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  • Carole Conn

Anonymous Was A Woman

"Anonymous Was A Woman" is the title of a wonderful little book written by Mirra Bank, published in 1979, after she produced a film of the same name for public television. (It can still be found, used, on Amazon). It describes the incredible body of works of art produced by American women in the 18th and 19th centuries. Almost all have no attribution. I began to wonder about that - why didn't she sign her name??

Being proficient at needlework was deemed a critical skill for any girl. Girls as young as 5 were taught to stitch samplers with alphabets and letters. As they grew older their needlework became more intricate, with verses, scenes, florals and memorials.

Schools emphasized domestic skills over academic learning for girls. Good needlework, the ability to make their adult homes comfortable and pretty for their families, industriousness and hard work to keep the homestead running were the goals of most female education of the time.

Girls were taught painting, but not freeform painting. They were given stencils and they created "theorem" paintings. The schools of the time believed that copying was the most efficient way to teach. Girls were allowed to express themselves with color, but not with their own designs.

When her education was over, the girl was expected to marry. Nearly all of her education prior to marriage was to prepare her for being a good domestic: wife, mother, worker. Putting her signature on anything she created would have been considered impolite. Calling attention to oneself was just not done.

And this is why so much of the astoundingly beautiful and sensitive works of art from the 18th and early 19th centuries in America are anonymous. Stitching verses led to poetry writing. Theorem painting led to creative painting and stitchery. Needle skills and thrift led to the creation of quilts. These girls were largely self- taught and their works are examples of true American folk art.

While samplers were often signed with a girl's initials and sometimes her name as a way of identifying the work as hers at school, quilts were almost never signed. They were usually made from scraps of cloth used for making clothing or curtains, and their designs are often very inventive. I love this quote from the book:

"My whole life is in that quilt. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me." Margaret Ickis, quoting her great grandmother.

So when you look at a sampler, quilt, embroidery, or a painting with a female or domestic theme, think about the life and character of that anonymous American woman, her life, her dreams, and her expressions of love. And appreciate her artistry.


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