Women were expected to act a certain way but their roles where changing during the Middle Ages in Europe. In the past women were looked upon pretty much as a household item. They were supposed to stay home, take care of the children, clean up, cook and do other chores. Chadwick states, “Women’s social roles remained circumscribed by a Christian ethic that stressed obedience and chastity, by the demands of maternal and domestic responsibility” (Chadwick 44).
During the beginning of the 19th century women were enjoying rights that they didn’t have before. “They could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage, were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, and were barred from institutions of higher education”. However as society progressed the workplace of women began moving outside of the home. This gave women an opportunity to get involved in art; they also had a chance to communicate with other females.
Although women were getting more opportunities to be a part of society they still had certain restrictions. For example, they did not have the right to an education even if they wanted one. As stated in the Guerilla Girls, “Education was thought to interfere with a woman’s ability to be a good wife and mother. Almost no women were taught to read and write” (Guerilla Girls 22). As women slowly made their way into the world of art there were some men that supported them but there would also be other who still believed that they belonged in the house and nowhere else. As Chadwick states, "Women's virtues are chastity and motherhood: her domain is the private world of the family" (Chadwick 71).
During this time many women began taking part in needlepoint work. Women used quilting to tell a story and to aid with the abolition of slavery. There were two main types of quilts that were made: the biblical quilts or the pictorial quilts. Harriet Powers was one of the most influential artists in needlepointing. Many people liked her work in fact two well-known quilts are now still being displayed in museums. One of her pieces was entered in the Cotton States exposition by Jennie B. Smith, who was a white art teacher. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Powers
Another very well-known artist was Lilly Martin Spencer. She studied with James Beard, who was a successful painter, and she supported 13 children with her artwork. Spencer became a very popular painter of the 19th century. Her first real successful painting was called Life’s Happy Hour and it was selected by the Western Art Union of engraving. She was different than other artists because her work was all positive and they showed endearing scenes of domesticity.
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.