My father and I have been working our way through Gerda Lerner’s “Creation of Feminist Consciousness” for several months, a few pages every weekend when I visit.
Chapter 8 in this book outlines women’s struggle throughout history to be taken seriously as creatives and authors. In it, Lerner writes:
“The autobiography abounds in qualifications, explanations, and apologies for such unseemly ambition, yet the Duchess’s [Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle] confession has the ring of truth. By her own words then, the Duchess admits to writing from two motivations: in order to be remembered and for her own sake.”
Cavendish died in 1673, almost 350 years ago, and yet, it could still be said that women create art for the same reasons now as then.
Any number of teachers and coaches have popped up in the past decade, all teaching some form of art: writing, photography, and painting are common.
One of the most reviled “new” art forms is the selfie - not actually new, as many observe, when self-portraits have a long history in both painting and photography. The limited camera options of cell phone photography, however, have held it back generally from appreciation as fine art, and the usual artists of selfies - young women - are still handicapped with limited authority to define themselves, their life, and their worth through art.
However, self-portrait classes - like Vivienne McMaster’s Be Your Own Beloved, have sprung up, attracting middle-aged women as students, ready to assume exactly that authority: to include themselves in history; to define their worth in terms other than the male gaze; and to claim that their contribution to not only society, but their own lives, has meaning.
At the same time, high-speed internet has enabled writers and editors to offer online memoir writing classes for women, with an angle towards writing their own experience. Defining, in writing, what matters in their world. These vary from story circles to wild writing circles to writing clubs and groups, but somewhere in the marketing material we “align with what’s true in our lives” or we “create meaning and connection” or we are taking a “seat at the table” of celebrated poets. Mid-life women are claiming the authority of knowing what’s true, of creating meaning, of belonging in the world as artists and creatives.
Not so different from Her Grace, the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish back in 1670, writing her autobiography so that the future would know that she lived - that She, Margaret, the 2nd wife of the Duke of Newcastle, had lived, and that her life had meaning. We who blog, take selfies, create art in order to insist upon our own definition of what matters - we are part of a very long tradition of creative women, stealing time from among their responsibilities to scribble a tiny, apologetic autobiography.