In this essay, a companion to my art project, The Visible Women, I will attempt to make the case that my art pieces, where I make famous images from US history gender equal, are more historically accurate and more representative of the values symbolized in the originals, than the originals. I do this by applying Feminist Standpoint Theory.
Feminist Standpoint Theory is the theory that knowledge is situated in a social context and that the more oppressed you are the more access you have to knowledge that may be invisible to less oppressed people, both via “forced” assimilation into the culture of the dominant group, as well as knowledge of your own culture. Whereas, a person who is a member of the dominant culture is not required to understand nor relate to the subordinate culture.
A standpoint does not arise spontaneously from oppression but is developed when the oppressed person struggles to understand their oppression, why it exists, who is involved, what is being done, how it is being done, etc. and works to challenge it. Within that struggle one can develop a standpoint theory.
Feminist standpoint theory includes many different branches of understanding that have in common the idea that women, by virtue of being in an oppressed/oppressor relationship with men, can have a more comprehensive perspective of the social world. Thus, in feminist standpoint theory, women may have a better understand of gender discrimination, the practices that contribute to it, and what to do about it.
Feminist Standpoint theory, is a form of Feminist Epistemology, which is the study of the way in which gender influences our concept of knowledge and “practices of inquiry and justification”. Julia Wood writes “Feminist standpoint theory disputes the privileging of men and men’s interests while devaluing, marginalizing, and otherwise harming girls and women and their interests.”
Through my research of United States history, intersectional women’s history, theories of oppression, freedom, equality, and feminist philosophy, I have deepened my own feminist standpoint. Also, inspiring and informing my project and my standpoint, has been my lifelong struggle for equality in an androcentric culture, and my solidarity with other oppressed peoples struggling for equality in the interlocking web of domination described by feminist scholar bell hooks as the “imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy.”
My quest to answer, in some part, “What would it look like if women held equal positions of power” led me to question the inherent bias in artwork via what the artist is choosing to make visible. How the moments captured in the artwork might have been different if the women I included were actually there; both in the past leading up to that moment and the future, informed by the passions and expertise of the women. As well as critically questioning widely held assumptions about the relationship of freedom and equality. Struggling to articulate these questions, through an intersectionality of views, including feminist epistemology and postmodernism, has contributed to the feminist standpoint through which I will analyze the the artworks, moments in history, and systems of oppression made visible in my project.
Part 1: Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull 1817
John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicts a celebrated moment in United States history when Founding Fathers; John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin presented the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. It was a pivotal moment in world history when “equality” was declared “self-evident” and “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” natural human rights. Thus the colonies declared independence from Great Britain. The lists of grievances in the document, primarily written by slave owning Thomas Jefferson, were long, but famously included being taxed without representation, which violated the colonists’ belief that a government derives its power and authority from the “consent of the governed.” The Declaration of Independence would be adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1777, and with it, the Founding Fathers created something transcendent and enduring, not just a document, but a statement on human rights.
John Trumbull was a white man that came from a wealthy family, his father was Governor of Connecticut. John wanted to be a painter but his father felt that was a frivolous career and forced John to go to law school. During the Revolutionary War, John became an aide-de-camp for General George Washington. He resigned from the army in 1777, and studied painting in the US, England, and France. John was a member of Benjamin Rush’s Modern History Painting movement, which was part of a tradition of painting idealized heroic moments from history, but with the figures updated to be wearing contemporary clothes.
In Declaration of Independence, Trumbull attempted to paint the figures of the Founding Fathers accurately, but the scene is fictitious in that those 47 men were never together at the same time, they are not all the signers, and the room is painted more elegantly than it, in fact, was. John Trumbull wished to create an artistic representation that would impress the viewers with the symbolic meaning of the moment and instill nationalism, rather than a historically accurate or objective painting.
Trumbull’s motive for painting, in his own words, was “to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in history of man; to give to the present and the future sons of oppression and misfortune, such glorious lessons of their rights, and of the spirit with which they should assert and support them,”
What did the Declaration of Independence mean to the “present and future sons of oppression and misfortune?”
In 1777, while the colonists battled for independence from Great Britain, the rights declared unalienable for “men” were not meant to include white women, African Americans, or Native Americans.
Independence by Heather Gray, 2015
In my art piece, Independence, I created a visual representation of the presenting of the Declaration of Independence by Abigail Adams, Jenny Slew, Nancy Ward, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin to a gender equal Continental Congress. The 25 women in the image are racially diverse, with nine African American women, eight Native American women and eight white women.
Unfortunately, I had fewer options for class diversity, as I was attempting to work from art from the time and usually only the upper class could afford to have their portraits painted. Of this group of 25 women, 6 did not have historically accurate portraits painted from life, including 4 African Americans: Elizabeth Freeman, Mammy Kate, Lucy Terry, and Jenny Slew. And 2 Native American women: Nancy Ward and Molly Brant. The 10 African American and Native American women that were painted from that time were either anonymous women, as is the case of the 4 African American women from Eyre Crowe’s painting, Slaves Waiting for Sale, or given only a name but no biography. Among the women of color only Phillis Wheatley, who was the most famous African American woman in the colonies in 1777, had both a portrait and a biography. The artist Phillis chose to paint her portrait was Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African American, whose only surviving work was Wheatley’s portrait on the frontispiece of her book of poetry.
Here we have an example of two African Americans supporting each other’s creative output. Phillis Wheatley wrote, in her poem, To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire,
To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
My placement of the women among the white men and which men they covered was mostly random, but constrained by where they best fit in the painting. This was my first time doing photo manipulation and my learning process is sometimes visible. My addition of these women to the painting is not seamless, and it was my artist choice to keep that in the final product because it reflects my learning process and mirrors my struggle to develop a feminist standpoint.
John Trumbull’s painting shows the version of history that he understood, one where white men established independence for this country, (and perhaps one where they were the only ones that deserved it.) A more comprehensive history of that moment includes white women like Abigail Adams and Mary Otis Warren contributing to the formation of American independence while being denied the fruits of freedom, Native Americans like Molly Brant and Nancy Ward losing their lands, freedom, and way of life with American independence, and African Americans, whether freed from slavery like Elizabeth Freeman and Jenny Slew, or not, being denied the American promise of liberty, equality, and happiness.
In Independence, I struggled with my choice to use anonymous pictures of African American and Native American women. But I felt it accurately represents white supremacy in early America. Images of black and Native American women were largely non-existent. Their stories were unrecorded. And their original art was not particularly valued by white society unless it conformed to European styles.
I was also somewhat conflicted about including Mammy Kate, who was one of a few African American women from the time that has a known biography. I feel her story, of a slave risking her life to save her master, the future governor of Georgia, was kept around to further the white supremacist myth about the master/slave relationship. But this illustrates what mainstream historians considered an African American woman worthy of including in the history books.
The other women that had biographies, how and why were their stories recorded for posterity? From Elizabeth Ellet who wrote the first history of The Women of the American Revolution in 1846 to Radcliffe College’s biographical dictionary of Notable American Women, started in 1955, to Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkins, published in 2007, most stories of women were saved by other women. A Shining Thread of Hope by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson focused on the history of African American women and Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary accurately expanded the scope of Women’s History. Many early American women’s histories written by white women only included a handful of women of color and their stories were less comprehensive compared to those written by women of color. This corresponds to the standpoint theory that a person that has experienced discrimination knows more about discrimination that a person who has not. That is why, when I was collecting histories to write my short biographies for each woman in my art pieces, I used more contemporary sources that were informed by an epistemology of race and gender.
The women I included in Independence each, when given the opportunity, acted to empower others. They did so by setting a precedence for freedom from slavery, supporting each other’s writing, engaging in politics, sharing knowledge, sharing their homes, advocating for education, advocating for human rights, and, literally, saving their people and families.
