Artists Who Mother

By Rose Gibbs

According to Sheryl Sandberg, the woman responsible for turning around the fortune of Facebook (1), ‘the number one impediment to women succeeding in the work force is now in the home. Most people assume that women are responsible for households and child care. The majority of heterosexual couples operate on that basis’ (2). Sampson Lee Blair (3), professor at the University of Buffalo, studies the division of labor in families and notes that with families where the woman has a job and a man doesn’t, where one might anticipate a reversal of roles, ‘even then you find the woman doing the majority of the housework’ (4). For childcare the ratio is closer to 5 to 1, no matter who earns the money for the family. Business and institutions are set up without regard for the exigency of parenting an infant, and clearly women take the strain.

There are lots of excuses made for sexism. While issues of parenthood, maternity leave and employers’ weariness of it is all too often given as a reason for women not getting ahead in the professions, no such thing can be said of a self-employed artist. The success of an artist’s output cannot be measured by the hours spent on a piece of work. There are no set hours. There is no office, and no one will notice when you leave the studio early. For many artists there will be fallow periods, or periods spent thinking. Artists can work at home and don’t have to damage their reputations by asking for flexi-hours.

Women dominate art schools (5), yet they are failing to make it to the top. Eighty percent of solo shows go to men. Commercial galleries, with only a handful of exceptions, represent many more male than female artists (6). This gender disparity illustrates a sexism that though notable in other industries, cannot be so easily brushed over in the art world. Or to put it another way: we can’t blame the baby. In fact, amongst many heterosexual art couples the flexible nature of an artist’s practice allows for a more equal distribution of hours spent parenting.

Being an artist has traditionally been the job of a man. The same can be said of doctors- but while doctors are supposed to be caring and responsible, qualities we often associate with women and motherhood- the romantic idea of an artist is that of the bohemian who devotes their life to art with reckless abandon. This is not an idea we have left behind. In August 2012, Marina Abramovic explained that there were not more great female artists because women were not willing to make the necessary sacrifices required to produce great art. It was women’s desire to have children and look after those children that stood in their way. Tracey Emin has echoed elements of this sentiment, saying that she ‘could never be a mother and a good artist. The emotional pull would be too much’ (7).

In business and other professions there are tangible ‘problems’ with employing women who mother, while in art the problems are tied up with myth and myth is a powerful force: ‘It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality’, wrote Virginia Woolf in 1931 (8). Where practical steps can be taken to allow women into the world of business, no such steps can be taken against our mythologies. For Woolf ridding herself of notions of how a woman should be was the first step to writing. The problems now are slightly different. Art schools allow women to think of themselves as artists, make art and be artists, yet beyond those utopian institutions there is reluctance to support them as such. Ideas are the very fabric of art and this allow the lifeblood of the artist to seep in, as art and artist in some cases completely merge. Despite Joseph Beuys’ statement ‘Everyone is an artist’: there remains an unspoken rule of what an artist must look like, what an artist must be.

Artists ‘out’ themselves as women when they mother. If artists are supposed to be driven by their work at the expense of all else, this does not sit well with the idea of the archetypal woman. Motherhood is the epitome of femaleness, it reminds us of women’s ability to bear children – and is as such a clear indicator of sex difference, while simultaneously illustrating a responsibility to something other than art.  Even in a world where we know that the child may not be the mother’s own progeny, or where the mother may not be the main carer, children stand as clear living reminder that an artist is a woman – more female and therefore less artist-like. Needless to say I disagree with the old notion that we must be wild bohemians to make great art. Just as businesses benefit from skills that workers learn from their parenting experiences, these experiences could inform and enrich an artistic practice – though perhaps not Tracey Emin’s.

Often people are surprised when they are told how massively under represented women are. We look at art without thinking about the sex of its creator. Or do we? I suggest that these observations are going on all the time as we assess the world and its contents, and effects the way we read a piece of work. It is presumptuous to believe that we can allow art to transcend our prejudices. We do not look from a void: how we perceive, interpret and understand the world is mediated by our experience of it. Art is a matter of communication: who we think is communicating to us, affects what we think they are communicating and has a bearing on how we understand it. This is not always a bad thing, it’s a way of putting something in context: it only becomes a problem when sexism gets in the way. The question is – does the art world, do the consumers of culture, think that women are worth listening to?


1. Auletta, K. 2011. A Woman’s Place: Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture? The New Yorker, July 11. Available at

2. Ibid.

3. Belkin, L. 2008. When Mom and Dad Share it All. The Times Magazine, June 15. Available at

4. Ibid.

5. Ratcliffe, R. 2013. The gender gap at universities: where are all the men? The Guardian, 29 January. Available at

6. The East London Fawcett Group. 2013. Great East London Art Audit. EFL Audit. Available at

7. The BBC Radio 4. 2013. Woman’s Hour, How to Be a Powerful Woman, Be in Balance. The BBC, 28 June. Available at

8. Woolf, V. 1931. Professions For Women. In: Woolf, V. 1931. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. The University of Adelaide: Adelaide. Available at



