of the Queen), c 1410-c 1414, Accessed February 28, 2020:
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_4431_f004r

Women’s voices have been historically neglected. “In the medieval period (and after) the production and dissemination of texts—literary or otherwise—was largely controlled by men, which is one reason why so few texts by women from this period survive.” (9) I am in awe of this early fifteenth century feminist collection of texts by Christine de Pizan—the first professional woman author in Europe—a poet at the court of Charles VI of France. In one of the texts, Book of the City of Ladies, the author, disheartened by the misogyny of her time, decided to write a manuscript to change the perception of women, elevate them as intellectual beings and defend their moral character. (10) Indeed, she writes: “Should I also tell you whether a woman’s nature is clever and quick enough to learn speculative sciences as well as to discover them, and likewise the manual arts? I assure you that women are equally well-suited and skilled to carry them out and to put them to sophisticated use once they have learned them.” (11) In this particular page, we can see an illuminated miniature, with the width of one column, of the author in her study, writing on the inequality faced by women—with a dog as a companion by her side. She looks like an independent scholar. The page is divided into two columns with two-sized colored versals and floral margins. The title comes after the miniature in a vivid red pigment, translated from French to: “it starts with a hundred walks.” Within the paragraphs, there is a sense of punctuation with ornamental dots, and each line starts with the first letter of word being separated from it with a negative space. On top of the empowering content, the attention to details to structure pages is a thoughtful experience across the entire book, making this piece a true treasure in my opinion.

Renaissance

Printed book by William Bonham

William Bonham, The Legend of Good Women, 1542, Accessed February 28, 2020: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-legend-of-good-women

William Bonham printed The Legend of Good Women, initially written by Chaucer as a chance to paint women in a “better light” than he did before in his previous work. That is, the poem “imagines a narrator, who encounters the God of Love and his queen, Alceste. The narrator (whose identity is never revealed) is reprimanded by the God of Love and Alceste for the presentation of women in his previous works. This frame-story proceeds into a sequence of stories about famous women from history and mythology.” (12) In his series of narratives, Chaucer works with iambic pentameter couplets, commonly called heroic couplets. (13) These couplets give an automatic structure to the text. It is a system. As we see in the image, the text is typeset in blackletter, divided into two columns and paragraphs. Each paragraph has a first-line indent. A title appears for the chapter, centered on the top of the page, with a bold weight, and a clear transition between stories is signaled with spacing and the reintroduction of the bold weight. In addition, an illustrated drop capital M is inserted—probably using a woodblock. I am particularly interested in this piece because women from history and mythology have been consistently replaced by male narratives. I love that they are celebrated in Chaucer’s poem in order to redeem himself to women. However, men always found it necessary to define what a good woman should be and should not be, which is essentially a paternalist discourse to me.

(1) Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden. Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. Routledge. New York, 2000.

(2) Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago legal Forum, Iss 1, Article 8: (1989): 140–167. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

(3) Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

(4) Nash, Jennifer C. Black Feminism Reimagined after Intersectionality. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019.

(5) Sapiro, Gisèle. “Bourdieu, Pierre (1930-2002).” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, no. 2 (2015): 777-783. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.61167-4

(6) Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden. Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. 

(7) Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books, 2012. 

(8) Dekker, Annet. Lost and Living (in) Archives: Collectively Shaping New Memories. Valiz: Rotterdam, 2017.

(9) Wellesley, Mary. “Women’s voices in the medieval period.” British Library. Last modified: January 31, 2018. Accessed: August 26, 2019. https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/womens-voices-in-the-medieval-period#footnote2

(10) Wellesley, Mary. “Women’s voices in the medieval period.”

(11) Ibid

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