Minnesota artist Christine Baeumler has been working for the past two years on a multidisciplinary art and science project focused on environmental issues. A couple of weeks ago, a sculpture she created with collaborators Amanda Lovelee and Julie Benda, “Pollinator Skyrise,” was unveiled in St. Paul. The piece — an angular wood-and-steel tower with honeycomb motifs, designed to lure bees, butterflies, and other pollinators — is a small, visible part of a huge project for which Bauemler and researcher Colleen Satyshur raised a quarter of a million dollars to put together a research team. A few days later a short, positive piece appeared in the Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Minnesota. That day Baeumler started getting e-mails and calls about the story: had she seen this sculpture? Did she know the artist? They had no way of knowing that the work was hers — because in the paper her name was never mentioned, not even in the image credit.
It wasn’t the first time a woman was written out of her own story, and even that week it wasn’t the last. God help you if you’re a Black or trans woman in the arts, because erasure is intersectional. In recent weeks, national attention has been drawn to the remarkable neglect of Nigerian-American writer Nnendi Okorafor’s authorship in reporting on the forthcoming HBO series based on her novel Who Fears Death, an effacement especially visible in media outlets’ marketing of their own stories. The A.V. Club promoted their story about an “Afrocentric new sci-fi series from producer George R.R. Martin” with a photo of Martin; the Hollywood Reporter led with a headline that didn’t mention Okorafor, along with a photo of another white male writer attached to the project. Most egregiously, back in July, Vice promoted their story with a photo of George R.R. Martin paired with a photo of the jacket of Okorafor’s novel — with her name on the cover cropped out of the photo. Responses on Twitter (especially from women of color) were aghast at the one-two punch of erasure based on sex and race that still packs a wallop in American media.
Today women make up about half of all working artists, but their representation in media has not improved since the 1950s — in fact, it’s gotten a bit worse. There are more women out there doing work in the world than ever before, so why do they get so little recognition? Some people assume that the media ignores women’s work because it’s generally less interesting or lower quality than men’s work; that perception is certainly an issue, and one that’s been taken up by generations of activists like the Guerilla Girls and their younger sisters Pussy Galore. But Baeumler’s work wasn’t ignored in that article, but praised; it was the focus of a friendly piece of writing, highlighted by a photo. Her artwork was deemed worthy of our attention — it was just the authorship of a woman that was erased.
Women lose credit for their efforts and the recognition that comes with it even when their work is valued. It’s an aspect of the underrepresentation of women in arts writing that we don’t often think about, and one that should be reasonably straightforward to address. Back on the ground in the Twin Cities, telephone calls were being made. The whole thing was a little difficult, a little embarrassing — no one wants to be seen as the angry woman, squeezing sour grapes. But everyone involved was tired of being accommodating. No one has asked for much: an amendment to the digital edition of the story; maybe just a sentence. The reporter has refused to issue a correction or addendum, citing press freedoms. What I’m told is that his argument goes something like this: “an omission is not an error.”
Some writers and editors step up when they’re called out. Nnedi Okorafor has a vocal fan base that’s ready to go to bat for her. The AV Club figured out that they’d made a mistake that had real ramifications, and they rewrote their headline to foreground Okorafor and placed a correction notice at the top of their story: “We apologize for this error in judgment, and any implications of lack of authorship or ownership on Okorafor’s part.” Two days after Vice’s story came out, they too fixed their headline and replaced their cropped image with one that reinstated Okorafor’s name, saying that they regretted their mistake. Most artists, though, don’t have the kind of fan base that can command such apologies, and without some recognition they don’t have any hope of gaining the power that comes with one.
Baeumler is a tenured professor; she’s the rare artist with the protections necessary to speak up herself. But even for her, coming out as angry to the limited extent that she did — with a short rant in a Facebook post, visible only to friends and acquaintances — was a fraught decision. Stories like hers are emotionally laden because it’s not just an oversight or sloppy journalism, and women know that. They know in their bones why this happens, and why it matters. And then their gender knocks them down again, because what can you do? You don’t want to be seen as too whiny, too grabby. You have to talk yourself into graciousness. Isn’t it true that you do the work because you love it? What does it matter?
Even when you do allow yourself a bit of outrage, you know it probably won’t matter — it’s all risk, no reward. Genius-among-us Björk recently went on the record demanding credit for her work producing her albums, and even she had to laugh it off and couch it in apologies (“It always comes across as so defensive that, like, it’s pathetic … I hope it doesn’t come across as too defensive”) and noted that even when her male collaborators tried to correct the record in the media, no one listened. Groups regularly get together in Wikipedia “edit-a-thons” in an effort to add pages for well-known women artists, but sociologist Francesca Tripodi has found that women who meet the objective standards for inclusion there are twice as likely as men to be nominated for deletion; women of color are even more likely to be flagged, often by Wikipedians who self-identify as “deletionists” and carry out calculated, coordinated actions against pages produced at edit-a-thons — sometimes even flagging them for deletion and rejecting them as they are being written.
In Minnesota, emails and letters to the editor continue, receiving nothing in return but silence. It can be hard to admit that you’re wrong about something, even harder to admit you might be part of the problem — especially when you’re trying to do the right thing. But we are, all of us, wrong sometimes. Sexism and racism aren’t just made up of the things we do to one another on purpose; they’re embedded in the structures that surround us. As Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, “Racism and sexism work best of all when intent is not a prerequisite.”