VI. The Power and Fragility of Being Feminine

  • Emma Sugarbaker

Mildred Howard is an African American artist who was born in 1945 to Rolly and Mable Howard in San Francisco, California. She was raised in South Berkeley and has spent her entire life within the Bay Area. Her education, as well as her career and artistic practice, has always been centered around Northern California. She received an Associate of Arts Degree and Certificate in Fashion Arts from the College of Alameda in 1977 and an MFA in 1985 from the Fiberworks Center for the Textile Arts at John F. Kennedy University. She also has a wide portfolio of teaching experience, generously offering her expertise as a teacher of fine arts at Stanford University, Brown University, California College of the Arts, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Howard has even managed an art and communities program at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. For the last 25 years she has been represented by the prestigious Gallery Paule Anglim (now Anglim Gilbert Gallery).1

Howard was raised during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a decades-long struggle with the goal of having the government enforce the same constitutional and legal rights for African-Americans that white Americans already benefited from. She has always been exceptionally active regarding politics. The lives of her mother and father were immersed in the struggle to improve labor unions, civil rights, equality, and other community-based issues. Howard herself was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated as an adolescent in protests against segregation in Berkeley schools.

Mildred Howard. Thirty-Eight Double Dee, 1995.
Figure 16
Mildred Howard. Thirty-Eight Double Dee, 1995. Mills College Art Museum

A majority of Howard’s work is made in response to political and societal issues such as gentrification, consciousness, and equality. Howard’s piece within the exhibition State of Convergence is a color silkscreen titled Thirty-Eight Double Dee created in 1995. (Figure 16) It is part of a print collection commissioned by the Berkeley Art Center titled “10x10: Ten Women, Ten Prints” which was an exhibition and print portfolio created to celebrate Women\’s History Month and 75 years of women\’s suffrage. These ten prints by ten women artists explore not only the pain, but also the richness of the female experience.2 Howard has stated that her practice is intended as an initial push to urge viewers to research the context as well as the content of pressing political and community issues. When asked about her art in an interview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Howard stated:

The concentration that I’ve been focusing on is on memory, on history, on place, on class. It’s about the everyday. Everyday objects, everyday people, and I always say just because you don’t see something, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But hopefully there’s something in my work that will trigger [a] person to see the world in a whole different way, and as a result of that, it may help the viewer to search a little bit more about the meaning of things and not just accept things the way they are.3

Thirty Eight Double Dee explores the power and fragility held within a feminine presenting body while also touching on the history of hyper-sexualization of Black women. Within Howard’s piece she illustrates the importance of feminism and how the movement has historically not included issues surrounding race or sexuality.

Intersectionality is a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 when she discussed issues of Black women’s employment in the U.S.4 The concept of intersectionality is intended to illuminate dynamics that have often been overlooked by feminist theory as well as other movements. Intersectionality is a methodology of studying the “relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations.”5 The theory suggests and sets out to examine how various biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, as well as other aspects of identity, interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that classical conceptualizations of oppression within society such as racism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, or religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of each other. Instead these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the ‘intersection’ of multiple forms of oppression and discrimination. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are woven together and are influenced by the intersectional systems of society.

As articulated by author bell hooks, the emergence of intersectionality “challenged the notion that ‘gender’ was the primary factor determining a woman’s fate.”6 The historical exclusion of Black women from the feminist movement in the United States resulted in many Black 19th and 20th century feminists striving to act differently than the mainstream feminist movement. Racial inequality was a factor that was largely ignored by first-wave feminism, which had the primary concern of gaining political equality between men and women and was solely based on gender. Early women’s rights movements often exclusively pertained to the membership, concerns, and struggles of white women while ignoring issues face by marginalized people. However, third-wave feminism—which emerged shortly after the term “intersectionality” was coined—noted the lack of attention to race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity in early feminist movements, and tried to provide a channel to address political and social disparities.

Howard uses her voice within the 10x10 portfolio to address these ideas through a metaphorical screenprint. The gauzy white bra, is dainty, and feminine with soft floral embroidery. This lies in extreme juxtaposition to the big, boxy, protective egg carton, which on the outside appears to be strong but is filled with delicate eggs. The duo is meant to make the viewer think about fragility and how subjective that term is. How femininity and fragility (under typical patriarchal systems) are often associated with one another.

The piece also evokes a sense of violence of the eggs potentially cracking—the violence that femininity can often bring and the power, beauty, sensitivity, tenderness, and danger that comes with walking through the world as a feminine presenting human. Institutionally, Black women have not held much power. However, their power is found within the community and the strength needed to remain resilient under white-patriarchal oppression.

The subject matter of Thirty Eight Double Dee (feminine lingerie, and a metaphorical representation of the female reproductive system) shapes a sexualized connotation of her piece. Howard’s typical works touch on themes of gentrification, but this specific piece alludes to the gendered colonization of the Black body. Black women’s bodies have always been a focal point of conversation among white men who have no right to discuss them. Through a historical lens, commodification of the Black body allowed for Black female bodies especially to be objectified.

Continuing beyond the era of American slavery, white men saw that is was socially acceptable to sexually assault Black women without consequences. White women’s bodies were considered superior, physically, to Black women’s bodies, and that perception hasn’t considerably shifted today. The hyper-sexualization of Black women and girls is a pervasive feature of our daily visual landscape.

There is no doubt that women all across the globe have been demeaned and belittled as sexual beings through objectification and sexualization, especially in the media. This is a sad reality that occurs across all cultures of people. With the emphasis of this piece being on the hyper-sexualization of Black women in particular, this is no way contributing to the erasure of experiences shared by many if not all women of all races regarding the oppression they face.

Hyper-sexualized depictions of women of color, particularly Black women, have functioned since the early 1400s and have manifested themselves through our political and cultural landscape for centuries. The myth that Black women were vessels for sexual desire was used to justify enslavement, rape, forced reproduction, and other forms of sexual coercion in the early onset of Western colonization. The function of this process was crafted to further dehumanize women of color, making it “culturally acceptable” for European imperialist to abuse Black women and other women of color such as American Indian women.

Even a state as open-minded and liberal as California has not been completely immune to these extreme issues of racial and gendered inequality. In the beginning of the 1900s women did not have the right to vote in California. That all changed in 1911, when the Women’s Suffrage Movement finally persuaded the U.S. Government to allow women the right to vote. It set a precedent that proved that protests could be successful. Ever since then, the Bay Area has been the epicenter of protest movements like no other region in the United States. A number of national and transnational, progressive social movements have had prominent and influential expression in the San Francisco Bay Area. The legacy of these movements have shaped the geography, culture, ecology, and art of Northern California as it is known today.

This deep history of activism in the Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular, has been critical in Howard’s development as a person and artist. She has not only been politically active, she has been an integral part of the Berkeley community—helping local schools build community gardens, and teaching art at local juvenile halls. Location has influenced her to create art that critiques the world around her.

  1. “Mildred Howard: Anglim Gilbert Gallery,” Anglim Gilbert Gallery. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  2. “10x10: Ten Women, Ten Prints, a Portfolio of Silkscreen Prints,” Berkeley Art Center, Berkeley, California, March 1995.
  3. “Mildred Howard’s houses hold memories,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, YouTube, May 16, 2019.
  4. It is crucial to note that while intersectionality became popularized in 1989 by the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the history of this idea can be traced back historically to U.S. Black feminism, indigenous feminism, third world feminism, and queer and postcolonial theory. See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” 1977, reprinted in The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge), 63–70; bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, (Boston: South End Press, 1984).
  5. Leslie McCall, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30, no. 3 (Spring 2005): 1771-1800.
  6. hooks, Feminist Theory.