There is an intimate connection between ceramicists and their clay, a physical contact that manifests into brilliant pieces. Unfortunately, it is this physical connection that has historically and presently assembled various roadblocks for women pursuing their passion ceramics. The arts should be a place of welcome, equality, and equity, but the world of ceramics still has ways to go. Over hundreds and thousands of years, women have made significant strides to achieving equality within the field of ceramics. It is now up to the public to continue their work.

Before 6,000 BCE, women were the primary ceramicists. They were expected to harvest the clay, form, fire, and decorate their pottery. Ceramics were mostly utilized to make utilitarian tools for eating and storing food. According to Jayne Shatz (PhD-Prehistoric Ceramics, MA-Pottery and Sculpture, and BA-Art History), this female gender role was most seen in North and South Native American and the Neolithic Middle Eastern cultures. In 2019, John Kantner, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered a method to analyze who made ancient pottery through fingerprints left on the ceramic pieces. Kantner primarily worked from broken pieces discovered at Chaco Canyon in North America, dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries CE. Fingerprints are clearly present on these pieces because potters in Chaco Canyon were not yet exposed to the potter’s wheel, so they mostly created corrugated ware--coiling the clay and pinching it together. His findings determined that gender roles were broken, for the pieces proved the ceramics were made equally between males and women. Ceramics experts and historians in the area agree with these findings, explaining that when pottery was in demand, the men moved in to help. Both Shatz and Kantner prove that women were primary makers in ceramics; however, Kantner shows that women were not expected to do only the decorating when the men offered to help.

Chaco Canyon pieces, image courtesy of National History Museum of Utah

Between 6,000-3,000 BCE China and westernized countries transitioned ceramics into a male-dominated field with the invention of the potter’s wheel. With more machinery came higher production rates and higher profit margins. Moreover, this was around the time period when gender roles regarding physical ability and domestic expectations began to be manifest in Western societies. Ceramics was traditionally viewed as a physically intensive form of art, and in Western culture, physical exertion was equated to masculinity; therefore, ceramics transitioned to a primarily male workforce in Western society.

Historical pottery fly wheel, image courtesy of The Pottery Wheel

With this transition, how did women get back into the field? In the 19th century, women were solely expected to decorate pottery but not physically make the piece. This expectation and role quickly turned into a trend that some women used to their advantage. Around the 1870s, when china-painting at home was taking off, women began ordering supplies from magazines and turned pottery decorating into a DIY project. According to Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, a curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, china painting concerning gender in the U.S. can be traced back to “...the 1850s, when women went to work in factories and stores to pay rent”. Women ceramicists took advantage of this movement and began opening their own factories and employed women primarily. For instance, Maria Longworth-Nichols, a female ceramicist pioneer, opened up Rookwood Pottery Company in 1880. From then to today, it is a world-renowned American pottery company.

From one trailblazer to another, women were opening door after door in the 20th century. For example, Adelaide Alsop Robineau was a very famous porcelain potter in the 1910s. Her work was and continues to be considered genuinely extraordinary. Later, artists like Karen Karnes, Ruth Duckworth, Judy Chicago, and more aided in breaking down the glass ceiling in ceramics and asserting the significance of women in the art field.

By the late 20th century, the field of ceramics in the US. is evenly split between men and women; however, significant problems remained solely because of gender. Women are still expected to primarily be hired for the decoration side of the ceramic production industry. For instance, about a year ago, I interviewed one of my female mentors in ceramics, Bethany Benson. She told me several stories about her individual experience as a private artist, a student, and an educator within the field of ceramics.

Early on in her professional ceramics career, Benson worked for a sink manufacturing company as a producer, slip casting and firing sinks and small accessories. Benson was an exception within the factory, for she was one of only a few other women in production, the rest of the workers were men, and the decorators were almost all women. She made friends with one of the female decorators who sprayed gold and platinum on the sinks. When inhaled, the raw form of these metals is extremely toxic to humans. The decorator wore a full protective suit inside an enclosed area, but her mask was not sufficient. She showed Benson how the inside of the mask had layers of glaze. Benson immediately took action. She approached her shift supervisor and confronted him. He was not phased by it and considered it to be a part of the job. Benson was furious. She left for her break and never went back. The next day she called to quit. After hearing her statement, they decided to fire her. The disregard Benson's boss had for the female decorator was a direct example of how women were not respected, and their health was not of concern inside American ceramic factories.

