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Modernism and Gender Inequality- An Annotated Bibliography 

By analysing a series of texts, we explore how the modernist era was a period of radical transformation for women regarding the roles they play in society and the home. The following sources explore modernity through a range of disciplines such as fashion, interior design, literature, and art to identify how they impacted gender inequality.

 

 

Rössler, P. and Blümm, A., 2019. Soft Skills and Hard Facts: A Systematic Assessment of the Inclusion of Women at the Bauhaus. In: E. Otto and P. Rössler, ed., Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism's Legendary Art School. [online] New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, pp.3-24.

 

This source analyses the Bauhaus using statistical data, to build a picture of how inclusive it was as an institution. The school is considered fundamental in the reshaping of society following WW1, by conflating multidisciplinary teaching with social equality. However, upon further investigation it has emerged that there may have been a secret agenda to reduce the number of female students. Furthermore, special women’s classes were founded as early as 1920 which merged with the weaving workshop- ‘a discipline generally regarded as a conceptually ‘soft’ area that kept women away from ‘hard’ work in traditional male employment.’ Statistics also support the notion that one of the prime occupations for women in the Bauhaus was with textiles, a workshop that fundamentally contributed to modernist design at the Bauhaus, although it is viewed as relatively insignificant in regards to the contemporary understanding of the influence of the Bauhaus.

 

Otto and Rössler are critical of the lack of diversity within the core Bauhaus members. Whilst they recognise that in some cases ‘the ambitions of female students themselves were directed, quite conservatively, towards marriage and motherhood rather than their own creative or artistic work’, I believe there was a lack of historical context which would indicate how progressive the school was; historically, German women who wanted an art education would have received it at home. Therefore, I believe the school did provide a radical breakthrough in terms of defying social norms, even if it has emerged that it was not as progressive as previously believed.

Wilson, E., 2003. Explaining it away. In: E. Wilson, ed., Adorned in Dreams, 2nd ed. London: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, pp.47-66.

 

In this source, Wilson provides a plethora of interpretations for the irrational, and rapidly evolving nature of fashion. These are often attributed to ‘encouraged consumption’ due to ‘capitalism’s need for perpetual expansion’. However, Rene Konig views fashion’s tendency to change as a ‘defence against the human reality of the changing body, against ageing and death’. Wilson briefly explores this alternative explanation; however, she neglects to discuss the lack of rapid change in men’s fashion and the implications of this.

 

Wilson also analyses the capacity fashion has to expose the role of women within society- ‘special pains should be taken in the construction of women’s dresses, to impress upon the beholder the fact that […] the wearer does not and cannot habitually engage in useful work.’ (Veblen, 1870)[1]. This is due to the outlook that ‘productive labour is derogatory to respectable women’. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that it became acceptable for women to wear trousers as an everyday clothing option, perhaps conveying the liberation seen during modernity.

McNeil, P., 1993. Designing women: Gender, Modernism, and Interior Decoration in Sydney, c1920-1940. Masters. The Australian National University. pp. 29-46.

 

McNeil investigates the changing concept of interior design, revealing the ‘inter-relationship of gender, design and modernism in early-twentieth century visual culture’. He discusses how interior design was often characterised as an ‘extension of women’s natures’ and highlights the importance it had in the liberation of women. Upper-class women opening decorating businesses in the 1910s and 1920s provided them with economic independence. The perception of the decorator as someone who ‘should be able to design and arrange all the internal fittings of a house’ as opposed to someone who could hang paper and paint wood now emerged. 

 

However, McNeil also explores the connection between femininity and private spaces, and how it is not just ‘reflected in the practice of interior decoration but actively produced by it’. By the late 19th century, decorating was gendered feminine and linked with consumerism and rapid fashion change. The media further enhanced this idea through the implication that it was as ‘important in defining an individual as their dress’. This connects women to the household more than ever and I therefore believe there needs to be more discussion as to whether this development was in fact liberating.

Khachibabyan, M. (2016) “Modernism and Feminism Representations of Women in Modernist Art and Literature”, WISDOM , 6(1), pp. 118-124. doi: 10.24234/wisdom.v1i6.71.

 

In this article Khachibabyan discusses the place and role of women in modernist art and literature and explores how they both ‘defined, reflected, and shaped gender roles.’ One of the central principles Khachibabyan considers is that every masterpiece is ‘the offspring of a specific time’ and that the artists are influenced by many ‘subjective, social and national features.’ Therefore, the first wave of women’s rights and the feminist movement consequently had a large influence on modernist artists and writers.

 

Khachibabyan also discusses the concept of the ‘New Woman’, whose portrayal in paintings highlights the importance of educated women engaged in social life but also calls attention to the cultural/political standpoint regarding women in the home. This is further enhanced through the diversity of approaches to modernist art contrasted against the large number of gendered paintings.

Scott, B., 2006. Modernism and Gender. In: D. Bradshaw and K. Dettmar, ed., A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture. [online] Blackwell Publishing Ltd., pp.535-541.

 

Scott provides a critical analysis of gender in colonial writings of the Modernist period. She defines gender as a social construct and explores the idea that modernism was ‘unconsciously gendered masculine, despite the women writers, editors and performers’ that played significant roles in the making of modernity. Scott also discusses women’s participation during the war and the anxiety over gender this created. The introduction of the ‘New Woman’ further undermined the existing gender systems.

 

However, she also acknowledges Susan Standford Freidmans (1998)[2] urge for studies to go ‘beyond gender’ to ‘include multiple contours of identity and global geographies.’ This provides an appreciation for the concept that gender systems are intrinsically linked with other ‘social constructions, identifications, and discourses’ including race, class and sexuality.  Furthermore, Scott highlights unanalysed genres such as memoirs and letters, where gender can also be studied. In this way, she invites others to continue this research and concludes by emphasising the importance of tracking down reviews ‘in an increasingly interdisciplinary and international set of locations.’

 

 

 

 

In conclusion, it is evident that the development of artistic disciplines during the modernist era were inherently related with the liberation of women from restrictive societal expectations. Even though the belief that analysis of unexplored texts is required, it is clear that women played a significant role in developing modernity despite the view that those defining, controlling, and discussing the movement were still biased towards men.

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