Rose Gibbs is a visual artist who graduated from The Royal College of Art in 2010. She has exhibited extensively, in the UK and internationally. Her work was featured in Alistaire Sooke’s 2011 BBC Bristish Sculpture documentary series, Romancing the Stone. Moreover, she has been part of various panel discussions including at Kings Place, London as part of the Talking Art series (Does Gender Matter?), at The Royal College of Art in their Rethinking Soup program, at the Kingsgate Workshop Gallery, The Ben Uri Gallery (Are we Not Now all Feminist?) and has taken part in the Metaflux symposium in association with The Royal Academy of Art for their Bronze exhibition. In 2013, she curated a series of shows and events across London for the 2013 International V Day, in conjunction with One Billion Rising which is linked to her continuing work with the grass roots feminist activist East London Fawcett group. More information can be found at:


Mother of Invention: A New Collection of Essays on Mothering and Feminist Subjectivity

By Rachel O’Neill

MaMSIE readers may be interested in a new collection of essays on the theme of mothering and feminist subjectivities. Edited by Vanessa Reimer and Sarah Sahagian, Mother of Invention combines feminist theory and life writing to explore the many ways in which mothers – whether or not they identify as feminists – can inspire feminist consciousness in their children. Below is an extract from the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘Impressions of my mother: On wilfulness and passionate scholarship’, in which I consider some of the difficulties of writing feminist auto/biography.

On beginning to draft this chapter, I realise that I don’t know how to name my mother in writing. Should I employ the formal ‘mother’, the generic ‘mom’, or do I address her as I do in person, favouring the Irish pronouncement, ‘Ma’? What of her own name? Do I need to be consistent anyway, or is this a literary affectation? Further difficulties present themselves as I start to write and find myself vacillating between past and present tense, confounding temporal distinctions as I try to capture the change and constancy of my mother’s character. How can I convey the complex and multifaceted nature of her person? She has been so many different people, has had so many different lives: a subdued little girl, well-versed in her own mother’s stoicism; a brilliant but troubled young woman who wore her dark hair long, as though to hide behind it; a sad and resentful bride, her sister so recently laid to rest; a young wife who followed her husband to Canada in earnest, only to find herself left alone to look after her two babies; a daughter who cared patiently, tenderly, for her ailing mother in the final years of her life; a woman married thirty years, with all the tribulations this entails, now steadily adored by a man who fixes her coffee, picks her flowers and comes home early; a skilled photographer, immortalising fishermen on Achill Island, consecrating discarded remnants in a place time forgot; a mother of four who, loving us each intensely, suffers all of our hurts and disappointments as if they were her own (and seems to believe they are); a woman who dances with her arms raised and her eyes closed.

These fragments can do only some of the necessary descriptive work. I know that to give some account of our relationship I will need to refer to specific episodes and anecdotes. I quickly find, however, that it is not easy to quarry one’s memory banks. I worry too about the distortions of memory, feeling that some of those familiar familial stories will have become exaggerated in the repetition of their telling. Conferring with family members, my misgivings are confirmed as we turn up different versions of events. Is there any one account that most closely approximates the actuality of the occurrence? Is the veracity of any story even important, or is there something more compelling in how it is remembered and re-told? I wonder what is at stake in remembering (and re-membering) family stories. Perhaps the best thing is to adopt a more “methodical” approach. I decide to interview Ma. She agrees to this and one Saturday evening we settle in to talk over the internet, she at home in Ireland, myself in London, seeing each other via computer cameras. She is nervous at first, unsure of what she is supposed to say, not knowing what the exercise will consist of. I ask her simply to tell me about her life, describing any relation to feminism she might have. She begins, hesitantly, but soon relaxes and begins to talk with ease. Enjoying herself now, she tells me stories I have never heard before. I am engrossed. When I review my notes the next day, it is clear that I was too absorbed in my mother’s talk to give it any direction; I have come away with far more questions than answers. Transcribing my notes, fixing the spoken word by converting it to the more lasting form of the written, I am struck by the immutable character of words on a page. I wonder if my mother has given too much of her self, has spoken too freely. Did she forget that the interview – which had so much the character of a tête-à-tête – was supposed to provide some basis to this paper, that I would write about what she told me? I worry about exploiting this expansiveness, so uncharacteristic of her.

These attempts towards authentication are borne of a desire for my mother to recognise herself in this composite portrait. In writing, I become resigned to the idea that there will be discordances – because she does not, cannot, see herself as I see her. I worry especially that my attempts to read my mother through feminism will be rebuked, my efforts towards better understanding met with charges of intellectual posturing and pretension. I cannot but be conscious of the dangers my presumptions might hold, wary of the ambivalence of our relationship: the easy hurt, our mutual fear of saying the wrong thing and becoming at odds. And what of the others? My father – very much the public face of our family – will he be embarrassed, offended or disappointed by what I write? Probably he knows that he does not come off well in any account of my mother’s early married life, having neglected (the word is bitter) his wife to forge his career, the real fear of poverty and the absolute need to succeed always spurning him on. How changed he is now, so generous and considerate – it seems unfair to bring up these early failings. And yet, this is part of the story, and an important part of my own story. I consider as well my two older sisters and my younger brother. What will they think? Will they read what I write and balk at the conceit of the iteration ‘my mother’? Because she is not my mother alone: each of us, her children, have different conceptions of who she was and is, our relationships to her mediated by divergent upbringings, the shifting life circumstances and family dynamics we bore witness to and participated in.


Rachel O’Neill is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where her research centres on men and masculinities, sexual cultures and social change. The above extract is taken from her essay on wilfulness and passionate scholarship, one of seventeen contributions to Mother of Invention. Further information about the book is available via the publisher’s website: