Recently I’ve been researching the life of my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. It’s been a welcome distraction from news filled with stories of urban protests against police violence and continued assaults on women’s reproductive rights. Battles once considered fought and won are again bitterly contentious. The 1967 Kerner Report on the despair inducing conditions prevalent in many cities reads as if written weeks, rather than decades, ago. State and national legislators propose—and pass—all manner of legislation that eats away at women’s freedom to make decisions about our own bodies.
Miss Fulton’s life spanned nearly a century. She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1869 and died near Mystic, Connecticut in 1967. Research on her life underlines the significant progress women have made in the past century and a half. It also reveals continuing gender bias throughout our society. Miss Fulton was an artist—a painter and illustrator. Looking at her life highlights challenges women confront in the world of visual arts, reminds us that no profession, no institution is free from gender related segregation and hierarchy.
From time to time here at Second Look I’ve mentioned Miss Fulton, the example of she set of an independent woman, the lessons in the struggle for women’s suffrage she insisted I learn and not forget:
“Don’t you ever let anyone say women were given the vote, child. Women fought for that right!”
“Not everyone will agree with you when you speak your mind, girl. Remember that. Be prepared; keep your facts straight.”
“If you want to do something and you’ve thought it through, do it, child. But be ready for all the consequences, you hear me? Sometimes things don’t end up the way you plan.”
All good advice for anyone of any age—but especially good for a girl growing up in small-town Connecticut during the 1950s. The social rules were clear: be polite, smile, help others—and wear a hat to church. When, at age twelve, I decided not to join the Congregational Church my family attended because I wasn’t sure what I believed, most people were puzzled. Everyone else my age was going to stand up on Sunday morning and become a church member. And after all, hadn’t I been the angel in the Christmas pageants every year? Miss Fulton nodded when I told her. “Well, girl, you’ll ruffle a few feathers, I suspect, but it’s fine to do that now and then. Good practice.”
Practice for what I wasn’t quite sure. My parents were as puzzled as everyone else but agreed—it was my choice to make. I can’t recall if I ever did decide to join the church. What I do remember is that with Miss Fulton’s help I had questioned something I’d been wondering about. The only significant consequence was the chance to say out loud thoughts I’d been keeping in my head and my diary. It was good practice for all sorts of future situations, even if I had to relearn the lesson more than once. Speaking up for what you believe isn’t always as easy as it can seem.
Miss Fulton left Shreveport to attend Wesleyan Female Institute in Virginia, graduated at sixteen, went on to study art, train as a teacher and received a graduate certificate from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union in 1899. She sailed for Paris in the summer of 1900.
In the decades before the First World War, Paris was the destination of choice for American art students. But studying in Paris was more difficult for young women than for their male colleagues. Women weren’t admitted to some schools and were often charged higher fees for the classes they could take. Living expenses were also higher. Women encountered issues of propriety and safety few men ever considered. The Art Student in Paris published in 1887 noted that “while there are twenty cheap restaurants that men can go to, there is but one for women.”
The most blatant of these societal barriers fell years ago, but concerns about safety are as pressing for young women today as they were in 1900. The latest statistics on violence against women indicate that 1 woman out of 5 will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Comments about how foolish a woman is to walk down such and such street alone or to dress in such and such a manner are still commonplace. And what about the art profession? Today more than fifty percent of students graduating from art school are women, but women head only a quarter of major art museums, those with budgets of over fifteen million dollars. Women are under represented in solo gallery exhibits and in museum collections. We are far from the equality Miss Fulton hoped for when she told me, “Well, there’s no real equality yet, child, not in art, not anywhere. But the day will come,” Then she added, ”But it will take energy, lots of energy.”
Reflecting on Miss Fulton’s life, immersing myself in census data and old newspapers, talking with archivists at institutions where she may have studied is fun. But in the end my explorations bring me back to the challenges still in front of us. Stereotypical views linger, gender violence is rampant, and while feminists have worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for almost a century, the ERA is not yet the law of the land.
We’ve struggled and pushed ahead. We’ve seen important progress. But women and men are still working and waiting for Miss Fulton’s ‘real equality’.