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This exhibition from the rich collections of the Library of Congress brings to light remarkable but little-known contributions made by North American women to two popular art forms—illustration and cartooning. In fields traditionally dominated by men, many women have long earned their livelihoods creating art intended for reproduction and wide dissemination in newspapers, periodicals, and books. Women pursuing careers in the visual arts, as in nearly every other profession, encountered limitations in training, permitted subject matter, and adequate work environments. A host of challenges and longstanding social restrictions in a traditionally male-controlled system impeded many from advancing in their chosen fields.
Spanning the late 1800s to the present, selected works highlight the gradual broadening in both the private and public spheres, of women's roles and interests, addressing such themes as evolving ideals of feminine beauty, new opportunities emerging for women in society, changes in gender relations, and issues of human welfare. From the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth century, women made incremental progress as professional cartoonists and illustrators, with occasional, notable leaps forward by particular creators. In the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—as educational and professional opportunities expanded—women have become leaders, producing best-selling work, winning top prizes, and receiving high acclaim from their peers in the field. This is a far cry from when women struggled to get their work published or join the very organizations that would later honor them with major awards. Featuring works from the Print and Photographs Division, Drawn to Purpose demonstrates that women once constrained by social conditions and convention, have gained immense new opportunities for self-expression and discovery to share with growing, appreciative audiences.