Today I read Ariel Levy’s profile of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Frustration, I Love You,” in an old New Yorker. (Still catching up.) It was an early-Monday-morning treat to myself after an intense research trip to Ft. Worth and Dallas, and I wish it had been required reading for the “O’Keeffe Sisters and Women of American Modernism” symposium held yesterday at the Dallas Museum of Art. Why, the question was raised, was O’Keeffe the only woman in the Stieglitz Circle — indeed, in the entire first generation of modern art? The panelists’ answers seemed to suggest that the responsibility (blame?) lay in the hands of individuals, and perhaps most of all in those of O’Keeffe.
There is no denying that O’Keeffe was an extraordinarily ambitious professional. How else could she have succeeded? But it does not necessarily follow that the dearth of other successful women artists was the result of her competitiveness. O’Keeffe was keenly aware of being marginalized, bristling against every headline that called her a “great woman painter.”
The early career history of comedian-extraordinaire Louis-Dreyfus, recounted in the New Yorker article, illustrates the same syndrome that affected O’Keeffe — and first-generation pioneers in any field. It’s a well-worn term, one that has been replaced by others in contemporary feminism. Remember it? “Token woman.” In her first several gigs, Louis-Dreyfus was hired because the otherwise all-male comedy troupe decided it needed a woman. The token woman removes any question of “Why no women?” so that the men don’t have to deal with their patriarchal assumptions. Besides, you need someone to play the girlfriend or the girl next door. Even when Louis-Dreyfus was hired to play Elaine Benes on “Seinfeld,” it was originally as a token woman. So, you had one token woman on a sit-com. One token woman on a board of directors. One token woman in the stable of gallery artists.
The structure of patriarchy accommodates one woman, because alone she remains the other, isolated, without power. The message is that only very special, extraordinary women will ever succeed. (So most of us need not even try.) Two woman are perceived by the male majority as a dangerous duo. It’s only when women reach a critical mass of three, research into the gender dynamics of corporate boards has shown, that women can begin to operate equitably, without being marked as other.
Speaking of being marked as other: A huge banner in front of the Dallas Museum of Art pronounces the upcoming exhibit: “Berthe Morisot Woman Impressionist.” Until we start describing Monet as a “Man Impressionist,” let’s quit calling Morisot a “Woman Impressionist.” O’Keeffe would be so pleased.