Georgia O'Keeffe and "The Woman Question"

Georgia O'Keeffe by Dennis Brack, 1977
          On May 23rd, we visited the Georgia O'Keefe Art Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sadly, I found it to be underwhelming, as the amount of art displayed from visiting artists greatly dwarfed the number of pieces by O’Keefe, herself. Nonetheless, I marveled in her work and particularly in her life. Dr. Farmer-Kaiser's wonderful lecture on O'Keefe's life and artistic inspiration raised a question that I have been mulling over in my mind ever since: can women have it all? In the 1920s and 30s, O'Keefe was hardly the cherubic-faced, "domestic angel" of the Victorian ideal, but rather identified with the promiscuous Flapper. She was an independent, passionate woman who channeled her exuberance for life into her artwork. In the end, she was deprived of the only thing deemed acceptable and appropriate for her sex: motherhood. O’Keefe never had children of her own, something she wanted so desperately. Thus, I arrive at my question: can a woman possess the fruit of both her gender sphere and the public sphere? Can women live in contempt of the responsibilities of a “virtuous woman” as O’Keefe did and still raise a family? Can we have it all?
        I think that the answer lies with the times and the evolution of what defines the womanly sphere. Georgia O'Keeffe lived at a time wherein women's rights were burgeoning, as Congress had just granted full woman suffrage in 1920. Though women received this governmental legitimization, society still continued to thrust the "domestic angel" image upon women. Societal taboos have a nasty way of lingering, and the women who found footing outside of this narrow mold found themselves oftentimes derided. Thus, I do not think that a woman of O'Keeffe's time could reasonably believe she could have it all.

        The image of woman in the 21st Century, however, provides more fluidity in the female gender sphere. In fact, it is nearly a complete rejection of that of the 1930s. No longer are women expected to sit at home and frost cupcakes, but rather are subject to ridicule if she is not career lady. For all the positive ground gained in the woman's public sphere, the private one, that of family, consequently takes a toll in the 21st century. For example, when Sarah Palin ran on the Presidential ticket in 2008 as candidate for Vice President, she was chastised in the media for the possibility of bringing too many children into the White House. Politics aside, no woman should receive criticism in her professional life for having too many children, but should rather be commended for it.

        The constraints of the woman's gender role are deep-seated and perpetuated in a Patriarchal society. It is a constant uphill battle for women when the gravity of countless years of male governance working against them; however, this says a great deal about a woman’s character. Can women have it all? I cannot answer this question, for it remains to be seen. It is, however, indisputable that Georgia O’Keeffe’s legacy – her life and art – will continue to serve as a source of inspiration for the next generation of hungry and passionate women in their pursuit of liberation through the attainment of gender equality.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed, 1932
                                                                                                                                - Kristen Hunter

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