Georgia O’Keeffe’s Tangled Feminist Roots

Feminism has never been a black-and-white concept, but today’s debates on the “F-word” have revealed just how complicated it can be. For Professor Linda Grasso (GC/York College, English), few historical figures inhabit that complexity as well as Georgia O'Keeffe, whose success in a male-dominated field and large-scale flower paintings have endowed her with an enduring feminist legacy.

Grasso’s 2017 book, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O'Keeffe and Twentieth-Century Feminism, charts O’Keeffe’s relationship with U.S. feminist movements from the 1910s to the 1970s. “I wanted to understand why she is so often connected to feminism, and then to really understand feminism as a historical phenomenon,” Grasso explains. “Right now, O’Keeffe is known as a pioneering feminist and there’s a whole history being wiped out about the 1970s when she was not cooperative with the period’s feminist impulses.” While O’Keeffe supported the National Woman’s Party, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the World Center for Women's Archives project, and cultivated close friendships with feminist activists like Anita Pollitzer, she remained ambivalent about women’s movements and separate women’s art exhibitions. 

Hoping to unravel these contradictions, Grasso turned to her training in American studies and literary history, lending a new perspective to territory previously staked by art historians. After combing through women’s history archives as well as boxes of fan mail to O’Keeffe (including birthday cards, letters from soldiers, and pre-smartphone selfies), Grasso concluded that O’Keeffe indeed ran hot and cold on feminist politics. She was even considered anti-feminist at times, Grasso admits, noting that “women discerned her ambivalence and responded to her in kind.”  

Yet Grasso believes O’Keeffe embodied feminism in her work and daily living. “Her greatest contribution to feminism wasn’t in terms of advocacy or petitioning, but rather in the ways she devoted her whole life to making art, which still continues to inspire creativity that can lead to feminist activism.” Even the decision to paint with certain colors, such as pastels and grays, was an intrinsically feminist choice, Grasso argues, based on the limitations assigned to women artists. What makes O’Keeffe a feminist icon, then, is not how extensively she participated in political movements, but how her work has resonated with generations of women, asking them to reflect on their own gendered experiences, says Grasso.

Grasso isn’t disillusioned by O’Keeffe’s imperfect feminism, either, looking back on how far we’ve come since O’Keeffe burst onto the scene a century ago. In this way, Grasso’s book serves the broader purpose of reasserting women’s historical presence in the art world. “The issue is making sure that change sticks and there’s a historical memory about the change,” she says. “If you’re not aware and it’s not written out, you have to keep starting over again.”

Submitted on: AUG 16, 2018

Category: Art History | Faculty | General GC News