What is the relationship between the Declaration of Independence, which inspired John Trumbull’s original artwork, and the reality of freedom for the women pictured in my piece? Can it be said that the Founding Fathers were fighting for the ideal of freedom or just for more freedom for themselves? If the latter, then perhaps John Trumbull’s painting is a more accurate depiction of that moment in history.
The women of 1777, that heard independence declared throughout the land, understood what “all men are created equal” really meant. They knew that they were not considered “men” by the men that wrote that document. But, as they struggled with the reality of their oppression, they came to claim their “unalienable rights”.
Standpoint theory assumes that you can’t claim to be accurately telling the history of a people by only telling the history of the dominant subset. Likewise, can you truly claim an ideology of independence without heeding the cries for independence from the other members of your society? Would you then not be creating independence but inequality?
Part 2: The Paris Peace Conference
US Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference by US Army Signal Corp, Lucien Kirtland, 1919
This is a photograph of Woodrow Wilson, his advisors, and delegates at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Peace Conference came at the end of WWI and was a meeting for the victors to negotiate among themselves the terms for territories, treaties, and peace for the defeated countries. It led to the establishment of the League of Nations, which the United States declined to join, and the Treaty of Versailles, which placed responsibility for all losses and damages during the war on Germany and its allies.
Although more than 32 countries attended the conference the decisions were mostly made by the “Big Four”, Britain, France, Italy, and America. Woodrow Wilson saw himself as a peace meditator in a European War. His Fourteen Points “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.” included advocating for democracy and self-determination. But was the role of peacemaker legitimate when Wilson’s policies at home were oftimes antithetical to peace?
During his presidency Wilson resegregated federal offices in Washington, signed legislation to make interracial marriage illegal in Washington D.C., legitimized Jim Crow laws, characterized the Ku Klux Klan as protectors of the South, invaded Mexico, jailed anti-war protesters, celebrated Native American assimilation, and, in his first term, did nothing to advance the cause of women’s suffrage.
In his War Message to Congress Wilson said, “we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.” But his vision of democracy was limited.
The photographer who took the above picture was Lucien Kirtland, a member of the US Signal Corps and a staff writer and photographer for Leslie’s Weekly, an American illustrated magazine. The US Signal Corps and the US press in general were used to provoke patriotism and positive public opinion for the war.
Wilson’s government created the Committee of Public Information, an agency tasked with creating support for the war via propaganda techniques. The CPI prepared favorable war stories for newspapers, speeches, feature length films, posters, and cartoons. The CPI was the distributor of photographs and films taken by the US Signal Corps. One of the most famous CPI posters was the Uncle Sam, “I want you for the US Army” poster illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg which was on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in 1916. The CPI was disbanded upon the Armistice with Germany in 1918. Leslie’s Weekly purported to be an “open forum” for the expression of all opinions but hired George Creel, the former leader of the CPI, as a contributing editor.
This photograph and Lucien Kirtland’s war photographs in Leslie’s Weekly remind us of society’s androcentrism, and patriarchal glorification of warfare.
In Imperative of Integration, Elizabeth Anderson writes, “People’s stereotypes of who is suited to privileged positions incorporate the social identities of those who already occupy them. Occupation of dominant positions also tends to make people prone to stereotype their subordinates, because dominant players can afford to be ignorant of the ways their subordinates deviate from stereotype.” The delegates are a sea of white male faces, and the five men seated in front (from left to right) Colonel Edward House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, President Woodrow Wilson, Henry White, and General Tasker Bliss are all older white men of great power and wealth.
Peace by Heather Gray, 2015
For Peace, I used the free, open-source photo editor, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to add 39 women to the American delegation. Again, I tried to have racial diversity within my gender equality. By 1919, The United States had expanded west and now Latin American women and Asian American women were part of the story, so I was able to include them, as well as self-identified biracial women like Lucy Parson, Jewish women, disabled women, like Helen Keller, and lesbians like Angelica Grimke.
Through the process of adding 39 women to the photo I became more adept at photo manipulation. For each woman I went through a process of changing the hue to sepia, desaturating the color, resizing, sharpening, adding noise, lighting her face on her right side (by flipping her or trying to lighten it with effects), and other effects to make her look like she belonged in the photo. I can see where some of my efforts work better than others.
For each woman I also read widely on her history, and the history of the organizations she was involved with. With all that information I began to make out patterns and themes in these women’s lives and how their gender informed their relationship with peace and equality.
Unlike the men sitting in the front row of the original photograph, the women I added to Peace were progressive social reformers, many committed to and founders of the national peace movement. Jane Addams, who I put to the far left in the front row, was the leader of the peace movement at home and abroad. Many of the women I included were related in some way to Jane Addams and what she was doing at Hull House. She was the most prominent white woman in America at the time. But she was only one of many female activists.
The work of most of these women was to empower others. They founded the NAACP, advocated for Tejano children, combatted housing discrimination in all-white neighborhoods, fought for tribal lands, to desegregate schools, marched for labor rights, founded schools, newspapers, theatres, museums, and worked for race, class, and gender equality. They advocated for peace: not just the absence of violence and warfare, but the presence of justice.
While there were more sources for African American and Native American women histories from this time period, it was harder to find Asian American and Latin American women. Again, the best stories and the most well developed were told by other women.
As I applied feminist epistemology to the historical resources I came to a better understanding Jane Addams’ feminist standpoint. Jane Addams knew that peace could not come from militarism or patriotism based on war. Jane wrote, in Newer Ideals of Peace to honor the “great reservoirs of human ability” within laborers, immigrants and women and in Democracy and Social Ethics, she said, “unless all men and all classes contribute to [achieving] a good, we cannot even be sure it is worth having.”
Jane Addams questioned the relationship between peace and equality. Can peace exist in a place of inequality? Woodrow Wilson didn’t seem to think so when he said, “Only a peace between equals can last. Only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit”.
Peace includes women who were intimately familiar with the price of inequality, the destruction caused by discrimination, and the suffering of the oppressed. They were not invited to the Paris Peace Conference but they were meeting at and creating peace conferences around the United States, at The Hague, and in Zurich in 1919, where Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom criticized the Treaty of Versailles saying it would “ …deny the principles of self-determination, recognise the right of victors to the spoils of war and create all over Europe discords and animosities which can only lead to future wars.”
Part 3: Mercury Seven
Mercury Seven by Ralph Morse, LIFE magazine,1960
The American space program was birthed in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Initially the space program was less about exploration and discovery and more of a competition with Soviets to gain the tactical advantage of space as well as an international stage on which to prove American exceptionalism and the the superiority of the American way of life.
In the American rhetoric, space was a new frontier, a vast land to conquer. President Kennedy said “I’m asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier”, romanticizing the space program in the context of American colonialism and the American Dream.
The Mercury 7 were the first group of astronauts chosen by NASA for the space program. The requirements for candidates included being under the age 40, military test pilots, having a bachelor’s degree and an IQ of 130 or above, and being physically and mentally “fit.” A member of NASA called them “premium individuals”.
The Mercury Seven astronauts and their wives came under intense scrutiny by the press. LIFE magazine paid NASA $25,000 per astronaut per year for exclusive access to the astronauts and their wives. Their assigned photographer from LIFE, Ralph Morse, was around them so much that John Glenn called him the 8th astronaut. In LIFE magazine, the astronauts were advertised as both courageous heroes and frontiersmen of space, but also as wholesome All-American men.
Many of the photographs and stories about the Mercury 7 in LIFE magazine played up the “boyscout” image. Film critic, Pauline Kael, called them “walking apple pies.” The astronauts not only exemplified square-jawed American heroism, but the press also associated the space program with the American rhetoric of individual freedom, opportunity and equality. In, The Astronaut; Cultural Mythology and Idealized Masculinity, Dario Llinares wrote, “Within LIFE, Cold War narratives were especially prominent, sharing ideological boundaries around sanctioned forms of national identity of which the astronaut was a perfect example.”
