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Female Artists in History Research Paper

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Women Creating Culture: Sofonisba Anguissola, Mary Wollstonecraft and Emily Dickinson


While the patriarchal heritage of the West commonly references the contributions of men to history and culture, the West would not be what it is today without the contributions to culture made by women as well. This paper will look at the contributions of three women in particular—Sofonisba Anguissola, the Italian Renaissance painter whose skill caught the attention of Michelangelo and ultimately won her a position in the court of King Phillip II of Spain; Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women in the 18th century opened the door for the 19th and 20th centuries’ women’s movements; and Emily Dickinson, whose poetry of the 19th century was lauded by second wave feminists such as Adrienne Rich, who identified Dickinson as an important inspiration in her own work. These women helped shape but were also shaped by their cultures. This paper will explain how that happened, how gender roles impacted their creativity, how their creativity made important contributions to culture in their own era and how their contributions reverberated to different disciplines and different eras and time periods so that they are even being felt today in the 21st century.

How the Women Shaped Their Culture

Sofonisba Anguissola

There were not many celebrated female artists of the Renaissance, but Sofonisba Anguissola was one of them and her artistry helped pave the way for other female artists, who were inspired by her works. Her skill, however, was not just admired by women. Michelangelo—the artist responsible for David, the Pieta, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Last Supper—was deeply impressed and gave her considerable guidance, as was the Dutch painter Van Dyck, who as a young artist visited with her when she was in her late 90s in order to learn the “true principles” of painting from a true master (Chisholm, 1911). Her 1565 portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Valois was considered a masterpiece by many and was copied by numerous artists. Her ability to paint exquisite facial features and depict fine clothing set her quite apart from many others of the age.

Were it not for Sofonisba Anguissola even today’s female artists like Georgia O’Keefe would have no forerunners and no foundation for women creators in the field of painting. After having an aristocratic marriage arranged for her by Phillip II himself, Sofonisba became a wealth patroness of the arts in her old age when her husband passed. Having produced dozens upon dozens of works of powerful patrons, she is still regarded as one of the finest Renaissance artists and her portraits hang in museums all over the world, from Madrid to Milwaukee. Though Sofonisba came from a lower class family, her talent and artistry enabled her to rise up through the patronage of kings, queens and princes.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft’s contribution to culture at the end of the 18th century was her monumental work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—a philosophical response of sorts to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Wollstonecraft’s argument was that women are believed by Enlightenment society to be inferior to men by the fact of their very nature and that this is wholly wrong. Women are not inferior to men by nature and were they to be given the same access to education that men have, Wollstonecraft argues, women would prove that they are just as capable of intelligent discourse as men. The fact that she was able to argue her point so well proved that women were not naturally inferior and that a monopoly on education was really the only thing propping men up as their actions often proved them to be most irrational, self-centered, emotional, inconsiderate and unkind in a number of ways.

Wollstonecraft argued for women’s rights by focusing on the importance of increasing access to education for women and allowing them to develop the minds God gave them: She explicitly protested that a “false system of female manners [has] been reared, which robs the whole sex of its dignity, and classes the brown and fair with the smiling flowers that only adorns the land. This has ever been the language of men, and the fear of departing from a supposed sexual character, has made even women…

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…pope. According to the customs of her time, she accepted an arranged marriage, made by Phillip II, and when her first husband died, she married another—a sea captain she met and fell in love with. Her life was without controversy in many ways, which indicates that in spite of her sex she was able to win fame and prestige totally because of her skill and craft—and the fact that she painted according to the norms of her times.

For Wollstonecraft, the narrowly defined gender roles and images of her times are what prompted her to fight back and write her Vindication of the Rights of Women (Jones, 2000). Her views were shaped precisely because her society wished to restrict the role of intelligent women. If anything, Europe had taken a step back from the regard it had held for women during the Renaissance. Part of that may have to do with the advent of Protestantism and Enlightenment philosophy, both of which tended to be somewhat sexist and tyrannically patriarchal.


The Renaissance did not deny a woman artist’s talent just because she was a woman. The story and contribution of Sofonisba is evidence enough of that. Respect for womanhood, however, was linked to respect for the Virgin Mary, revered as the Mother of God. Once the Protestant Reformation (and its general dislike of the Virgin Mary) had wrecked the whole of Christendom, tension between the sexes grew by leaps and bounds along with the inherently disordered philosophy of the naturalists. It reached such a point by the end of the 18th century that Wollstonecraft had had enough and wrote her Vindication to silence the critics of womanhood in general and to show that women were not naturally inferior to men. As a result, the seeds of feminism were sewn—and they were not welcome seeds in the views of most men. By Dickinson’s time, women who dared have a public life were seen as agitators in most cases—women like Angelina Weld, the abolitionist, and Sojourner Truth: they were not viewed highly by many men. Dickinson’s poetry, however, took on the honor it deserved—much like Wollstonecraft’s Vindication: both were…

Sample Source(s) Used


Chisholm, H. (1911). Sophonisba Angussola. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2 (11th ed.), Cambridge University Press, p. 44.

Jones, E. M. (2000). Libido dominandi: Sexual liberation and political control. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’ Press.

Juhasz, S. (1983). Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sewall, R. B. (1974). The life of Emily Dickinson. NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

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