Teaching Feminism +Art History: Intersectionality

While art represents one of the most vivid sites for learning about history because of the complex interchanges necessary to bring objects and experiences into being, it also perpetuates and makes visible concurrent systems of oppression and exclusion.  As such, feminist art history has become the locale for some fascinating investigations into the way the history bears on the present through the objects and institutional structures.  In the classroom, students often find the idea of feminism complicated.  Some students actively embracing the nomenclature regarding it as a meaningful discourse relevant to their lives.  Others worry that feminism will compromise their femininity or masculinity by association or consider that any mention of feminism will strike a blow to patriarchy from which it must be protected.  And then there are students to whom discussions of feminism in an art history class offer a way for them to understand their lives and are intent on learning more.  This last group often includes students who have an awareness of the relationship between gender discrimination as one area of oppression in society and the reality that it connects with other forms of exclusion.  By studying one aspect, others become more readily apparent or more clearly understood.

Recently, I re-designed a course on the history of women artists and decided to structure the course entirely around this idea of interconnections between gender discrimination and other kinds of social refusal (if you will).  An open approach such as this one permits a fuller discussion of the rich and fecund legacy of patronage, production, and examination of women’s lives and experiences.  Much of that history is only partially considered unless factors such as class and caste, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, race, ability, oppression and discrimination or domination (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia), access, weight, and social justice are taken into account and considered simultaneously.  Students will be able to grasp and grapple with the complete breadth and scope of women’s contributions to the visual arts if they reflect on the range of ways these social forces have shaped–and continue to shape–them.

This approach to art history is based in intersectional feminist theory, first articulated in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.  She recognized that systems of oppression intersect in women’s lives.  These limits center on pejorative treatment women experienced because of one or more aspects of their experience. Crenshaw recognized that you can’t separate out the interplay resulting from limitations due to a combination of gender, class, and ability issues.[i] Her ideas are one aspect of an area of study now known as Critical Race Theory or Critical Race Studies, in which the ways that race, representation, whiteness, and racism coalesce and structure thought and experience.[ii]

I had previously been using Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art, and Society from Thames & Hudson’s World of Art Series, the fifth edition published in 2012, along with two of the readers edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard (specifically Feminism and Art History:  Questioning the Litany published by Harper & Row from 1982 and The Expanding Discourse:  Feminism and Art History published by Westview Press from 1992).  However, I Wendy Slatkin’s Women Artists in History:  From Antiquity to the Present from Pearson (fourth edition published in 2000) includes material that deals with the ancient world whereas the Chadwick does not.  Also, students have commented that the Chadwick book, while beautifully illustrated can be both dense and cursory.  They consider it encyclopedic.  I had never had such feedback commentary with the Slatkin and decided to return to it.  The Chadwick book is significantly less expensive, but the Slatkin book is available for rent at a comparable price.  Further, I decided to use more recently published articles for discussion and abandoned the use of the published readers, which have been an excellent resource.  The range of print and online resources is extensive, almost overwhelming.  I have assigned annotated bibliography kinds of activities in the past and may resume this type of activity in the future as the available materials continue to mushroom.

I organized this course around ten topics as I teach on the ten-week quarter system so it could be expanded and sub-divided considerably to accommodate the thirteen- or sixteen-week semester course.  I used the basic organizational chronology of art history:  ancient, medieval, renaissance, modern.  But, since the vast majority of women artists worked or are working in the modern and contemporary period, the more recent eras occupy a substantial portion of the course.

Each unit then has a “Writing About Art” assignment in addition to a set of readings for discussion on the content (see Swartz AHTR Teaching Intersectional Feminism + Art History Chart-2).  These writing assignments are short and focus on visual analysis through a specific ideological lens.  So the student needs to “read” the artwork from the focal point of one aspect of identity.  The instructions for the writing assignment are:  write a 250 – 500-word response that includes the following:  thesis statement, introduction with an overview (what you will examine) and method (how you will approach the subject), essay response of the artwork, focusing in on specific features as evidence of your perspective, conclusion with summation and a comment on your thesis (consider what has been gained by looking at this object).  I organized these particular strands so that the identity issue being discussed had some resonance with the broader topics at hand for that unit.  As a methodological augmentation, I have also had students rely on different kinds of reference materials for these assignments.  That is primarily because I teach online and I want the students to familiarize themselves with the broad range of electronic, full-text resources, including archives and databases.

This approach to teaching the broad survey of art history from the perspective of women’s contributions makes the whole perspective more contemporary.  It makes the past more evident in the present, as the discussion of sexuality in the renaissance is a more vivid exploration of objects and monuments and life during that era.  Such a conversation about art helps students understand how life has and has not changed more readily.


[i]   Her ideas are concisely summed up in an interview with Professor Crenshaw, which appeared in the American Bar Association’s Perspectives Magazine, if you want more information on this theory and its evolution.  See Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, interview by Sheila Thomas, Perspectives Magazine, Spring 2004.  http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/perspectives_magazine/women_perspectives_Spring2004CrenshawPSP.authcheckdam.pdf.

[ii] See Ellen C. Caldwell and Jon Mann, “Race-ing Art History:  Contemporary Reflections on the Art Historical Canon,” Art History Teaching Resources http://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/race-ing-art-history-contemporary-reflections-on-the-art-historical-canon/.

2 responses to “Teaching Feminism +Art History: Intersectionality”

  1. Kathleen Wentrack says:

    Dear Anne,

    Thank you so much for sharing this course design with the AHTR community! I have been inspired to incorporate a number of your ideas in my survey course. Thank you for this intelligent post!


    Kathleen Wentrack, PhD
    Queensborough CC

  2. Carolee Moore says:

    Thank you for your course design. I used Chadwick as a basic text, but I agree with your assessment of it. I paired it with The Essential Feminist Reader by Estelle Freedman to contextualize the works of women artists and to alert students to feminist ideas that have been around for a long time. I also used another article on intersectionality I found a few years ago called “Locational Feminism and Feminist Social Identity Analysis” by Carolyn Zerbe Enns, an excellent framing of what she calls “interlocking oppressions and privileges” of complex social identities – very readable and excellent for starting discussions. Your course design is encouraging and got me thinking about a redesign, too, using Slatkin.


    Carolee Moore
    University of the Incarnate Word
    San Antonio, Texas

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