Women wear apron of anonymity in traditional history

ALICE STEINBACH

March 04, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

Throughout the history of our country, there have been countless women whose lives and accomplishments helped shape both the culture of America and the character of our people.

But you're not likely to find many of their names in history books.

Unless, that is, such books were written in the last decade or so.

"Women have constituted the most spectacular casualty of traditional history," observed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "They have made up at least half the human race; but you could never tell that by looking at the books historians write."

In other words: A woman's place in history has been not in the textbooks but in the home.

Which means that women have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to gaining the recognition they deserve for their contributions as pioneer settlers, inventors, artists, writers, scientists and anything else you can think of.

It also means that women who wish to fill in the gaps about their collective past must search through numerous texts for such information.

I bring this up because March is Women's History Month and to celebrate it, I decided to reread an amazing book by Mirra Bank called "Anonymous Was A Woman."

The book, which "attempts to rescue eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women folk artists from their anonymity," reveals the outer restrictions and inner lives of the girls and women who produced some of the beautiful quilts and paintings that today hang in museums.

Such women, of course, never thought of themselves as "artists." They saw themselves as society saw them: as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

"Anonymous Was A Woman" offers us a unique and revealing chance to look into the daily lives of these women by reprinting excerpts from their diaries and letters and from other writing of the time.

So let us now praise some anonymous women.

Or to be more accurate, some women who might have remained anonymous had not Mirra Bank ferreted out their identities. Their writings reveal that at least as far back as the 1700s, women had longings far beyond the traditional roles afforded them.

"When I heard that there were artists, I wished I could some time be one," wrote Lucy Larcom in 1889. "If I could only make a rose bloom on paper, I thought I should be happy! Or if I could at last succeed in drawing the outline of winter-stripped boughs as I saw them against the sky, it seemed to me that I should be willing to spend years in trying."

But such creative yearnings went against the advice given at the time by Lydia Maria Child, who seems to have been the Miss Manners of her day: "Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and that all other things are but incidental."

Unlike painting, however, quilting was considered useful. Now, of course, we recognize that many of the old quilts rival the best of modern art in their complexity of color and intricacy of geometric patterns. But to the women creating them, they represented much more.

"My whole life is in that quilt," wrote Marguerite Ickis, quoting her great-grandmother's memories of a quilt that took more than 20 years to complete. "It scares me sometimes when I look at it. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces."

And from a woman called Aunt Jane of Kentucky -- known for her original quilts -- comes this explanation of her creative urge: "I reckon everybody wants to leave somethin' behind that'll last after they're dead and gone. It don't look like it's worth while to live unless you can do that."

For some reason, my mind leaps from Aunt Jane to the "discovery" of artist Georgia O'Keeffe in 1915 by Alfred Stieglitz. It was Stieglitz who, after first seeing O'Keeffe's work, exclaimed: "Finally! A woman who gives herself. The miracle has happened."

Stieglitz, of course, never knew of Aunt Jane or the miracle of her quilts. Still, it is hard to overlook the arrogance in his assumption that before Georgia O'Keeffe, no woman had created worthwhile art.

But decades earlier, Harriet Hosmer had foreseen the arrival of a Georgia O'Keeffe into the mostly male art world: "In a few years it will not be thought strange that women should be preachers and sculptors," wrote Hosmer in 1883. "And every one who comes after us will have to bear fewer and fewer blows."

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