Review by Rita P. Wright
Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels

Moira Vincentelli. Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels. Studies in Design and Material Culture. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. Distributed in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press. xii + 290 pp.; bw and color illus., bibliography, index. $35.00.

Ceramics are one of the most durable objects of material culture, and they reflect the aesthetic tastes of the societies in which they are produced and consumed. Because they are time and culture sensitive, they are widely employed by scholars to reconstruct histories of past and present societies. In Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels, Moira Vincentelli advances the thesis that women have been primary producers and consumers of ceramics. Her principal claim is that not only have women been left out of the history of this technology but also that their self identity and social status then, as now, are intertwined with its art and craft. 

Vincentelli systematically reviews these claims by documenting women’s contributions to the technical and aesthetic properties of ceramics, the techniques they have employed, and their long history of involvement in pottery production. Drawing on archaeological, ethnoarchaeological, and ethnographic evidence, she engages in a broad-ranging discussion of the long-term history of ceramic production that begins with the world’s earliest producers of ceramics and ends in the present. In this, the author is successful at presenting information on myriad and some little-known sources. But, perhaps because her undertaking is ambitious, coverage is not always even or complete, and the author fails to consider important scholarship that may have altered some of her conclusions. Nonetheless, scholars and others with interests in feminism, the history of women, ceramics, and technologies will find much that is original in both substantive and theoretical realms. In addition, the book is beautifully produced. It includes numerous illustrations and black-and-white photographs of potters at work in home and factory settings and pottery from a range of societies. Twelve color plates provide exquisite reminders of the aesthetic qualities of ceramics, even those used for the most mundane activities. 

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Its basic premises are set out in chapters 1 through 3 and chapters 10 through 11. Chapters 4 through 9 describe case studies for the production and consumption contexts in which women have engaged in the craft as producers, business owners, collectors, writers, and teachers.

Vincentelli’s theoretical position is drawn from structuralist, post-structuralist and French feminist theory, feminist archaeology, and her experiences as a university teacher of art history. The work is inspired by subject matter such as “women artists, gender and feminist issues, Welsh art, non-western art and material culture, and the applied arts” (p. 2) and new ways of thinking that have the potential to bring women and ceramics into the center of the art historian’s image of craft as art. She is especially persuaded by developments in material culture studies in which objects can be viewed as “texts,” as proposed in the works of the structuralist and post-structuralist theorists Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Pierre Bourdieu. These works provide a basic structure with which to understand the power relations by which crafts and certain production techniques, such as hand building or ceramic decoration, have been assigned an inferior position to art. Closely allied to this position are the works of psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan and French feminist thinkers who view language and culture as primary mechanisms by which the unconscious is shaped. The notion of ecriture feminine (feminine writing) developed by Julia Kristeva is seen as an oppositional mode to the prevailing patriarchal culture which is transmitted through language. The ecriture feminine assumes that a pre-symbolic phase of learning is aligned with the feminine. Taking these views an additional step, Vincentelli argues that “ceramics as made by women, and even more, as used by women can be mobilized to create meanings of solidarity or subversion in forms of visual ecriture feminine” (p. 4). 

Vincentelli’s interrogation of the visual ecriture feminine is embodied in the technical choices that she claims women have consistently made. She notes, for example, that although contemporary western and non-western women potters have used the potter’s wheel and more efficient techniques in deference to today’s world economies, many women potters have returned to techniques like hand building that have strong “feminine” associations that presumably reside in pre-symbolic phases of learning: “Coiling a pot is a rhythmical activity...[that]...requires smoothing and polishing and a delicate handling...[and] given a great deal of time. It is valued as a pleasurable activity and the polishing stones are treasured tools passed from mother to daughter” (p. 237). Speaking of the potter Magdalene Odundo (originally from Kenya, now in Britain), she states: “Her vessels make reference to the natural world—to bodies, nipples, gourds or stamens....They exude a tactile and sensuous experience through beautiful burnished surfaces whose soft sheen speaks the loving attention that has created them” (p. 237). There is, therefore, a gendered component to women’s ceramic production in this consistent embracing of technical practices that foster maximum closeness between the hand and the material. And finally, in a discussion of figurine production, she notes that figurines produced by women, because they “explore female sexuality and female symbolism,” tend to cause distress among critics because these representations of female sexuality embodied in the very “practice of ceramics” replace the male with the female gaze, thus empowering the latter while destabilizing and undermining “patriarchal order” (p. 246).

Although some scholars would argue with Vincentelli’s interpretations of these contemporary works, they would appreciate the rich array of case studies included in the book that document women’s technical choices and their involvement in various aspects of ceramic production and consumption in both western and non-western societies. Some examples are based on reviews of the works of others, but the remaining are from the author’s primary Weld of research. On the production side, they include women’s participation, throughout a variety of historical periods, in work cooperatives, as independent artisans, and in industrial and traditional contexts, each of which demonstrates the ways in which women have contributed to ceramic history and technology. On the consumption side, five chapters are devoted to the collection and display of ceramics, workshop arrangements, promoters and patrons, writers and teachers, and running a business. These chapters demonstrate how women have influenced the development of ceramics as court patrons and as owners of shops and galleries, attesting to their intense involvement in determining the direction of aesthetics and the functions of ceramics.

Although, on the whole, Vincentelli provides a well-grounded history of the links between women and ceramics, the work is dependent upon broad generalizations. Some of these can be sustained in her discussions of contemporary potters and even her attempts to link them to the remote past, but in other instances, her argument breaks down. Indeed, many of the basic premises of the book rely on a selective reading of the archaeological literature and reviews and critiques of models employed by archaeologists. Included are discussions of early matriarchal theories, mythologies involving pottery production, and some case studies in which ceramic production has been attributed to women. Unfortunately, Vincentelli for the most part relies on outdated analyses and ignores the explosion of ceramic studies that focus on gender issues. When the works of feminist archaeologists are consulted, they seem to have been subject to a poor reading. As feminist archaeologists have shown, there has been a tendency in archaeology before the 1990s to associate women with lower status crafts. Status differences in crafts are based on modern categories in which technologies are ranked hierarchically and various arts and crafts or production techniques are assigned higher and lower value. These categories or hierarchies are then imposed on past societies. Along the same lines, feminist archaeologists are in general agreement that women’s engagement in pottery production is defined by gender ideologies that are established within a particular cultural context and that, in past archaeological reconstructions, evolutionary biases have wrongly assumed that women ceased to produce ceramics when production moved from the household to barter- or market-based economies. These findings are very much in accord with Vincentelli’s critique of the older archaeological literature; however, she parts company with feminist archaeologists when, based on her interpretations of contemporary works, she associates women with specific technical practices. Statements to the effect that certain “techniques and modes of production constitute a sufficiently distinct phenomenon to be designated women’s ceramic traditions” (p. 32) and “hand building, burnishing, painting, and bonWring are never exclusively women’s techniques, but they are predominantly so” (p. 35) simply cannot stand without attention to the speciWcs of time and place. Although Vincentelli’s attempts to uncover basic structures that lie beneath exclusionary biases in which women’s work has been accorded lower status are very much in line with recent attempts by archaeologists, her interpretations could not be more anathema to the works of feminist archaeologists who have avoided and vigorously argued against essentialist assumptions in which women’s biology (or here psychology) is assumed to be aligned with some universal, natural, static, inevitable, and predictable sets of mind and body. More importantly, they would appear to contradict Vincentelli’s own cautions concerning the kind of evolutionary thinking that has restricted our understanding of the contributions women have made in both the present and past.

That said, there is much grist for the mill, and although many, but not all, readers will disagree with Vincentell’s interpretations, the examples and source material described in this book are a virtual treasure trove. Artisans not formerly known now take their place in the history of women and ceramics, as do the works of many contemporary studio and traditional potters. Thus, the book offers a partial remedy to a forgotten history and at the same time provides inspiration to women engaged in this and other artistic endeavors.

Rita P. Wright
New York University

Ceramics in America 2002