The challenge with Women’s History Month is that some of the most inspiring, rule-breaking women have been left out of the history books. At CUUP, we have a great deal of reverence for female creativity – and a penchant for the women who use theirs to challenge the status quo. So, we’re sharing the stories of four renegade women worth remembering – both for what they accomplished and for what they refused.
These women shifted industries, defied expectations, demanded respect, and spoke candidly about the female experience. If BodyTalk had been around a few decades ago, these ladies would have had our full attention.
Jessye Norman was an Opera singer who committed her life to breaking the rules of a music industry that criticized women’s bodies and doubted black talent.
Today, Jessye is remembered as one of classical music’s most revered voices and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime achievement award. In the 1960’s, however, as Jessye was beginning her career, the chances of a black woman making it in the Opera world were slim. Dreams were kept alive by an insistence that these women ‘play by the rules.’
The rules were that black women were to sing exclusively in exotic operas (Carmen, L’Africaine, Aida) and lighten their skin on stage for the comfort of the audience. Jessye rolled her eyes at all of this and sang her own tune – in perfect pitch. ‘Roles such as Lady Macbeth, Eboli, Leonara or Emilia are not part of my temperament,’ Jessye told The New York Times in 1983. She simply wasn’t interested in playing the part of an angry, scorned, or unwanted woman. Jessye refused countless characters, defying the logic of centuries of casting.
As she began landing roles outside the rules, she faced the next unspoken expectation that she would lighten her skin – and stepped right over this one, too. When her vocal coach asked if they were putting the ‘ugly clown makeup’ on her, she replied firmly, ‘No, I got that straight. I make myself up.’ We remember Jessye as much for her astonishing voice as we do for her determination to be herself.
By 1933, moviemaking had become a lucrative business and men wanted the jobs – but before the invention of sound, the silent era of Hollywood was a ‘manless Eden.’ Women penned over half of the silent films between 1915 and 1933 – and a woman named Frances Marion was the highest-paid and most well-respected of them all.
Marion was home-schooled in San Francisco, where she developed a vivid imagination and love for writing. When her family lost everything in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, her dreams of attending college on the East Coast were shattered and she hastily married her art instructor. After that marriage ended in divorce, she headed to Hollywood with a new stage name – Frances Marion – and a dream to not just to act in the movies, but also write them.
Frances worked tirelessly towards her goal, while producers encouraged her to take her good looks far away from these lowly writing jobs. She took a gamble on a two-week, no-pay trial to write a revision. The film would earn the studio a considerable profit and secure Frances’ $200 per week salary (exorbitant for the time) – making her the highest-paid screenwriter in the business.
Frances went on to write over 300 scripts, with 130 produced to her name. She won an Oscar and was the first person to win two Academy Awards. She famously hosted women-only Friday night gatherings called ‘cat parties,’ where the women in Hollywood could network and support one another. The evenings were boisterous, joyful affairs where actresses, directors and screenwriters came together to take care of each other – personally and professionally.
Camille Claudel was a French sculptor who died in relative obscurity, despite her work’s profound effect on the medium. She is most easily remembered for her affair with Rodin – but we’re here to talk about the woman and the artist, not the mistress or the muse.
Camille was a pioneer in a male-dominated sculpting world – breaking gender expectations, shaping a new modern style, and continuing to create art in the face of adversity. Her infamous affair with Rodin ended shortly after she became pregnant and had an abortion. Camille pushed through the emotional time – and into one of the most prolific, acclaimed periods of her career.
While Camille’s battles with mental health were real, the 1838 French ‘lunacy law’ allowed her estranged family to send her to a psychiatric ward with nothing more than a medical note. The only evidence for Camille’s insanity read: ‘that she wears wretched clothes; that she sold all her furniture; that for the past several months she has not gone out during the day, but sometimes comes out in the middle of the night.’ Camille was shocked to be torn away from her work by the hands of her own family, and spent the rest of her life confined to psychiatric care.
Camille’s work is experiencing a modern renaissance (she has her own museum and a namesake Broadway show in the works). This influx of interest is rooted in the quality and originality of her work, but also modern empathy for a woman and artist who was ahead of her time. Camille broke molds, was denied recognition, suffered painfully from misunderstanding, and lived passionately, even if to her own demise.
Lee Miller was a Vogue model before moving behind the camera, becoming a famed World War II photographer and correspondent. Her legacy is one of fierce independence, constant reinvention, and refusal to play by the rules. Shortening Elizabeth to the more adrognynous version ‘Lee,’ she ran a successful 1930s photography studio with clients who thought she was a man until they arrived to be photographed.
When the war began, Lee was pursuing a career at British Vogue and could have easily stayed the course, but she wanted to do something about the global strife and suffering. ‘Nobody was going to give her a gun or an airplane, or something useful like that,’ her son writes, ‘so she used her camera.’ She was the only female war photographer in Europe, capturing the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the grim realities of concentration camps. Her photographs were published in Vogue.
Lee, herself, is famously photographed in Hitler’s bathtub, after the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. She has rubbed her muddy boots on the plush, white bath mat and looks skeptically at the camera with a sensuality that could only stem from strength and femininity in enemy territory.
Molly Virostek is the BodyTalk Editor at CUUP.