fig. 28: A page from the Illustrated Review, March 1918
Emma B. Freeman

Gallery · Bibliography

With Nature's Children · Women's Work and Arts


Women's Work: Women and the Arts
in Rural Humboldt County, 1900-1920

Why cannot woman be satisfied with her present position which her present rights assign her? Do not the men see to her safety and comfort? But her present right was donated and dictated to her, not created and achieved by her. She was granted just the measure of freedom that man considered desirable for her on his account. Man created right - changed, limited, extended right - interpreted and applied right to women. But woman, to be a self, must participate in the formation of her rights. And as to women's comfort and safety, these cannot take the place of freedom! Even poodles are comfortable and safe, contented and happy; but they are not free, and have no dream of freedom. Trouble, and struggle, and sorrow, nay, danger and loss and the risk of ruin for woman, as for man, with freedom, are far better and nobler than imperturbability and repose and protection without freedom. The point is that woman can no longer allow any sort of disqualification or disability that is contrary to selfhood. The point is that the free unfolding of personality is the most necessary thing that there is in the world for either man or woman.

(The Forum Magazine, July, 1914)

Introduction to the Historical Documents
by Peter E. Palmquist, 1977

Living in the remote northern reaches of California in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Emma B. Freeman suffered under a dual handicap - she was a woman and an artist. Her success and recognition were even more significant when one considers the stultifying restraints of a male-dominated region whose artists' endeavors were largely ignored by the outside world. At the same time, these factors may account for Emma's relative obscurity to this day.

Throughout the period that Emma worked, the popular convention remained that a woman's place is in the home. Although the international struggle to achieve women's suffrage was already a half-century old, women still had little place in professional life (nor did they get the vote until 1920, eight years before Emma's death).

Historically, women found it difficult to become merchants or traders, for legal restrictions forbade most women the right to inherit or own property. Among the few roles in which women found acceptance were those of the teacher and governess. These offered quasi-respectable alternatives for women of good character who lacked financial security or a "suitable" husband, but they provided horribly low pay.

However, the edifice of traditional male and female roles continued to crumble as the Twentieth Century opened. Women's rights was a hotly-contested issue. Even in Humboldt County, California, the feminist onslaught produced such anguished editorials as these:


WHERE WILL WOMAN STOP?... It is less than 50 years since American girls were refused admission to the colleges their brothers attended. Now there are more women in the colleges than men. Almost every agency of modern times caters to woman. Merchants vie for her custom. The pulpit wants her strong support. The press seeks her favor and patronage. Woman is no longer behind the throne, she is the throne.... All this change of a few years seems a radical departure. But cast your eyes over Europe.
- The women of Britain are pounding on the doors of parliament seeking suffrage
- In Germany the gates of ancient universities have been lifted from their hinges to let women in.
- In Italy the parliament has appointed a commission...for equal suffrage.
- The French women have gone ahead of men in the field of scientific discovery. And in England of the 12 best selling books every one was written by a woman.
- Even in darkest Russia women physicians are teaching the doctors of the world advanced methods of hospital work.
- But most striking of all in Finland - think of it - in Finland - 10 women now occupy seats as law makers in the legislature of that duchy!
- This is the woman's age.... In this new equation of modern life is man to be the X.... The unknown quantity?

(Humboldt Times, 19 May 1907)

Local newspapers also chronicled the incursion of women into roles formerly held by men. Headlines of the time, written by men, include: "WOMEN TO RUN STREETCARS"; "FIRST WOMAN ON A JURY"; "WOMAN FARMER RAISES RECORD CROP"; "EIGHT WOMEN CANDIDATES FOR PUBLIC OFFICE."
Humboldt County did recognize competence and industry as important personal traits. However, a women's accomplishment in a traditionally male endeavor often was heralded as an oddity, though it might receive a small measure of grudging admiration:

WOMAN BUILDER OF HER HOME
It is a two story house containing seven rooms.... The house was erected by Mrs. Edna Rhyne...she laid all the heavy beams, erected the studding, put up the walls, shingled the roof, prepared the inside casings for doors and windows...there are no rough edges and a trip into the parlor makes one wonder how it was all done by a woman.
(Humboldt Times, 26 March 1907)

Conceding some ground to the feminists, the male establishment cast around for an acceptable mode of expression for women that did not erode the masculine framework of local society. One editorial titled "WORK FOR EUREKA'S WOMEN" offered the following advice:

[What] Eureka needs now is a big, active, thoroughly organized women's club that will undertake agitation looking to the beautification of streets, the improvement of sidewalks and crossings, the boulevarding of certain thorough-fares, the adornment of school grounds so bleak and uninviting, the preservation of those natural beauty spots in and around the city that have been spared by the woodsman - encouraging the abolishment of unsightly fences and sign boards, and the like.
.... The uncouth band of man scars and gnashes the beautiful face of nature in Humboldt, oft-times, but the smooth and gentle hand of woman can touch the wound and heal them.