Benson has an extensive background in ceramics; after ending her time in the factory, she decided to go back to learning. At the beginning of her career as a student, she felt there were many issues with gender in ceramics. For instance, she decided to learn how to wood fire because she recognized that it was considered a masculine technique. “Always surrounded by guys...ya know the wood kiln. My response to that was: I’ll fire the wood kiln, I’ll fire as many shifts as you want me to. I’ll fire more than the guys. I will lift as much wood. I will split more wood. I realized I had to work double-time compared to them, which is a disservice”. Benson was consistently stretching herself thin just to prove her placement.

Wood Kiln, image courtesy of Mexico News Daily

Bethany Benson learned many lessons early on in her ceramics career; however, one that stuck out to her and she has put to use was advice from a female professor, “always ask for the raise.” This advice was about the gender wage gap in the US. The wage gap still exists in the U.S., even in the “open-minded” field of art. In a 2019 statistics study conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts, they determined, “women artists earn $0.77 for every dollar men artists earn” (this statistic is an average and does not consider racial inequalities). Wage gaps occur when females are not paid equally to their male counterparts completing the same tasks. They also happen because the American art consumer buys more products from men than women. For example, “Works by female artists comprise a small share of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, while at auction, women’s artworks sell for a significant discount compared with men’s.” There are many factors associated with the present-day wage gap, including parenthood, lack of assertiveness among female artists, and more. Some can be rectified quickly; others have more than a few strings attached. Nevertheless, situations like the auction example can be improved by changing public opinion around women’s art. This is not an easy feat, but there are action steps like actively promoting and buying from artists who identify as female.

Today, female ceramicists feel that gender equality is less of a roadblock in their careers, but instead a series of annoyances and microaggressions in everyday life. In an interview with Nancy Green, a soda and wood-firing ceramicist based in Georgia, she explained that she has never encountered obstacles. Green did not start with a career in ceramics; instead, she followed her dreams and worked as a veterinarian for twenty years. Growing up, her mother was a strong female figure in her life; she was a working mom who showed Green that women could be in the workforce. Similarly, when Green decided to begin learning about pottery, she was taught by Liz Luri, a self-starter female ceramicist. Nancy Green believes, “If it’s something you’re passionate about, you’re going to figure out how to do it. Let your passion drive you”. Positive experiences like Nancy Green’s are a great start to finding equality and equity within ceramics. It is evident in her life story that people need to have individuals who look like themselves in leadership/mentor based positions.

Similarly, Tara Wilson, a wood-firing ceramicist in Montana, expressed that gender was not the most significant obstacle in her career path. However, as an occasional instructor/educator, she believes some issues need to be addressed and have exact solutions. Wilson explained that a majority of the wood-firing classes she teaches are filled with female students. As an instructor, she likes to offer examples of work for her students to look at for inspiration; however, she recognized many of them were looking for women wood-firers in particular. As a solution, Wilson created an Instagram account called @womenwhowoodfire to use as a resource of inspiration for strong female wood-firing ceramicists and a form of promotion for lesser-known artists. In addition to addressing representation, Wilson believes many current gender issues in ceramics occur early on in education. She believes that instructors, no matter their identity, need to step up and be clear examples of equality and equity within ceramics. Although the amount of men and women in ceramics has balanced out, gendered microaggressions still occur due to the masculine stigma around ceramics. Tara Wilson has had a lively career of empowerment and encouragement; however, she feels that the male instructors need to act as positive examples for younger men.

Equality and equity are never easy goals, especially when there are thousands of causes and elements to consider attached to the one problem. Therefore, finding solutions is not an easy feat. Women in ceramics face obstacles, some transparently oppressive like the wage gap, other small annoyances that can build up into subconsciously massive roadblocks. Over time, individuals who identify as female have worked extremely hard to make space for women in the field of ceramics. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to accomplish. Every person can address these issues with their unique abilities: educators can lead by example, curators can seriously consider more female ceramicists for exhibitions, individual artists can be mentors for young female ceramicists, consumers can equally value the pottery made by all genders, and artists, in general, can support one another and uphold equal and equitable expectations. Ceramics is a unique art form that requires many different skill sets, which are traditionally considered masculine traits. Ceramics should be a place for all to feel welcome, safe, and empowered to express themselves through the intimate connection between maker and clay.

Tara Wilson Instagram: @teadubpottery

Nancy Green Instagram: @nancygreenceramics

You've successfully subscribed to Arts Help
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Great! You've successfully signed up.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.