30 of the Most Influential American Women in the Arts

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be putting together weekly lists of some of America’s most influential women. This week, we honor thirty women who made their mark upon the American arts in all their various forms.
 


Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin
Image via Wikimedia Commons

A singer, songwriter, and recipient of eighteen Grammy Awards, Aretha Franklin is one of the most successful Rhythm & Blues artists of all time. With a career that has spanned over sixty years, Franklin has recorded twenty number-one R&B singles, and was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Franklin has also been inducted to the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the UK Music Hall of Fame.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Born in Pennsylvania in 1844, Mary Cassatt was a prolific Impressionist painter. Described by her contemporaries as one of the “three great ladies” of Impressionism, Cassatt was known for creating images that portrayed the intimate relationship between mothers and their children. Her artwork, which has sold for as much as four million US dollars, was widely produced during her time living in France, where she collaborated with famed artist Edgar Degas.

Cher

Cher
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Known as the Goddess of Pop, Cherilyn Sarkisian (otherwise known as Cher) first achieved fame performing in the folk rock duo Sonny & Cher during the 1960s. Since her initial success, Cher has gone on to produce a number-one single every decade. She has also performed in TV, movie, and Broadway productions, and received numerous awards for her work. Cher is also recognized for bringing Auto-Tune technology to prominence with her 1998 hit 'Believe'.

Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet
Image by an unknown author [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The first published poet in the American colonies, Anne Bradstreet was born in England in 1612 before moving to the new Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Her first volume of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was initially published under an anonymous authorship of “A Gentlewoman from Those Parts” in London. Bradstreet has since been recognized as the first female poet to be published in both England and the New World, and was extremely well-received in both arenas.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe
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Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, this blonde bombshell and American sex symbol first enjoyed fame as a model in the late 1940s. After switching her focus to acting in 1950, Monroe became a top-billed actress of the decade, appearing in over twenty different films. She utilized method acting, a technique in which performers aim to achieve complete emotional identification with a part, and after continued success utilizing this strategy, built her own production company, known as Marilyn Monroe Productions.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Often called the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald began her career as a Jazz artist in the late 1930s, singing with the famed Chick Webb’s band before launching a solo career in the early 1940s. Fitzgerald earned fourteen Grammy awards during her sixty year career. She also utilized her talent and fame to assist in the Civil Rights Movement, and was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush.

 Helen Frankenthaler


Image by Sharon Mollerus [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

An abstract expressionist painter, Helen Frankenthaler had exhibited her work for over six decades by the time of her death in 2011. Influenced by artists like Clement Greenburg and Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler’s paintings evolved through several stylistic changes, including her usage of Color Field painting in the 1960s. Today, her work can be seen in galleries worldwide, including the Met in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

 Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson
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Widely known for her reclusive and shy personality, Emily Dickinson produced nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime. Born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson spent most of her adult life writing and organizing her poetry into bound volumes. Her poems often dealt with themes of death and immortality, which likely served as an outlet for channeling her emotions after the death of loved ones in her life. Though her poetry was not widely published while she was alive, Dickinson’s younger sister Lavinia worked to publish her sister’s work posthumously.

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn
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A leading lady of Hollywood cinema for over six decade, Katharine Hepburn is often referred to as the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood. Her body of work, which ranged from film and television to stage productions, spanned several genres, and Hepburn became well known for playing spinsters in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Hepburn was awarded four Academy Awards (a record) as best actress in her lifetime, and is considered a leading force in establishing the “modern woman” in the United States.