(Humboldt Times, 26 Feb. 1907)

Six years later, it could be seen from the local paper that women had steadily shifted into the relatively menial jobs that had increased as a result of the burgeoning American economy. The tone of the following editorial implied that women should not only be thankful for these developments but also forsake efforts at further progress.

Two inventions of the last generation have given employment to a vast army of young women - the typewriter and the telephone. There are more than one hundred thousand women engaged in stenography. More than a fourth of that number are at work in telephone offices. Many thousand women are clerks...there are more than a tenth of a million women nurses in the United States.
A multitude of women - almost a third of a million - are teaching schools, painting, or music. When it is remembered that there are only 155,000 housekeepers in the country and only a million servants and waiters - including both men and women - it will be seen that a large proportion of women are entering the higher walks, so called.

(Humboldt Times, 27 Feb. 1913)

A major milestone on the path to women's rights was the outbreak of World War I. Working women suddenly became an integral part of the nation's war effort. By 1916 the Humboldt Times evidenced a somewhat more favorable attitude, if grudging and still condescending, in a progress report on "Women's Work."

...While the old saying that a Woman's Place Is In The Home still holds true, that Place is no longer a mere dispensary to provide the material needs of the household, but the throneroom where the beneficent power of enlightened Womanhood throws its influence beyond the narrow confines of the family circle.
While masculine and feminine opinions may differ in regard to the proper attention of womankind in the political world, the strides in questions of education and political and domestic economy made by women in the past few years has given them a new station in the world 's work from which no amount of diverging opinion can dislodge them.

(Humboldt Times, 15 July 1916)

As the war progressed, women became involved in almost all aspects of the effort - Emma Freeman even volunteered to photograph at the front, after winning her spurs as a photojournalist when she photographed a naval disaster near Humboldt Bay in early 1917.
By war's end, the Humboldt Times was forced to concede that women had "vindicated their contentions that they were eminently capable of performing the tasks of men from the menial to the executive."
But strangely, during this time of loosening male control of women, many of the artists of the day remained fixated on the traditional female image (though Emma went so far as to pose an Indian woman with a warrior's bow and arrows). Another local publication, the Humboldt Standard, presented this survey in an editorial entitled "ART AND THE NEW WOMAN":

Seventy-seven pictures at the spring exhibition of the National Academy of Design are of women. Seventeen of the pictured ladies sit with idle hands. Nine of them are sewing, most of them in casual fashion devoid of serious purpose. Five read. Five are accompanied by babies. Two play instruments, one eats, one writes, one is in bed, three in gardens, one at market.
Feminism - or at least that phase of it which expects a woman to be busied at productive work, seems to have run ahead of art. According to the painters, the chief concerns of women seem to be reading, sewing and dressing, with the emphasis in the latter of putting a rose in the hair. The woman who has made the analysis says, "for our part, it is years since we have seen a woman with a rose in her hair; yet each academy sees renewed eloquent testimony that women still spend vast amounts of time putting one there."

(Humboldt Standard, 27 April, 1915)

Questions regarding the status of the fine arts go quite beyond the depiction of women. For many years, and persisting perhaps to this day, artists working in Northwestern California have worked in undeserved anonymity. They were hamstrung in two significant ways - their own difficulties in capturing the majestic yet evanescent redwood country and the so-called art world's blindness to the area north of San Francisco.
San Francisco was indeed the northernmost bastion of the creative arts in the West at the turn of the century. But artists like Emma Freeman were busily at work in the more than 300-mile-long stretch between that city and the Oregon border. Proof of this came in a landmark exhibition held in San Francisco in 1915.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition may have been the first serious and effective attempt to reveal the scope of the arts of the Pacific West. Earlier exhibitions, such as the San Francisco Mechanic's Fair of 1894, had included galleries devoted to the fine arts, but their main emphasis had been on technology and agriculture. Many smaller exhibitions had featured regional artworks, but generally these shows had gone unheralded beyond their immediate locale.
In contrast, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition brought together the finest art of the West and displayed it along with the best that the world could provide. Gallery patrons could finally compare a substantial selection of fine art from Arizona, New Mexico and California with examples from Europe and the Americas.
Regional pride, enthusiasm and momentum galvanized connoisseurs, critics and artists alike. Art became the social topic of the day. Critic Porter Garnett, writing in 1916, commented:

It would be well, therefore, to admit at once that, whatever local pride may prompt some to say, California is both too young and too remote to have produced very much art of a high order...
Now, while California has undoubtedly produced art, she has not produced AN art; that is to say, there is not yet an art that is characteristically Californian and at the same time universal...
Before a country or a community can be said to have produced an art of its own, its artist must show a native strain in their work...they may - and many do - REPRESENT California, but how many of them EXPRESS California?...