That women and people of color were not suited to be astronauts was a given. Since the American Revolution, America’s commitment to freedom, opportunity, and equality stopped short of extending it past white men. Vice President Lyndon Johnson said, to female astronaut hopeful Jerrie Cobb, “If the United States allowed women in space, then blacks, Mexicans, Chinese and other minorities would want to fly too.”
Jerrie Cobb was a member of the Mercury 13, a privately funded project to train female astronauts. The 13 women underwent much of the same testing as the Mercury 7 before they got shut down when the navy would not authorize their continued training. Jerrie Cobb had gone through the training alone first, so she was the only one to complete the program before it ended.
Just like NASA’s requirement that astronauts be military test pilots defacto forbade women from applying, the Mercury 13 requirements kept women of color from applying, as the discrimination they faced made it nigh impossible to meet that requirement of 1000 hours of flight experience.
All American by Heather Gray, 2015
In my piece, All American, I added four women to the Mercury 7, one white women, one black, one Chinese American, and one Native American. The white woman, Jerrie Cobb was part of the Mercury 13 program, the other women were also pilots. The photo manipulation for this one was the easiest of the three pieces, because I was just working with faces. As there were no color photos of the women I added I made the whole image black and white. I also did some effect work on the women’s faces, for example, adding noise to give them a grainy quality that matched the men.
The four women I included are as equally American as the original Mercury 7. And their inclusion in NASA’s space program would more accurately embody the American values of equality, opportunity, and democracy.
Jerrie Cobb’s list of aviation accomplishments is stunning but, after being denied participation in the space program, she devoted her life to flying supply missions to South America and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work.
Maggie Gee and “Millie” Rexroat were both WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in WW2. Rexroat was the only Native American WASP, an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota (site of the Wounded Knee Massacre), she joined the WASPs right after high school, took the dangerous assignment towing aviation gunnery targets, and, after the war, joined the Air Force.
Maggie Gee was one of only two Chinese American WASPs, were she helped train male pilots for combat. After the war she graduated with a degree in physics from Berkeley and worked at Livermore Labs on fusion energy, cancer research, and nuclear weapons design, and was active in democratic political organizations.
Janet Bragg would have been 53 in 1960, 13 years older than the upper limit requirement for the Mercury 7. Unfortunately, because of racial discrimination, there were nary a handful of African American women pilots in 1960. African American women faced the the double barriers of racial and gender discrimination. Janet Bragg’s story is not just one woman’s persistent battle for equality of opportunity, but, between the lines, we see the story of countless other African American women for whom racial injustice overpowered their goals and dreams.
What does All-American mean? Is it “represents all the most stereotypical ideas of America” or “all” Americans? Sally Ride and Mae Jemison proved that women are equally capable of being astronauts, although it is not clear that women’s capabilities were ever the issue.
When Jerrie Cobb went to congress to fight to give women the opportunity to be astronauts John Glenn testified, “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in the field is a fact of our social order.”
Those weren’t entirely the facts. Women had fought in American wars since the American Revolution. There were also female pilots and female engineers. They may not have been visible to Glenn, but he obviously knew of Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13. When given the opportunity to speak in favor of women in the space program, Glenn declined. Perhaps because he had never experienced any opposition to the American Dream of freedom, opportunity, and equality, he couldn’t envision how to apply those values.
I chose three moments in US history to represent in my Visible Woman project. America’s first Declaration of principles: Liberty and Equality. The first time a sitting American President traveled to Europe, purportedly to promote democracy and self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference, in 1919. And, America’s first steps out into a vast universe, where we hoped to carry the values of freedom, opportunity and equality. Each time, those charged with carrying our flag failed to apply those values. Was it lack of vision? Civil Rights’ Activist, Marian Wright Edelman says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Feminist Standpoint Theory claims that understanding inequality should begin with the lives of the marginalized. You could extended that to claim that to understand freedom you must begin with those in bondage, to understand democracy you must begin with those who have been denied true self-determination, and to understand what it means to be American you have to understand what it is to be oppressed by the dominant American culture.