Bessie Marbury and Women in the Arts

Bessie Marbury

Elisabeth Marbury, known to friends and intimates as Bessie, did not tend house for Clyde Fitch. She did not, in fact, tend house for anyone (although her companion, Fitch actress Elsie de Wolfe, did decorate them).

As a literary agent at the turn of the 20th century, she was far too busy putting Fitch’s work, and the work of other writers, out in front of the public. She famously succeeded at life on her own terms, in a field and world dominated, then as now, by men.

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The Clyde Fitch Report reboots The Marbury Project to honor Bessie’s legacy. In today’s arts world, at all levels of action and across all disciplines, women still do not have equitable opportunities and rewards for their work. We want to help solve this problem, in part by highlighting artists and organizations who are doing it the way Bessie did: taking matters into their own hands, making results happen. We want to talk about all female-identified artists achieving self-determined success.

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It is important to distinguish why we are using the terms “equity” and “equitable” for The Marbury Project. Equity is more than simply “gender-neutral casting” or “application open to all.” While we want to see a world in which there is no need to discuss gender first (or race, as in Shane Jewell’s post about ballet dancer Misty Copeland), we are not there yet. Equality is “equal access” whereas equity moves in the direction of “redress of disadvantages to move toward equal access.” This is why we want to talk about both opportunities and results. It is no longer enough to say “we want to create a pipeline” or “we have a large percentage of women in our workplace or learning institution” if all those roles are entry-level or operational. We must assess what is going on at the other end, on the strategic level, on the leadership level. Who is really making it? That’s why we’ll also write in TMP about current research in the arts field, nonprofit and commercial.

Bessie Marbury

Bessie Marbury

We’ll talk to biologic and gender-chosen women working in every arts discipline today and share their stories of how they’ve defined, measured, and achieved success. Marbury’s example made it easier for other women to work professionally in theater in the early 1900s. Success doesn’t necessarily mean working in New York with a play on Broadway or becoming a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre or receiving a MacArthur “Genius” grant (but it can). For many artists, success means building a body of work and audience in their hometown in Iowa or Texas or Utah or Vermont; it means sharing artistic output and family responsibilities in Florida or New Mexico or North Carolina or Alaska; it means starting companies or troupes or galleries in Minnesota or South Dakota or Oregon or Delaware. Pedigree or zip code isn’t necessary for creating and sharing great art.

We’ll also highlight arts organizations that are clearly gender-equitable or working towards gender equity in good and measurable faith. We’re interested in those theaters, galleries, dance companies, music labels, museums and more that are putting policies and projects in place that will result in at least 30 percent female inclusion. Equality — the notion that all roles are 50-50 by gender — is an excellent goal, to be sure. But research shows, however, that 30 percent female leadership is a tipping point for women (or any minority) not only to be treated as leaders but to accelerate the “pipeline” for other women (or any minority) in an organization and field. While it is important to call out those organizations who are blatantly ignoring one entire gender, it is equally important that we lift up those organizations who prove that gender equity can be achieved. 

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How much time do you have to listen? By Daniel Carson Goodman Productions / Equity Pictures Corporation via Wikimedia Commons

Theatre Communications Group recently released a report stating that 82 of their members were programming at least 50 percent female-identified playwrights in their current or upcoming season (depending on their calendar). That 82 theaters across America are acting to purposefully program via gender equity by playwright is to be commended. But 82 is merely 11 percent of the total number of TCG-affiliated companies. What happened at the other 89 percent? TMP is about asking such questions, about edifying and congratulating, about sharing the stories of women in the arts who make their success happen. Like Marbury herself.


We’d love to hear from you! As we reboot this column, we are looking for ideas, stories, artists, and organizations from all artistic disciplines who are working on and achieving success at gender equity. Email me at [email protected] Or tweet us using #MarburyProject.

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