Did you attend our Extraordinary Women conference? If not, BRLSI volunteer Anna Baker gives you her take on a wonderful day!


There was a buzz in the air at the BRLSI for the Extraordinary Women symposium. Anna McNay set the scene for the day with a summary of the inequality of the art world. Bringing great insight into the problem of under-representation of women artists. It was very interesting to learn more about an issue which is still so prevalent today with many white male artists being celebrated at a rate far above any other demographic.

First up was British Art Critic Jonathan Jones discussing the genius of Artemisia Gentileschi, someone who was unknown to me but now someone I see as a true icon of her time. She was the 1st women to have a professional career in the art world, one which is has been a historically male dominated system. Her work was described as visceral, gory but powerful and hearing about the back stories behind her artwork only enhanced the language Jonathan used. Artemisia’s art represented an inversion of the patriarchal order of her day, showing women in a position of power against men. The artist used her trauma to inform her paintings. It was a truly encapsulating lecture where we got to understand a glimpse of the social and historic context of Artemisia’s life and art.

Following this we got to hear about Mary Wollstonecraft from Dr Sylvana Tomaselli. Known as a liberal, feminist and utopian among many things, we got to hear about her vision for the world. She most famously wrote a book called the Vindication of the Rights of Women which was brought on by her battle with Edmund Burke, a British Statesmen who endorsed traditional and inheritance positions and criticised the enduring French Revolution. Her views were beyond her time with an emphasis on educating women and changing social order so that women were not property, whose purpose is to serve their husband. With her work making a significant impacts on subsequential women’s rights movements, she was a remarkable women.

From this, we got to hear from Professor Christina Howells, who spoke about the widely known writer Simone De Beauvoir. The philosopher, who wrote Second Sex, famously stated, “One is not born, but becomes a women”.  Through her writings, De Beauvoir gave accounts of the truth of women’s existence from childbirth, to menstruation and menopause. Bringing out of the taboo from behind many stories  helped women reading her work understand the impact of patriarchy on their womanhood. Howells gave a critical view of De Beauvoir and her work, bringing to our attention that through all the descriptions of patriarchy she gave, the writer became so absorbed that she forgot to relativise her views. The writer gave a rather negative interpretation of female experience, being so entwined in discussing the patriarchal way of thinking that she became unable to envision a way of escaping it. Howells brought great perspective through her talk, reminding us that in our singularity we are universal and how differently life is experienced.

We ended the day, continuing the theme of powerful, extraordinary women, with a film on artist Paula Rego directed by her son Nick Willing. Similar to Artemisia, the artwork Rego produced was brutal and in some ways uncomfortable. The short film enlightened us on the compelling nature of her work. Having studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, Rego’s was a strong advocate of women’s rights. Her artistic depictions of back street abortions helped pave the way for Portugal to legalise abortion in 2007.

The collection of work Rego produced was thought to have significant impacts on the result of the abortion referendum after it previously was not passed in 1998. Through expressing and influencing so many people, Rego showed how the cruelty of these practises cannot carry on. She continued to work into the early 21st century and her art remains in a number of collections and galleries.

The whole day encapsulated the importance of equality and recognising the impact these extraordinary women have had. But the message from the day went beyond this, there are countless women who throughout history have paved the way for change, understanding and more expansive opportunities for women. But we are reminded that change has not gone far enough and why it is necessary to not only see how far we have come, but also have far we have to go.

To volunteer with BRLSI: https://www.brlsi.org/about-us/volunteering/

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