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Designing Women, Part One
Mothers of the Earth unite

by DK Holland

Wrapped in the blanket of the sky, the goddess Gaia emerged from the chaos of the universe, spreading her legs to give birth to many creatures. She became the land on which these beings dwelt and she was called Mother Earth. And so Gaia is in the heart of woman: women are pollinators, creators, jugglers, organizers, protectors of the planet and all its creatures, large and small. Our Earth is now in peril, spinning out of control. How can we support women to help right our course?

I moved to New York City to study at Parsons School of Design in the late 1960s when the modern feminist, like the suffragette before her, was viewed as humorless, angry and “unable to get a man.” While feminists strived to see women treated equally to men, I wondered if this was what most women truly wanted. Wouldn’t this be a bleak life, dedicated to “the struggle?” Growing up, I had often observed the insecure way women related to their own gender, knife in one hand, casserole in the other. You didn’t want to look “too smart” or have too many opinions or too much confidence. These qualities were not at all attractive. You are flat chested? Buy some falsies! Stay on your diet. No desserts for you! Your hair is kinky? Iron it! If you make plans with a woman, expect a cancellation if an opportunity comes up for a date with an eligible guy. The priority was to attach to a man, for the sake of your unborn children.

Men had all the power. Men marginalized women. While I was at Parsons, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was forming across the United States. