How we tell women’s stories matters

A woman’s story on its own has value, not which men she knows

Professor Rachel Foulk has a PhD in art history from Emory University and has conducted a summer archeology program for American Academy in Rome, Italy. Foulk has been teaching at Ferris since 2011 and is the co-director of the Museum for Sexist Objects located in the Starr Building. She is also the faculty advisor for the women and gender studies minor.

By Rachel Foulk

Our favorite places can sometimes disappoint us with sexism. I’m an art historian, so one of my favorite things to do when in a new city is to visit local museums. I was looking forward to my visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2018 because I was planning to teach a class on “Women and Art” at Ferris and I wanted to take some photos of works by women artists for this class.

A painting of a still life caught my eye because it included a wreath of flowers that looked so real that I could almost smell them. I discovered that it was an 18th-century painting by the French artist Charlotte Eustace Sophie de Fuligny-Damas, the Marquise de Grollier. Wanting to learn more about this artist and her work, I read the museum label hanging next to the picture. But I was disappointed to see that the placard focused exclusively on Fuligny-Damas’ relationship with her teacher Gerard van Spaendonck. But the situation got worse in the label’s last sentence, which reads, “Grollier attained considerable fame, befriending such artists as Hubert Robert.”

What did I actually learn about Fuligny-Damas from the label? I learned that she was “famous enough” to have a friendship with a male artist. But what about her own life? What more do we know about her art? To characterize a woman artist only by her relationships with the men in her life does not tell her story. This practice views a woman’s life and value through a patriarchal lens that privileges the significance of men’s lives. It is sexist, oppressive and degrading. Our relationships make us stronger, but we are all individuals with our own lives and identities.

Disappointed by the lack of information about the artist responsible for the painting, I did a little research. Among other things, I learned Fuligny-Damas lived at Versailles and catalogued some of the royal gardens there. She was also a founding member of the Society of Horticulture in France. Fuligny-Damas was an artist and a scientist. Certainly, this helps to explain the attention to detail in her flower paintings. Didactic labels have limited space, but, for me, any of these details would have told a more compelling story about a woman who made a career as an artist at a time when few women had professional careers.

How we tell women’s history frames how we view women’s lives. This is especially true in institutions like museums that tell stories for public audiences. When I teach my “Women and Art” class, I encourage students to recover women’s achievements within a history of art often dominated by male narratives. Feminism can give greater agency to women and their accomplishments by writing women’s history on their own terms. Women’s History Month reminds us that we can choose to be more mindful of how we tell women’s history. Likewise, as we record our own histories, we can speak our own truths and advocate for women and other oppressed people.