(California's Magazine, 1916)

The same magazine carried a partial rejoinder from Michael Williams in an article entitled "The Pageant of Californian Art."

First then, it is obvious, even unto triteness, that the circumstances which so strongly distinguish California and give her a place dramatically apart from her sister states, may be summed up in three master words, namely, beauty, romance, and youth...which express the character of the state.

(California's Magazine, 1916)

Even if these distinguishing features are accepted, other differences exist between art originating in Southern California and art from the North of the state. Even in the North it is true to say that, since variations in landform affect the landscape artist, the further north the artist works the more he differs in his mode of expression.
Moving northward from the San Francisco Bay region the terrain changes from rolling hills into oak and scrub-covered ridges. There are more rivers and streams, the coastline is rugged, with precipitous headlands. The mountains are more pronounced and the trees and other flora increase in luxuriance, creating huge forests, closing off the vistas, and giving all a sense of wilderness and isolation.
This perception of isolation and proximity to nature was clearly evident in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition exhibit produced by artists and craftsmen from the Humboldt County region:

Humboldt County's display was unique in that it had brought to the Exposition two great sections of a giant redwood tree. These sections were made into rooms, one of which housed the display of redwood. Here were hung the beautiful paintings picturing the famous forests of Humboldt. The ceiling of the room, which was twenty feet in diameter, was made of polished, hand-carved redwood. In the center was suspended a crystal candelabra which reflected its light upon the highly polished surface of the wood furnishings.
Paintings were framed in redwood burl.... Every article made of burl was highly polished and is most artistic. In the center of the room stood one of the most noteworthy and costly tables in the Exposition. This is made of a single slab of redwood burl, is seven feet in diameter, without a flaw...

(California's Magazine, 1916)

The raw power of frontier Humboldt County overwhelmed the timid and challenged the bold. What sculptor could create a work more inspired and more revealing than that which nature had already provided? What muralist could create a panorama more exciting than that feeling of endless distance which is to be seen from a coastal headland? What architect could provide a habitation more powerful than that of a sunlit redwood forest?
Evidence that the Humboldt County region intimidated the artists of the period is clearly shown in canvases produced by local landscape painters. Trees seemed too huge, waterways too expansive and the ocean too turbulent to compress into the frozen confines of the artist's canvas. C. T. Wilson, famous as a painter of the redwoods, came to Humboldt County in the 1890's from Guatemala, intrigued by stories of the sailors of the lumber fleet. Until his departure in 1916, he specialized in paintings featuring the California redwoods, several of which were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. His works were often large; the largest was designed to wrap 98 feet around the walls of a lavish library.
Wilson's heavy oils of the towering redwood forests reflect the mysterious and the formidable. He admitted that he often experienced deep frustration in his efforts to capture them on canvas:

...not in an hour nor a day nor a year was this wonderful transmutation to be accomplished. Nature was ever fickle, the countless wonders of the forest varied with every sunbeam, the aisles of shade became aisles of light, and sunshine and shadow tantalized the artist who sought to imprison them in oil and preserve them...

(Humboldt Standard, May 2, 1916)

Artists linked to the Humboldt County region were few, although many visited the area to set up their easels. The ranks of landscape painters from 1900 to World War I include a small but persistent group of women. Several of these deserve special mention.
Cora B. Wright (1886-1948) started painting in Martinez, California after a period of formal training from Manuel Valencia. After her marriage she moved with her husband to Eureka and worked actively, painting Humboldt County vistas and studio still-lifes until 1946. She was a good friend of C. T. Wilson, and painted many views of the redwoods as well as scenes along the Klamath River.
Martella Cone Lane (1879-1962), the daughter of portrait painter Lydia Cone, studied under landscape artists William Keith, Franz A. Bischoff, and John Marshall Gamble. She was an active California landscape artist well before 1900 and featured the redwoods in many of her works. Like Wilson and Wright, she exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Actively engaged in the study and teaching of art for many decades, she later became Dean of Art at Chapman College.
Also active in the period were Mrs. Deedie (Thompson) Bland, who painted farm and orchard landscapes of the Eel River Valley. A later arrival was professional artist Mary (Minnie) Steinhauer, who became a close associate of Emma B. Freeman.
Emma's contribution to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition received wide acclaim at the time, but did not aid in the search for a definition of so-called "Redwoods School" of art. She had worked outside the mainstreams of both art and photography and, as a businesswoman, had experienced the added difficulty of functioning in a man's world. Being a woman and an artist in a rough land and in a rugged male culture presented grave obstacles, yet her work remarkably endures.


100 Years of California Photography by Women

Women Photographers and the American Indian



All text © Peter E. Palmquist
With Nature's Children: Emma B. Freeman (1880-1928),
Camera And Brush.

Eureka, California: Interface California Corporation, 1977.