Rediscovering Female Voice and Authority: The Revival of Female Artists in Wendy Wasserstein's the Heidi Chronicles

By Barko, Cortney Cronberg | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering Female Voice and Authority: The Revival of Female Artists in Wendy Wasserstein's the Heidi Chronicles


Barko, Cortney Cronberg, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


The existing body of criticism on Wendy Wasserstein's play The Heidi Chronicles largely ignores the significance of the female artists and -paintings Heidi Holland names in the prologues that begin both acts of the play. Likewise, critics only briefly address Heidi's profession as an art historian, giving little thought to the meaning of her career choice. Recent feminist interpretations of Wasserstein's play dismiss the significance of Heidi's profession as an art historian because, as critics say, her profession and intellectual achievements "are of minor importance and have little or no effect on her or anyone else's life." (1) Jan Balakian sees Heidi's profession as typifying the traditional woman, "detached from the action but informed about it," (2) and Charlotte Canning interprets Heidi's tone during her art lectures as "not very respectful," trivializing "the historical differences between the paintings and the current moment." (3) Many feminist critics look unfavorably upon Heidi's character in general; Helene Keyssar sees Heidi as a "self-pitying" woman, silenced by voices of men, (4) and many critics accuse Heidi of "selling out" by adopting a baby at the end of the play. These negative portrayals of Heidi's profession result from critics ignoring the remarkable creativity, agency, and passion that artists exhibit through their work. In The Heidi Chronicles, the female artists Heidi incorporates into her lectures produce paintings that preserve the artists' identities, creative visions, and skill. Heidi informs her class of the marginalization of female artists and uses her position as an art historian and instructor to bring the past into the present, reviving female artists who symbolize women's constant struggle for recognition and inclusion. A close analysis of the female artists and paintings that Heidi incorporates into her lectures reveals that the female artists named in The Heidi Chronicles serve as representations of women finding their own voices and authority within themselves through the creative outlet of painting.

The Heidi Chronicles begins with Heidi delivering an art history lecture to her students at Columbia University in New York City in 1989. Although Heidi's profession and place of employment may not seem immediately significant, these details are crucial to an appreciation of how the play strongly represents and supports feminist values. In the 2003 report on the Columbia Commission on the Status of Women, Rosalind Rosenberg reports that between the years of 1962 and 1967, 15 percent of assistant professors at Columbia University were female, but these female professors were not being promoted to tenure or to the rank of full professor in significant numbers. (5) In fact, the percentage of female full professors at Columbia was under 5 percent. (6) During the early 1970s, financial difficulties for the university resulted in staff reductions, and between 1971 and 1973, the ratio of female professors increased by only 3 percent. (7) During the late 1980s, various feminist campaigns called for more female professors in all disciplines, but especially in art history. Additionally, the late 1980s was a period in which female artists were increasingly being discovered and celebrated for their talent. A major retrospective of Georgia O'Keefe's work was sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989, and an art exhibition curated by Randy Rosen, "Making their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream 1980-1985," toured nationally in 1989. (8) Heidi serves as a proponent of the 1980s crusades for more women in the arts, and in her classroom she contributes to the celebration of forgotten female artists as she says to her class:

Sofonisba Anguissola painted this portrait of her sister, Minerva, in
1559. Not only was Sofonisba a painter with an international
reputation, but so were her six sisters. Here's half the family in
Sofonisba's "Three Sisters Playing Chess" painted in 1555. … 

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