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Rewriting Art History: A Feminist Affair

From New York to Paris and from the MET to the Louvre, feminists are taking on museums and rewriting art history.

September 2020: FEMEN activists arrive at the Musée d'Orsay to protest a young woman's having been denied access to the museum the week before. The reason? A low neckline judged "inappropriate." The demonstration, which sought to denounce the sexualization of women's bodies, can also be understood within a parallel feminist initiative: that of reappropriating the museum space and art history itself by constructing new narratives and foregrounding works neglected in the traditional canon.

One of the most emblematic examples of this are Women's Museums, which seek to promote culture, art, and education from a gender-studies perspective and via the creation of exclusively feminine museum spaces, whether they be physical or virtual. Today there are 96 of them across the globe, 21 of them digital. For Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2003 and official godmother of the International Association of Women's Museums (IAWM): "there has to be a women's museum in every country of this world." A standpoint that speaks to a clear reality: that women remain largely under-represented in the museum space, as much in terms of the works displayed as in the narratives about them.

Initiatives like these bring back echoes of the Guerrilla Girls, who 40 years ago denounced the same conditions in American museums with their special form of brash humor. One of their most iconic prints interrogates: "Do women have to be naked to get into the MET Museum?" Since then, other feminist groups have tackled the museum problem. In France, the Feminists of Paris association has presented the idea of allowing audiences to rediscover the Louvre's celebrated works by centering their descriptions upon the roles of woman artists that the art history canon has relegated to the shadows, with a lovely way of bringing them back into the light.

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