In Canada, Women’s History Month is celebrated in October. It recognizes and celebrates women who’ve made outstanding achievements and contributions in business, art, research, and more. It’s meant to honor the courage of women who made an impact despite many challenges and setbacks.
Throughout history, women have struggled in the face of systems designed to deny them their potential. Women have had to overcome significant barriers to get equal opportunities.
Many have persevered to bring us iconic works of art and brilliant inventions and demonstrated undeniable creativity. Waves of women’s movements and brave activists have evolved (and continue to evolve) the narrative.
Breaking Creative Barriers
These iconic creative visionaries had one big extra challenge to overcome – achieving the pinnacle of success in their field as a woman.
These women are household names in literature, music, film, business, and more. They’re just a select few of the ones we look up to and who have set the stage for creative women of the future. Yet, society and gender norms were working against them.
Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë
There was a time when being a successful creative as a woman was not an option. When Charlotte Brontë and her sisters self-published their first book of poetry as young women, they used the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. It was a way, they later said, to avoid the stigmatization from society as women while maintaining their initials.
After the now-famous works Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey were published, the sisters eventually admitted their actual names. They were met with disgrace and backlash from the literature community.
Charlotte later added a forward to her novel, writing: “We did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
And if you think times have changed for the better for women authors, female authors still commonly use their initials or male pen names. Sometimes, it’s at the request of their publishers!
When the British author Joanne Kathleen Rowling first published the Harry Potter series, her publishers worried male readers wouldn’t be interested in the books with a female author’s name on the cover. So, she published under J.K. Rowling.
Born in 1867 as Marya Skłodowska in Warsaw, Marie Curie remains one of the most important scientists in history. She discovered radium and polonium, ultimately changing the scientific understanding of radioactivity. Thanks to her discoveries, modern medicine has been able to successfully employ the use of radiation to treat a range of illnesses.
In 1903, her work earned the attention of the board of the Nobel Prize. Along with her husband, Pierre Curie, she was awarded half of the prize for the field of Physics. This made Marie the first woman to win the esteemed award.
She later took home a Nobel prize in 1911 in Chemistry all to herself – thanks to her tireless continued work with radioactivity and mobile x-rays. In 2022, out of more than 900 total Nobel Prize recipients, only 60 have been women.
“My buildings will be my legacy… they will speak for me long after I’m gone.” – Julia Morgan
In 2022, there are more women pursuing a University education than men in Canada and the US. We’ve come a long way. Before the 19th century, women were mostly barred from higher education. Those like Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a 17th-century student of Theology, were rare. Most of the Ivy Schools didn’t even admit women until the 1960s!
By the early 1800s, women’s colleges offered a few options.
In 1898, Julia Morgan became the first woman admitted to the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she studied architecture. Her degree depended on being awarded points earned through sketching and design competitions. Unfortunately, women were often excluded from organizations, such as the famous salons that would allow them to complete these tasks. Nevertheless, she completed her course within four years.
Julia Morgan then started her career as the only female licensed architect in California.
In 1986, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first list of legends, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. A year later, Aretha Franklin became the first woman to join the Hall of Fame.
The passionate singer had more than the average hurdles to overcome on her way to fame.
Aretha Franklin quit school at the young age of thirteen after giving birth to her first child. Her status as a woman of color disallowed her from making her own decisions about her body, her life, or her career. Without a mother figure, Aretha was under the care of her father, a traveling gospel singer who managed her early singing career. Throughout most of her young life, Aretha was often taken advantage of and abused.
Aretha channeled these hardships, captivating audiences with her presence and voice. She was awarded 18 Grammys and the National Medal of Arts in 1999. She goes down in history as the “Queen of Soul”.
Dorothy Arzner and Kathryn Bigelow
Out of the 457 nominees for best director at the academy awards, remarkably, only 7 have been women. And in that time, only three women won. If that’s any indication of the industry demographics, women directors and filmmakers are few and too far between. That’s why film director Kathryn Bigelow is such an icon.
When asked in an interview how she overcomes the challenge of being a women director in a male-dominated industry, Bigelow said: “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies … There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.”
Although she’s become one of the most well-known directors, she wasn’t the first or the last.
Dorothy Arzner, a filmmaker active between the 1920s and 1940s, was one of a kind during her career. As the only woman director working in Hollywood at the time, Arzner opened the doors for her contemporaries such as Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2010), Chloe Zhao (Nomadland, 2021), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog, 2022), Sofia Coppola, Greta Gerwig, and Ava DuVernay.
Celebrating Women’s History Month
Thanks to the creative icons who paved the way through the years, women are now proudly celebrated in creative fields such as art, literature, and music – with opportunities on the rise. In 1940, only around 4% of American women held a college degree, compared to 50.4% in 2022. A similar statement can be made of business: In 2021, nearly half of all new businesses were started by women – up from 28% in 2019.
Unfortunately, the fight isn’t over for women working in creative fields and beyond. In Canada, the gender pay gap remains, with the gap for women of color or those with disabilities being even greater.
While challenges remain for women creatives, a tremendous amount of progress has been made, and we have these icons and many more to thank for their perseverance. Continuing to uplift and empower female creatives is the path forward to more opportunities for women.