Nonie Gadsden

With head bowed, face taut, and fist clenched around a rock, this muscular nude figure of a woman practically vibrates with intensity, strength, anguish, and frustration. The sculptor, Katharine Lane (later Katharine Lane Weems), modeled it in 1926; she was 27 years old. She originally titled the piece Striding Amazon, after the legendary female warriors of Greek mythology. According to the artist, the figure “dramatized the vexation women of her day felt toward the unfair tradition permitting only men to win honors for athletic daring and display.” This was a bold and highly political statement at the time, just six years after the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and when women athletes were fighting to be allowed to compete in track and field events in the Olympics.

Archival black and white photo of artist Katharine Lane Weems working on a sculpture
George H. Davis Studio, Katharine Lane Weems at work in her studio, about 1930. Katharine Lane Weems papers, 1865–1989. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

To me, Striding Amazon embodies the struggle that Weems and so many other women artists have encountered over the past century and still face today. Systemic gender discrimination in galleries, the academy, the marketplace, and museums like the MFA has resulted in women’s drastic underrepresentation and underappreciation in the art world. That’s why I chose Striding Amazon as the first work of art visitors see upon entering the exhibition “Women Take the Floor,” which highlights the work of more than 200 women artists primarily from the MFA’s collection.

Weems was born into a socially prominent and affluent Boston family—her father, Gardiner Martin Lane, was president of the MFA for seven years of her childhood—but her privilege did not erase the obstacles all women artists face in being taken seriously and gaining recognition. It did, however, allow her to defy the wishes of her friends and family and eschew marriage until her late 40s, as she felt it might compromise her professional development. Ultimately, Lane worked hard and built a successful, decades-long career, earning critical praise and national distinction for her keenly lifelike sculptures of animals. Locally, one can see her work not only at the MFA but also on the Esplanade, outside the New England Aquarium, at the Museum of Science, and at Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Striding Amazon is an anomaly in Weems’s oeuvre; it’s one of her few human figures and perhaps her only political artistic statement. In fact, the sculpture was not cast in bronze until 1981, 55 years after it was originally modeled. At that time, 82-year-old Weems reworked the piece—specifically, she changed the rock in the woman’s hand to a lump of clay—and retitled it Revolt, perhaps in solidarity with other women actively involved in the feminist movement of the time. Weems’s persistence, determination, generosity, and humor are evident in her memoir, published in 1985 and cheekily titled Odds Were Against Me—yet another occasion when she used her voice to take control of her legacy.

Weems used her inherited wealth to support other artists, offering significant financial support to both her alma mater, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and the MFA itself. My title at the Museum is Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture; I’m honored to have my name associated with a pioneer and longtime advocate for women’s equity in the arts. I take this honor as a challenge to raise awareness of gender discrimination in the art world, both past and present. And today, as we acknowledge the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, which failed to extend the vote to women of color and other marginalized groups, I find it important as ever to also speak up about how such prejudices continue to disproportionally affect women from backgrounds unlike Weems’s—women with low incomes, women who identify as LGBTQ+, and women of color.

“Women Take the Floor,” with Weems’s powerful female figure at the fore, is a start. But there’s much more work to do.

Author

Nonie Gadsden is Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture.