Fem: Who are your favorite female artists?
Julie Gough: At the moment, one of my favourite artists is Tuesday Bassen, whose illustrations of women and her ‘ugly girl gang’ zine which presents images of women who are more interested in excelling at what they do than their appearance, are really empowering messages. I also really like Lize Meddings of the Sad Ghost Club who creates illustrations for anyone who has ever felt sad or lost which promotes an understanding of mental health.
F: Tell us about your Illustrated Women in History project. What was the motivation behind it?
JG: I started the project after reading about a museum in the East End of London that was opened on the basis that it was to be celebrating the accomplishments of women. Days before it was planned to open, it was revealed to be a museum about Jack the Ripper, famous for brutally murdering women. It made me think about how much we actually need museums and other ways for people to learn about the influential women that have shaped our history, and how little I actually know about those women.
F: Was there one historical figure in particular that you were most fascinated to learn about?
JG: The first woman I drew was Emmeline Pankhurst and although I knew her by name, I had no idea how influential she was in the fight for women’s suffrage. Through her I have learned about other suffragettes and suffragists including her daughter Christabel, Annie Kenney (who for a time lived in Bristol which is where I currently live) and Edith New who like me, was from Swindon. I find it so strange that these women, who fought so hard that in some cases they endangered their own health through frequent hungry strikes, are not taught in many schools. It is such a vital part of our history that is overlooked, especially when women in the UK were only granted the right to vote in 1928.
Nellie Bly was suggested to me by a friend and has been one of the most interesting women I’ve learnt about. In looking into Nellie I was amazed that she’d been able to achieve so much. She was a pioneer in the concept of investigative journalism with her revealing article on the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island written after spending time undercover there. This was in a time when women were expected to only write about gardening, fashion or society. Bly studied the best way to act so that she would be admitted so that she could paint a true picture of the abuse that routinely happened at the institution. She also managed to travel the world in 72 days and became the world’s leading female industrialist and so many people have no idea who she is. In drawing her I found out that there is to be a film on her life which can only help build awareness of her achievements.
F: What have you learned from the project?
JG: One of the most interesting things I heard when starting the project was ‘Have you run out of women yet?’ and that was a genuine fear of mine when I started. If I illustrate an inspirational woman a day, how many days will I conceivably be able to do this? Luckily, right from the start my project has inspired people to tell me about women they think that I should draw, and a lot of them have brought me to a range of other women, for example in reading about Emmeline Pankhurst I found out about other suffragists and suffragettes (something I had no idea was different before I started this project!) and just knowing that there is a huge amount of women who’ve achieved great things left for me to illustrate has made a huge impact on me. More than anything else, I’m aware of the wide contributions that women have made that’s been overlooked and it makes me angry and motivated to continue. I’ve had a lot of ‘keep it up!’ messages and comments so far so I know I’m doing something worthwhile!
F: You’re also an art teacher and you mentioned trying to encourage the children to re-examine their language and attitudes, like using “girl” as an insult. Why do you think it’s important to encourage children to recognize the potentially harmful impacts of gendered thinking?
JG: It’s important for children to realise that language does actually matter, that the old saying ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is completely untrue. What they are saying informs or reinforces other people’s thinking or opinions. I’ve stopped both boys and girls countless times when they are saying things like ‘Oh, he can’t do that, it’s for girls’ when asked to wipe down a table, or being told ‘you’re such a girl’ when a boy is conveying the slightest amount of emotion. Just by asking them why they’ve said that their thinking starts to unravel. ‘Does your dad clean in your house?’ ‘Yes’ ‘So why is it just for girls?’ or ‘Do you realise that you’re saying that being a girl is a bad thing?’. They use this language without even thinking because it is so culturally prevalent. I’ve found that by making them think about it, they start to realise that gendered thinking – and using ‘girl’ as an insult – isn’t the way that they want to present themselves and isn’t the way they think about people.
F: In what ways is art a useful tool to teach people of all ages about feminism and important female historical figures?
JG: Art is so easily accessible, even if people have limited abilities to read and understand text they can still see the importance of something if it is presented visually. We are so used to seeing endless images of men in positions of power that it is nice to be able to slightly tip the scale and put the spotlight on women for a change – even if I don’t have that many followers as yet! We are brought up to think that the world was shaped by men, and only men and it just isn’t true. So many important discoveries in traditionally male dominated fields were made by women including the study of radioactivity by Marie Slodlowska-Curie. For women to think that they are worthy of taking up space and following careers that they, like many of the women I’ve illustrated, are discouraged from by being told ‘that’s not for women’. Visual representation is key so that people can have someone like them to aspire to, to let them know that it is possible and it isn’t just a man’s world.
Julie Gough is an illustrator and graphic designer based in Bristol where she fills up many sketchbooks when not distracted by her pug or cat. She runs an Illustrated Women in History blog.