My young mind was swollen with Pythagoras, Watson, Crick, Dickens, Van Gogh and Guy Fawkes. Sat on classroom floors, blinkers tightly secured to my small head on entry, cutting off circulation, but fixing my gaze as necessary. As I stared ahead at what was presented to me, listening and absorbing, occasionally donning a beard for world history day, a map was gradually, systematically etched into me. An infinite male past lay behind; a similar future spooled out in front. It was of course sprinkled with the Florence Nightingale’s of our history. Her body intended to hold all of mine in a way that is never required of Shakespeare’s. Where does this leave a young female child? If you can’t see it, how can you be it?
Herstory is a project starting this September. It uses feminist art to engage young people with the women’s history that is not in the curriculum. It comes in two forms.
Firstly, it’s a series of sessions, aimed at secondary school students, framed by Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party 1979. The Dinner Party is an installation artwork; a triangular dinner table that seats the women Chicago feels were left out of history. Each place setting is tailored to the woman it represents. The first seat is laid for the Primordial Goddess, Boudicca also has a place as do Emily Dickinson and Mary Wollstonecraft. In the first session each young person chooses a woman from history that resonates with them. In the final session, the classroom will be set up to recreate The Dinner Party. We will assume our places at it, and present to each other our chosen woman. This exercise will develop research skills, public speaking and will engage young people with a feminist artwork as well as numerous historical female figures through the lens of each other’s responses.
Another session will focus on advertising and the media, comparing contemporary magazines like Cosmo and Look with Spare Rib, a second wave feminist magazine. We will use Margaret Harrison’s work Good enough to Eat 1971, to think about the ways in which the female body is set up by the media and what impact this has. The students will then think about what an alternative media would look like. We will make zines to develop new ways that images and media can empower people.
The classes aim to promote a critical way of thinking, develop confidence and provide young people of all genders with an alternative history and framework through which to negotiate the world.
The second formulation of the project is aimed at primary school students. Herstory Space is an interactive installation that can pop up anywhere; a classroom, city centre or festival. As the viewer walks into the space they will be confronted with free standing perspex sheets illustrated with images of historical women, accompanied by a short piece of text that outlines who the women were and what they’ve done. Looking into the space one looks through an alternative history. The use of perspex means that the viewer places themselves in the work and becomes part of it- engaging bodily with history rather than being passively removed from it. The floor is paved with blank tiles, onto which visitors are invited to write their own response to the historical figures. As people are inspired by herstory, the floor grows to reflect this interaction and personal experience. The ceiling is hung with stars, here viewers can write the name of a female figure in their own life that inspire them. Both the floor and the ceiling grow and become more spectacular as people respond to the main exhibition.
In preparation for the project, I created a twitter page @herstory_uk and posed the question ‘which women do you wish you had learnt about in school?’ The response I got was fantastic- the names and brilliant explanations threatened to burst the 140 characters. I think it is vital that young people of all genders have the opportunity to feel empowered by women like Nettie Honeyball, who pioneered women’s football in her words ‘to prove to the world that women are not the ornamental, useless creatures men have pictured’. I want young people to get the chance to learn about women like Begum Rokeya, a Muslim feminist who founded a school for girls and fought for girls to have education. I want budding politians to think of Ellen Wilkinson when looking for great political leaders, who marched with 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to the houses of Parliament, to present a petition for jobs.
However, I also think it is important that Linda Nochlin’s essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’ underlines the project. Nochlin discusses the issues around digging up examples of ‘worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history’. She argues that by attempting to answer the question -why have there been no great women artists, we reinforce the questions negative implications. She outlines the structures of society that prohibited women from achieving greatness, rather than the lack of the innate quality of genius.
It is interesting then, when looking through the list twitter provided me with, to notice that a significant proportion of the women put forward had famous husbands, generous fathers or had some familial link to the field they went on to excel in. This project will celebrate women from history who have been overlooked, not to suggest that the world has always been a place that can grow them, but rather to ensure that the world grows into a place that can.
For more information on this project please see: