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From the Archive: The Failures of Women in Art

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Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 20th September, 2022 24 min read

From the Archive: The Failures of Women in Art

“[Women] have been let loose upon arid fields for education” 

The Sketch, first published in 1893, was a popular sister title of the The Illustrated London News. This publication was created by Clement Shorter and William Ingram (former editor and managing director, respectively, of the ILN). Content centred primarily on British High Society and attracted a wealthy audience. This conservative magazine is valuable to researchers studying the shifting paradigm of Victorian womanhood. One specific column that stood out to our editorial team was a series of nine articles from 1898 assessing "The Failures of Women in Art". As the title implies, this column highlights and examines the perceived artistic deficiencies in women. The writer, known only as V.B., argues that “a certain looseness of thinking, a wild grammatical deficiency, and undisciplined emotionalism are among the gravest marks of their failure”.[1] The very fact that such a popular magazine published this deeply prejudiced and vitriolic column allows us to gain insight into the heated debates on the role of women within Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.

The first wave of feminism began in the United Kingdom in the mid nineteenth century, emerging from urban industrialisation, as well as liberal and socialist politics. This inspired a fierce debate surrounding the limiting role of wife and mother that women took in society. Starting in the late nineteenth century, more and more women remained unmarried until later in their lives, gained an education, organised for women’s suffrage, and worked outside the home.[2] Financial independence was the cornerstone of this shift; with education and employment prospects for women slowly improving, marriage followed by motherhood was no longer seen as the inevitable route to gaining financial security.[3]  As such, many more women looked to enter professions. By 1900, these ideas had coalesced into the concept of the independent "New Woman", and swept away the Victorian cult of domesticity and the doctrine of spheres.[4] Unsurprisingly, many men (and women) saw this as an unwelcome challenge to the "natural" order and protested these ideas. The column "The Failures of Women in Art" can be read in the context of the time it was written, as a reactionary series, designed to belittle the achievements of women and reinstate the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres, with women staying in the home and "being content to darn the stockings, and cook the dinners of the men…in that role she has been quite a success".[5]

Frances Benjamin Johnston's Self-Portrait (as "New Woman"), 1896.

Frances Benjamin Johnston's Self-Portrait (as "New Woman"), 1896.

This column assess the perceived failures of women in many different aspects of the arts: literature, music, medicine, science, politics, fashions, cookery, painting, and sculpture. The author asserts that “it is often made a matter of keen complaint, when a general indictment is made against the work accomplished by a woman, that man refuses to regard her simply as a contributor to the art-stores of the world, but insists upon looking at the matter from the point of view of sex”.[6] Despite this promising opening analysis of the way contemporary society viewed women’s role in the arts, the author's motives soon become clear. Although “they [women] have been let loose upon arid fields for education” they are, in fact, naturally deficient. Looking back “calmly and judiciously... I do not think that you will find one name of one woman who by… creative genius has attained any summit of greatness”.[7] In order to argue his point, the author writes a series of nine columns throughout 1898, ensuring that the readers know in no uncertain terms that women are inferior in matters of the arts. This article will examine the author's first three columns, an examination of failures of women in literature, music, and science.

 “The bulk of their work has been but a flying meteor passing across the light of the sun”

The author of "The Failures of Women in Art", begins with the topic of literature, where he argues that “[t]he bulk of their [women’s] work has been but a flying meteor passing across the light of the sun”.[8] Despite being a very discouraging and difficult landscape for women in literature, the nineteenth century produced some of the most beloved and celebrated female authors. Struggling against prejudice, gender stereotypes, and often outright misogyny, these trailblazers succeeded in difficult circumstances. In discussing women's contribution to literature in the nineteenth century it would be remiss not to discuss the fundamental differences in access to education available to female authors, in comparison to their male counterparts. Despite the author of this article’s dismissive claims that “they [women] have been let loose upon arid fields for education”[9], it is clear that this is not the case, and that women had not had access to the same level of education. Historically, women’s education in Britain was designed to teach middle class and upper class girls enough to make them attractive marriage material for men, and lessons were often taught in the home.[10] In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her inspiring feminist A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education.[11] Despite this, over a century later, The Sketch is publishing a series of articles designed to confirm that women are indeed inferior and education cannot overcome natural deficiencies.

The Sketch, 30th March 1898, p. 424.

The Sketch, 30th March 1898, p. 424.

In reality, women were not only not encouraged to write: they were actively discouraged. Throughout the nineteenth century writing was seen as an unsuitable profession for women. Unseemly parallels with prostitution arose regarding the notion of women writing novels which were then sold to anyone willing to pay.[12]  In order to be published and still accepted by a strict conservative society, women were advised to hide their name, and sometimes gender identity. Jane Austen, an incredibly successful and beloved author, published her books with a note that it was written by "A Lady". Sadly, during her lifetime, none of her books were published under her own name. This was not an anomaly: a whole host of excellent female authors including Mary Shelly, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, and Frances Burney all published their works anonymously. Furthermore, a number of female authors went further than this and actually published their works under a male pseudonym. Mary Ann Evans published under George Eliot in order to be taken more seriously and protect herself from scandal.[13] Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë published under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. In a foreword to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte wrote that they did this as they were concerned that their “mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice”.[14] It could be argued that publishing under a male pseudonym perpetuated the cycle that meant women were not taken seriously. Virginia Woolf regretfully considered that Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man. Thus they paid homage to the convention, which if not implanted by the other sex was liberally encouraged by them that publicity in women was detestable.[15] Despite the evident prejudice and moral judgments against female authors, the 1800s saw some of the most celebrated works of literature produced by women, and by 1898 when the author wrote "The Failures of Women in Art" many female authors' identities had been exposed. 

Cartoon from ‘Punch’, 2 June 1894, p. 255.

Cartoon from ‘Punch’, 2 June 1894, p. 255.

The author of this piece argues that women are unable to match the success of male authors due to a deficiency inherent in their gender. The author describes that “a certain looseness of thinking, a wild grammatical deficiency, and undisciplined emotionalism are among the gravest marks of their failure”.[16] This sweeping statement tarnishes all female authors in one dismissive pen stroke. However, the author relents, in some sectors of literature women’s writings are relevant: “of course it would be utterly idle to deny that some [women] have reached most honourable eminence…the delicate observation of the small, dry lives of everyday men and women place Jane Austen in a niche which is unapproached by any other writer”.[17] The adjectives “small”, “dry”, and “delicate” do much to expose the author's view that these pieces of literature do not reach the heights of male achievement, and readers are left with the impression that these “niches” were previously “unapproached” due to disinterest. Furthermore, the author cannot resist a further dig when he states “Jane Austen could be and was dull”.[18] This piece is capped off when, in an infuriatingly conciliatory manner, the author thoughtfully reveals his damning assessment that “when every acknowledgement has been made of the shining work which a very few women have accomplished in poetry, fiction, and essay and compare the great literature produced by men of the world to it, I rather fancy that it shivers away like a morning mist before the sun.”[19] This simile is particularly telling as it implies that, like a morning mist, the work fades into nothingness. Rather than a compliment to the very few women the author deems worth reading, this sentence has the effect of advising the reader not to feel any need to pursue these insubstantial works. 

“She has never composed music of the world”

The second column in this series sets out women’s contribution to music, in particular composition. The author starts by stating that “it is the very polite fashion, when the whole of womenkind is arraigned as failing in this or that branch of labour, to make the retort to oneself that, after all, men have never given them the right chance…whatever may be said of other arts, in regard to music it is conspicuously untrue”.[20] Here the author acknowledges that women’s previous lack of opportunity is a common debate in polite society, and that one is expected to agree that the opportunities have not been available. However, he disagrees that there has been such a lack of opportunity in regards to music. He goes on to argue that “[t]his is not to say that women received any particularly elaborate training in music, but that they received so much that if any woman had had within her the divine spark of creative genius, her training would have sufficed as a substantial base from which to spring to higher things”.[21] Musical training had indeed been a part of middle and upper class women’s education for the previous few centuries, as it was widely believed that in order to make a good match on the marriage market, a young lady should be proficient in playing an instrument, usually the pianoforte or harp. However, the argument that due to this proficiency in playing instruments, if a "spark of creative genius" was present it would have "sprung" women onto higher things, is deeply flawed. Social norms of the time forced ambitious and talented female composers, such as Louise Farrenc, into the shadows. Women were supposed to be wives and mothers, not composers.[22]

The Sketch, 6th April 1898, p. 468.

The Sketch, 6th April 1898, p. 468.

The author decides to prove his point by comparing “[t]wo children, born to the same parents and with a like passion for and devotion to music”, and showing that all “the power of creativeness, together with the power of interpretation drifted into the brain of the boy”.[23] This gives the impression that upon leaving childhood any talent the girl possessed is transposed into the boy, as he surpasses her abilities. The case studies he uses are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his sister Maria Anna Mozart, which he describes as a “curious case in point…from their earliest age both showed a peculiar and brilliant aptitude for music…[t]he boy went forwards conquering and to conquer new worlds; the girl, once the wonder of her precocity had faded out, lapsed into the ranks of the commonplace”.[24] The implication here is that Mozart’s sister experienced exceptionally early or premature development, however, the natural order soon reimposed itself. She could not have reached the same levels of acclaim as her brother, as ultimately her talents were "commonplace". Maria Anna Mozart was a child prodigy, and toured alongside her younger brother, up until she reached the age of eighteen. A little girl could perform and tour, but a woman doing so risked her reputation.[25] Whilst Wolfgang and her father continued to tour the courts of Europe and Wolfgang went on to many artistic triumphs during the 1770s, as a woman, Maria was not given the opportunity to develop her talents. Instead she was expected to, and did, marry and have children. Maria was a composer, and there is evidence that she wrote music and sent at least one composition to Wolfgang and her father: Wolfgang praised it as “beautiful” and encouraged her to write more.[26] Maria's talents did not "lapse into the ranks of the commonplace", as the author suggests. Instead, as Sylvia Milo explores in the play "The other Mozart", Maria was not given the opportunity to thrive, and what she did create was not valued or preserved.[27]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) and his older sister Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) (1751–1829)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) and his older sister Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) (1751–1829)

The author, as always, adopts the stance of aloof rationality: “[y]et, upon looking back calmly and judiciously along the whole of modern music, I do not think that you will find one name of one woman who by musical creative genius has attained any summit of greatness”.[28] The author is at great pains to imply that this is not an emotive prejudice on his behalf: he is "calm" and "judicious". However, the tone of the debate on women in music had changed in the 1890s, as many of those claiming that there would never be "great" women composers became more aggressive and defensive, doubtless as a reaction to the increasingly high-profile successes of various women composers as well as the increased publicity around the demands of the "New Woman".[29] As the author himself argued, “in the vast history of music there has never yet been an instance of a woman standing great and solitary communing with great musical thoughts and pouring forth immortal melody and harmony in the manner of a Bach or a Beethoven…as a creator of great music, woman remains bound, restrained, cribbed, cabin'd, and confined. She has never composed the music of the world.”[30] The language used in this article, “bound, restrained, cribbed, cabin’d and confined", would more accurately describe women’s position in society rather than, as the author insinuates, women’s talent. Maria Mozart was restrained by social conventions of the time rather than any lack of ability. This viewpoint can be seen across the board in conservative publications. "Music News" also took a negative view of women’s musical abilities, stating that “it is impossible to find a single woman's name worthy to take rank with Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Brahms, Wagner, Schubert; we cannot even find one to place beside Balfe or Sir Arthur Sullivan. If we seek for what may be called the feminine element in music, we have to look for it among the works of men, for the simple reason that women have produced nothing that can be given serious consideration”.[31] It does not seem plausible to the author that a woman's name cannot be supplied due to societal gender inequality rather than a lack of talent. The author does agree that some women have reached crediblity in composition. For example, he admits that the Electress-Dowager of Saxony may have possessed talent, but he believed that “if she could have ever claimed to be the shadow of an exception, it was here clearly and emphatically one which proved the rule”.[32]

“The kitchen doors have been unlocked and the laboratory doors have been thrown wide open”

The third column in this series discusses the author's views on women in science and medicine. He explains, with a strong note of sarcasm, that “[s]cience ought to go booming along now. The kitchen doors have been unlocked and the laboratory doors have been thrown wide open”. The author continues to assess women’s contribution to this field, asking “[h]ow has she done since she came into the laboratory?”[33]

The Sketch, 20th April 1898, p. 562.

The Sketch, 20th April 1898, p. 562.

The author considers that “for thousands of years she has been content to darn the stockings, and cook the dinners of the men…in that role she has been quite a success…indirectly she has helped science”.[34] This statement highlights the author's nostalgia for women staying in the role they are “successful” in, in the domestic sphere, and not upsetting the status quo. The author evidently feels that women’s contributions to science are not necessary: “our knowledge of the earth, its position in the universe, the contour of its surface, its living and dead…the application of force…have never been indebted to her for one hand's turn.”[35] It is clear that the author believes that women have historically brought nothing to fields of medicine or science. A disputation of this statement should be superfluous, however, I will add that although women had not had the opportunity at that time to claim credit publicly for scientific discoveries on the same level as male scientists, there were an impressive amount of women who had contributed to scientific knowledge.[36]

However, the author of this column argues that “it is over twenty years since Dr Sophia Jex-Blake battered down the doors of Edinburgh University and led her cohort in…woman ought by now to be justifying the space she has occupied and the time and the money”.[37] Sophia Jex-Blake engaged in a campaign, and in turn a bitter legal struggle, which successfully fought for the right of women to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Sophia was one of the first female doctors in the United Kingdom, a leading campaigner for medical education for women, and she was later involved in founding two medical schools for women.[38] If these achievements were not enough for the author of this column he would not have long to wait: in the very year that this article was published Marie Curie, along with her husband, announced the discovery of radium. Marie went on to be the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1903, and then in 1911 she became the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice.

The Sketch, 2nd June 1897, p. 206.

The Sketch, 2nd June 1897, p. 206.

The author's final conclusion is that “to tell the truth, she [woman] has never been anything much better than superior bottle-washer”, “[n]o woman…has made a contribution of even passing value to medicine”, and that “[t]here is no prospect of woman coming to man’s aid as a leader in any branch of science.”[39] As if the author realised that some of his readership may think this a little harsh he kindly adds that “some of them may make useful laboratory assistants”.[40] Even the authors more conciliatory final sentence highlights his contempt for most women engaging in science: “[a]ll men are not men, and all women are not women. There are hybrids between the sexes, and it is they who make all the clamour, and it is only fair that they should have means of livelihood open to both sexes thrown open to them”.[41] The author's idea that some “hybrid” women “clamouring” was the cause of more women entering professions, rather than a permanent shift in societal attitudes, may account for why the author believes that “very few women reach a standard of mediocrity”.[42] Of course, the author was proved categorically incorrect, and the twentieth century saw an explosion in female scientists, discoveries, and medical professionals. This was, in part, thanks to women "battering" down the closed doors of laboratories in the previous century. The author is as his most scathing writing about women in science and is, at times, outright hostile. This column highlights the enmity faced by women pursuing careers in science and medicine at the turn of the twentieth century.

 “Very few women reached a standard of mediocrity”

The opinions in this column, published so proudly and prominently, are shocking to a modern audience.  The emergence of the "New Woman", the female suffrage movement, and changing attitudes to gender roles in the latter half of the 1800s inspired a vicious conservative backlash. This author was one of many who published articles to defend the old patriarchal social order. These authors spew offensive tropes that have stretched across the intervening century and a half, and are still used to belittle women today. It is important to remember that, contrary to what the author states, the “kitchen doors” were not “unlocked” all those years ago: instead successive generations of women have had to fight to “batter” down the closed doors of the patriarchy, and are still actively doing so today.

The Sketch is an insightful and thoroughly enthralling publication that is an important window into the views of society. To explore this periodical further go to…


[1] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 30th March 1898, 424.

[2] Amy Rudersdorf, "The New Woman", 2016, Digital Public Library of America, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[3] Greg Buzwell, 2014. "Daughters of decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle", British Library, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[4] Ruth Birgitta Anderson Bordin, Alice Freeman Palmer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 2.

[5] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 20th April 1898, 562.

[6] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 30th March 1898, 424.

[7] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[8] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 30th March 1898, 424.

[9] Ibid.

[10] "Women’s Education – Newnham College", 2022, Newnham College University of Cambridge, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[11] Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Harlow: Penguin, 2004).

[12] "Women Writers, Anonymity And Pseudonyms", 2020, British Library, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[13] "What's In A Name?", 2022, Exploring Eliot, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[14] Currer Bell, Acton Bell and Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1850), ix.

[15] Woolf, Virginia, A Room Of One's Own (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 38.

[16] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 30th March 1898, 424.

[17] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[18] Ibid.

[19] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 30th March 1898, 424.

[20] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[21] Ibid.

[22] "Discover These 19th-Century Women Trailblazing Composers", 2022. Colorado Public Radio, accessed October 13 2022

[23] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sylvia Milo, "The Lost Genius Of Mozart's Sister", The Guardian, Sep 8 2015, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[26] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[27] Milo, "The Lost Genius Of Mozart's Sister".
[28] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[29] Sophie Fuller, "Women Composers During the British Musical Renaissance, 1880-1918", (PhD dissertation, King's College London, 1998), 117

[30] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[31] A. L. S., "Women and Music", Musical News, 21st July 1900, 64

[32] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 6th April 1898, 468.

[33] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 20th April 1898, 562.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ruth Watts, Women In Science, (London: Routledge, 2007).

[37] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 20th April 1898, 562.

[38] "Sophia Jex-Blake", The University Of Edinburgh, 2018, accessed Oct 13, 2022,

[39] "The Failures of Women in Art", The Sketch, 20th April 1898, 562.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives. Katherine studied History at Newcastle University, graduating in 2016. She has worked in the editorial and content teams at British Online Archives. As Head of Publishing she is currently working on curating a collection on the history of pandemic disease in the United Kingdom.

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