Georgia O’Keeffe: feminist forever

Right from the get-go, Georgia O’Keeffe resisted patriarchy.

“I have always resented being told that there are things I cannot do because I am a woman,” she told a National Woman’s Party audience in 1926. “I remember how I used to argue with my brother about which were best, boys or girls. When I argued that girls were best, and gave as proof the fact that mother was a woman, he said, ‘But father is a man, and God is a man, too!’ I think that has always rankled.”

She saw through the bogus proposition of “separate-but-equal,” and she wasn’t going to be marginalized in the typing pool, preferring instead to compete with everyone, not just the girls.

That is why she refused to change her name when she married Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married only reluctantly). That is why she refused to participate in women-only art exhibits. And that is why she urged Eleanor Roosevelt to support the Equal Rights Amendment.

You might say, then, that O’Keeffe was a feminist. But once you use the “f-word,” things get complicated. Enter Linda M. Grasso, professor of  English at York College and of liberal studies at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York,  who takes up the question of the artist’s feminism in her new book, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism.

“Equal under the sky,” the book’s title reminds us, was how O’Keeffe described women and men to the first lady in 1944: “It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy — to my country — and to the world eventually — that all men and women stand equal under the sky –”

And furthermore:

“Equal Rights and Responsibilities is a basic idea that would have very important psychological effects on women and men from the time they are born. It could very much change the girl child’s idea of her place in the world. I would like each child to feel responsible for the country and that no door for any activity they may choose is closed on account of sex.”

Grasso’s goal is to use feminist analysis to reconsider O’Keeffe away from an art historical context. Instead, the author aims to “reassess her art, life, letters, and reputation in a historical feminist framework.” Which is no mean feat, considering how many different historical contexts the artist lived through, and how often “feminism” was redefined through those many decades.

In six chapters, Grasso takes up a different aspect of O’Keeffe — “her art, relationships, fans, and audiences.”

My favorite, and the most original contribution to the literature, is the one on O’Keeffe’s fan mail. The letters are so fresh, and vivid. The glimpse of a larger, creative life that the artist gave to ordinary women, who pinned up reproductions of her paintings from popular magazines like Life and Time on their kitchen bulletin boards, was powerful — even life-changing. “For her female fans,” Grasso writes, “O’Keeffe’s pinup is her art, not her body, and she is knowable because she and her work are familiar and full of hope.”

These fans are not urban sophisticates who have reverenced before the artist in a museum, through the discourse of high art; rather, they are housewives who only know art in general, and this artist in particular, through a lifestyle or news or fashion magazine. Grasso quotes one such fan: “We shall probably never see one of your paintings face to face, but we certainly thank a magazine for having so faithfully reproduced your work and you.”

I liked the book so much that I wanted more. So I posed five questions to Grasso, who graciously answered them:

About the cover photo, what prompted you to choose it?

I was hoping to use a photograph included in a National Woman’s Party (NWP) brochure in which O’Keeffe is pictured as part of a group of NWP women who visited New Mexico. But it wouldn’t work for the cover. So when I happened to find the picture that we did use, haphazardly on the internet with no attribution or citation information, I immediately contacted the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum archivist to inquire about it and she informed me it was a new acquisition and then shepherded me through the permissions process. The picture was perfect because it showed an unfamiliar, atypical view of O’Keeffe, which is what my book is all about. Taken by Josephine B. Marks circa 1938, the photograph was unknown and unstaged and O’Keeffe is smiling “under the sky.”

In your research, what surprised you the most?

I worked on this project for so long because so many discoveries surprised me! But if I had to choose just one, I would say the biggest surprise is the extent to which O’Keeffe was, and continues to be, part of the feminist fabric of US culture. More than any other source, the fan letters women wrote to O’Keeffe, and which she meticulously preserved, are the most illuminating in this regard. One of these fan letter writers happened to be at a talk I gave recently and she spoke eloquently about why she decided to write to O’Keeffe after seeing her work exhibited at the Whitney in 1970. Such testimony demonstrates how much feminist imaginings about O’Keeffe were, and continue to be, so much a part of women’s personal and collective histories.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about O’Keeffe?

I think the biggest misconception about O’Keeffe is that she was unlike other high-achieving, modern professional women who worked hard to establish careers from the 1910s to the 1960s. As I discuss in the book, O’Keeffe encountered the same kinds of obstacles that beset other ambitious women of her race, class, and generation. Instead of seeing her as exceptional, let’s consider how her story and struggles to sustain a life of creativity are part of a collective story of women’s achievements, failures, and negotiations of gendered expectations.

What are the most important takeaways from the book?

I hope that readers will appreciate that feminism has a long, complicated history as a social justice movement, cluster of ideas, and set of lived practices. And I hope that they better understand how O’Keeffe benefited from and contributed to this history. Also, I hope readers will be moved to research more of the history of feminism, especially as it affects and informs women’s aesthetic and political creativity.

If you could interview O’Keeffe, what would you ask her?

So much about O’Keeffe’s relationship to feminism remains unknown, but there is one specific event that I wish I could have researched further: O’Keeffe’s debate with New Masses editor Michael Gold at the Brevoort Hotel in 1930. I would ask O’Keeffe why she agreed to debate Gold, whose idea it was, and how it came about. I would ask her if she knew Gladys Oaks, the reporter who authored the newspaper article about the debate and who had published a poem in The Masses in the 1910s, and what the outcome of this event was. Finally, I would ask O’Keeffe whether I correctly interpreted what she reportedly said about feminism during her exchange with Gold, and if her views had changed as she aged.

My Georgia O'Keeffe

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