Ketanji Brown Jackson’s recent appointment to the United States Supreme Court is a step up for all those who have been under-represented for so long — for people of color, but also for women. I can’t help recalling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s comment in response to being asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court. She said, “When there are nine,” meaning when all the justices are women. Some people find this idea shocking, even though for years there were nine men on the Supreme Court.

It’s been a struggle for women to be treated equally. I come from a family with some remarkable women. My grandmother on my father’s side was a doctor in Brooklyn in the late 1800s and early 20th century. My mother was also a woman who broke the mold, if in less spectacular ways. I can remember the fuss from our extended family and neighbors when my mother began wearing pants. Later, when she went to work, this was also frowned on. My father struggled with it as, at that time, a wife working was seen as a sign that the husband could not provide adequately for his family.

It has been no different for women in the arts. I think of Virginia Woolf’s quote, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” When I went to college, the syllabus in the English department was heavy with dead white men. That is slowly changing, but a lot of subtle, often unconscious bias still exists.

Poet Michele Sharpe’s enjoyment of the painting “Portrait of a Working Girl” by Annie Ayrton quickly changed to rage when she read the plaque beside it that downplayed the artist’s skill and originality while praising the work of the male artist, Degas. She noted that this “minimized and diminished both the artist and the model — quite a feat for one small plaque!” Because of her interest in Ayrton, Michele did further research only to find that most of the painter’s work had been lost.

In an interesting turn of events, James Fairhead, a British academic who was working on a paper about Ayrton, contacted Sharpe in 2020 after coming across her poem in an internet archive. Michele notes that in his research Fairhead found that Ayrton “was ‘a hugely celebrated impressionist artist in Paris with no-end of coverage,’ and that she ‘exhibited in the Salons for fifty years, and in exhibitions with impressionist, Symbolists and a motley crew of creatives.  She founded the women’s salon where she and women globally could experiment more freely, and she even ran an arts school in Paris.’ And then, her work all but vanished.”

Michele Sharpe currently lives in North Florida, but has strong connections to Maine. In the past, she owned a camp on Eustis Ridge for 10 years, a place that was loved by family and friends. She also was involved with and taught at Unity College from 2011 to 2015. As a poet and essayist, she’s published in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Guernica, Poet Lore, North American Review, and other noted journals. A memoir, Walk Away, and a poetry collection, Back East, are both published under her previous name, Michele Leavitt.

Annie Ayrton, Portrait of a Working Girl.

 

 

 

 

Portrait of a Working Girl by Annie Ayrton
— Portland Museum of Art, March 3, 2012

Her signature slashes the lower margin — Annie

underlined and Ayrton overwrought, illegible. Imagine

her artist’s thoughts as you will, and no one can

contradict you, for she is a wiki-less artist, nothing

certain but her year of death. Or imagine

 

the model, paid to be the still subject.

Irises smudged to opaqueness, she gazes inward.

She neither smiles nor pouts, neither the object

of desire nor nostalgia that standard women’s work

might make her. Imagine moments

 

free from men and all our work to keep them.

The exhibit masters feel obliged to tell us

What is clear from this powerful portrait

is the influence of Degas. His series of paintings and pastels

of washerwomen depicted with strength and dignity

is the obvious inspiration for this portrait.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.