What Kept Them In The Darkness: Patriarchy and Glass Ceiling

By Jemma Kim

Published Date: 2020 / 12 / 29

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Patriarchy is a social system in which the father or the eldest male has control over the family. It has been a prevalent force around the world and throughout history. The system necessitated women to devote their lives to their husbands; women had to sacrifice their own happiness, career, and basically their lives for the success of men. Then what attracted people to maintain the system despite its injustice? It is because patriarchy was the key to the success of men: by having complete support from their wives, men could dedicate themselves only to the works. This phenomenon, women’s sacrifice, is evident in the art world. The history of women artists explains how patriarchy served as an unbreakable glass ceiling.

Alma Mahler, known as the wife of renowned Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, was also a talented composer. She has published 13 songs during her lifetime, and the other four were discovered after her death. These include “Die Stille Stadt,” and “Der Erkennende.” She was drawn to music and showed talents from her early period of childhood, at the age of nine. However, her career was terminated since her marriage to Gustav. According to The Years of Challenge, the biography about Gustav, when Alma referred to her work on music, Gustav expressed his disapproval of her career by saying, “The role of ‘composer,’ the ‘worker’s role, falls to me—yours is that of the loving companion and understanding partner!” Alma eventually decided to dedicate her life fully to supporting her husband, giving up her career as a composer. Alma’s marriage was the sacrifice of her individuality and potential as a composer. In Memories and Letters, she recalled the surrender of her existence during the years of the marriage. Even though she longed for her music, she was bound to her role as Gustav’s wife.

Similarly, Marie Kroyer lived in the shadow of her renowned husband, Peder Severin Kroyer. Peder Severin Kroyer was a Danish painter who constantly drew under inspiration of foreign cultures. He also gathered and led the artist community, the Skagen Painters. And Marie supported her husband Marie was not only a talented but also aspiring painter; even under the unfavorable condition for women to train as artists where no public school was present, she gathered a group of women artists and invited art teachers to come to their studio. Despite Marie’s talents and aspirations, she suffered due to the arduous process of supporting her husband’s life. She dedicated herself to supporting Peder, primarily due to his mental problem as well as his falling eyesight that eventually made Peder blind. Living a life for her husband but not herself, Mary suffered from depression and lack of confidence after the marriage. After a long period of exclusively being a helpmate to her husband, she felt uncomfortable expressing her own talents. Her devastated emotional and mental state is evident in Self-portrait (1889). While Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Marie by Peder depicts Marie beautifully, with a gentle smile and bright lights shedding on her, in her self-portrait, she is surrounded by darkness instead.


Right is Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Marie, 1889, by Peder Severin Kroyer; Left is Self-portrait, 1889, by Marie Kroyer.

What caused these two talented artists to fade into obscurity is prevalent patriarchy. Patriarchy forced women to forsake their own aspirations and happiness for their husbands. The coined term ‘helpmate’ suggests how marriages were like to women. According to the dictionary, ‘helpmate’ refers to a helpful companion or partner, especially one’s wife. Marriages were like a contract that put permanent restraints on the lives of women while giving huge merits to men.

This is neither fiction nor the story of the past. Patriarchy is a contemporary oppressive social system that poses glass ceilings to women. It is especially rooted deeply in Korea because of the Confucian influence. Statics Korea provides data that shows about 1.84 million women stop their careers because of marriage or other family-related reasons. This suggests that society tells women to value family over career, due to dominant patriarchal conceptions. Patriarchy truly is a glass ceiling for women. To understand the glass ceiling women suffer, it is crucial to understand conventional viewpoints of gender roles—men being the breadwinner and women being the homemaker—and resist the gender stereotypes.

Works Cited
“아내의 시간을 가로챈 예술가 남편들.” 한겨레, 21 Mar. 2020, www.hani.co.kr/arti/culture/culture_general/933554.html.

“University of Pennsylvania Finding Aids.” Mahler-Werfel Papers, 1880-2004, dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/ead/detail.html?id=EAD_upenn_rbml_MsColl575.

Otterstein, ByPola. “Living In The Shadow - Marie and Peder Severin Krøyer.” DailyArtMagazine.com - Art History Stories, 14 May 2018, www.dailyartmagazine.com/marie-and-peder-severin-kroyer/.

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