I've been thinking a lot about women lately, which is normal since I live with three of them, but this past week especially.
1. In Sunday School last week we talked about women, which in church can get dicy in a hurry. Fortunately I'm in a church that affirms the role of women to speak and teach (which many may wonder, "Why is this a distinctive?" but it is).
2. I watched episode one of The Vicar of Dibley. The congregation and church council are surprised and some even resistant when they find out their new parish priest is a woman.
3. I gave a lecture in Design Basics on the topic of Inspiration. We did some small group discussions, watched a riveting TED Talk by the great Stefan Sagmeister and I then read from biographies of Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright, focusing on their childhood and what made them the men that they became. I imagined the students' minds turning somersaults with all of this inspiring content. I put the question to them, "What do these stories have in common?" I was anticipating answers like, "Each of them were shaped by their cultural context," or "Each had a parent that poured into and fed their creative pursuits." However, the first comment about these great art and design patriarchs, these movers and shakers of life as we know it... "They're all men!" stated by one of my more outspoken female students. Honestly it hadn't even occurred to me until she said it.
As a "man", if I can call myself that, I'm not sure I'm really aware of how male-dominated an industry or organization is until I'm forced to see it with fresh eyes. In Graphic Design History there are scarce references to the role and contribution of women before the 1980s. Interestingly, my design students now are predominantly female.
About a year ago I was in New York visiting the the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). I heard that Steven Heller, one of my design heroes, was going to be there for a lecture. I was over the moon. I managed to get a seat, which was for me on par with seeing the Beatles live. Heller gave a brief lecture on the mid-century designer Alvin Lustig and then brought Elaine Lustig Cohen, Alvin's widow, to the stage to answer some questions.
I had never heard of Alvin's wife. As Alvin's health and eyesight began to decline Elaine would complete design projects for him. He "art-directed" her for several years, even after becoming virtually blind. She joked that she never knew for sure if she was faithfully fulfilling his vision, and he had no way of really knowing either. She ended up taking over the business after his death. A woman running a design firm in that day and age was rare indeed. From the stage that night she projected one of the strongest personalities I've ever encountered. Heller, known as a dominant personality and voice in design, took a backseat as she told stories of those earlier days.
It was a night I'll never forget. We need heroes in design, in the church, in life, or whatever. I don't think those heroes always have to be the same gender, but I think women need to know they're not alone in their industry or profession. Elaine Lustig Cohen is one of those voices, one of those heroes for woman and men.
For more on Elaine Lustig Cohen http://www.aiga.org/medalist-elainelustigcohen/