Georgia O’Keefe

Georgia O'Keeffe
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Now known as the “Mother of American Modernism,” Georgia O’Keeffe became famous in the 1920s and 30s for her paintings of enlarged flowers. O’Keeffe, who decided by the age of ten to become an artist, received art instruction from a young age, and ranked at the top of her class while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. O’Keeffe was also well known for her paintings of New York City skyscrapers, and the landscapes of New Mexico. Her artwork is now highly sought after, and has sold for over 40 million US dollars in recent auctions.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday
Image by William P. Gottlieb [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born Eleanora Fagan, Holiday was an influential jazz singer of the early twentieth century. After escaping an unstable upbringing with an absent mother, Holiday began singing in Harlem nightclubs, the success of which led to signing with a record label in 1935. Holiday achieved wide mainstream success in the ‘40s and ‘50s, performing in three sold-out concerts at the famous Carnegie Hall. She was later posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Alice Walker

Alice Walker
Image by State Library and Archives of Florida [Public Domain], via Flickr

Best known for her novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker began writing at the age of eight years old. Growing up in a sharecropping family that insisted on educating their children, Walker later attended college on a full scholarship. In her fifty year career, Walker has published over thirty assorted novels, short story and poetry collections, and non-fiction titles. She also received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982.

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly
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In true Cinderella fashion, Princess Grace Kelly began her career as a model and stage actress in New York City. After a breakthrough performance in the 1952 film High Noon, Kelly signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and starred in several Golden-Age Hollywood films. Through her work in film, she became acquainted with Prince Rainier III of Monaco, whom she later married, subsequently becoming Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco. Kelly performed extensive philanthropic work to aid emerging artists during her regency with Prince Rainier.

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago
Photo by: Donald Woodman. Work of art: Judy Chicago (Megan Schultz (assistant to Judy Chicago)) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A feminist artist known for large scale installation pieces, Judy Chicago has devoted her considerable body of artistic work to examining the role of women throughout history and culture. Her piece The Dinner Party is recognized as one of the first large-scale feminist artworks; it represents the historical and cultural contributions of women throughout history. Judy Chicago is also an art educator, and founded the first feminist school of art in the 1970s.

Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand
Image via Wikimedia Commons

A singer, songwriter, actress, and filmmaker, Barbra Streisand is one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. She is widely recognized as one of the few artists to be awarded each of the major entertainment awards, including two Academy Awards, ten Grammy Awards, a Tony Award, and five Emmy Awards. Streisand, who continues to tour, is also an out-spoken political activist and philanthropist.
 
Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Born Nelle Lee, novelist Harper Lee published only two novels before her death in 2016. Her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is widely regarded as a classic of American literature, exploring themes of racism and class in 1930s America. Lee, who based the novel off of her own experiences growing up in Alabama, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to American literature.

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep

Image by Jack Mitchell [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Nominated for a record-breaking twenty-one Academy Awards, Meryl Streep has been lauded throughout her nearly five decade long career for her versatility on-screen. Streep, who has appeared in over sixty films, received her Master’s in Fine Arts for acting from Yale University, and was noted early on for her ability to mimic accents and quickly memorize lines. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 by President Barack Obama for her work in television and film.

Kara Walker

Kara Walker
Image by Lori L. Stalteri [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Contemporary artist Kara Walker is best known for her black cut-paper silhouettes depicting slavery and racism in America. Walker, who decided at a young age to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was also a painter, started depicting racism in her artwork while earning her master’s degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. Walker’s work earned her a MacArthur fellowship at the age of 28, one of the youngest recipients to date.

Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks
Image by Ueli Frey (DrJazz.ch) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Often called the Queen of Rock and Roll, Stevie Nicks is best known for singing with the popular rock band Fleetwood Mac. Influenced by singers such as Janis Joplin, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks is widely recognized for her influential fashion style and gruff contralto voice. She was named as one of the world’s top “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” by Rolling Stone, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe
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An abolitionist and author, Harriet Beecher Stowe became famous for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the cruelties endured by enslaved African-Americans. The book became highly influential within the abolitionist movement, and helped legitimize the role of women in public affairs. Stowe published over thirty novels in her lifetime, though many of them were published under the penname Christopher Crowfield.

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball
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While actress Lucille Ball is best known for her television sitcom I Love Lucy, she was also a highly prolific television producer, becoming the first woman to run a major television studio. Her company, Desilu Productions, produced and filmed several popular series, including Star Trek and Hogan’s Heroes. She received four Emmy Awards for her work in television, and was also a successful model.

Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter
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Best known as a member of the Carpenters duo, Karen Carpenter was regarded for being a talented singer and drummer. Carpenter has frequently been cited as an influence by modern musicians, including Madonna, Sheryl Crow, and Shania Twain. Her death, related to complications from her struggles with anorexia nervosa, helped spark a national conversation about treating eating disorders with therapy.

Joan Mitchell


Image by Sharon Mollerus [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Like Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell was a highly regarded and successful abstract expressionist painter of the mid-twentieth century. A student of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mitchell was a leading artist at the New York School by the early 1950s. Today, Mitchell’s artwork can be viewed throughout American and European art galleries. Following her death, a non-profit foundation which provides monetary assistance to artists was established in her name.

Phyllis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Born in West Africa, Phyllis Wheatley was sold into slavery in 1761 around the age of eight years old. Upon arriving in America, she was sold to a progressive New England family. Despite her status, she was educated in the classics and wrote her first poem at the age of fourteen. Acknowledging her immense potential, the Wheatey family continued to support her educational pursuits. She later became the first published African-American female poet, achieving widespread fame in England and the American colonies.

Shirley Temple

Shirley Tempalte
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Primarily known for her work as a child actress, Shirley Temple began her film career at just three years old. She appeared in at least forty films before retiring at the age of twenty-two. Temple later went to serve as a US ambassador to both Czechoslovakia and Ghana, and as Chief of Protocol of the United States. She also served on the boards of several corporations, including the Walt Disney Company and the National Wildlife Foundation.

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston
Image by tm_10001 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

The only artist to have seven consecutive number one singles, singer and actress Whitney Houston is one of the most decorated female acts of all time. Born to successful gospel singer Cissy Houston, Whitney began performing at the age of eleven in her local gospel choir. During her thirty-five year career, Houston received more accolades than any other female performer, receiving two Emmy awards, six Grammy awards, thirty Billboard Music Awards, and twenty-two American Music Awards.

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan
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Best known for her novel The Feminine Mystique, author Betty Friedan was a leading figure of the second-wave feminist movement. Friedan, who was raised in both Marxist and Jewish circles, helped to found the National Organization of Women (NOW), which encouraged women "into the mainstream of American society now [in] fully equally partnership with men." Friedan also organized the national Women’s Strike for Equality, which aimed to promote equal opportunities for women in the job market.

Cecilia Beaux

Cecilia Beaux
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Born Eliza Cecilia, Beaux was one of the most successful portraitists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Following in the style of renowned painter John Singer Sargent, Beaux was educated in both Philadelphia and Paris, and later became the first woman to hold a regular position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A perfectionist, Beaux’s work was widely regarded both during her career and after her death.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis
Image via Wikimedia Commons

After starting on Broadway, actress Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis moved to Los Angeles in 1930 to pursue a career as a Hollywood actress. While her early films with Universal Studios were not widely successful, Davis later went on to achieve fame with Warner Brothers Pictures. The first person to be nominated for ten Academy Awards for acting, and a winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress, Davis is regarded as one of the most successful actresses in Hollywood history. In addition, Davis served as the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Nineteenth century novelist and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which detailed a semi-autobiographical account of her struggles with postpartum psychosis. Gilman was a utopian feminist, who believed that women should serve integral roles in society, rather than be relegated solely to domestic affairs. Her unique views served as inspiration for later generations of feminist activists.


While this list is by no means intended to be fully comprehensive, we feel these women have earned recognition for their contributions to history and American culture. Who else would you include? Share your thoughts in the comments below!







 
Posted: 3/20/2018 12:00:00 AM| with 0 comments


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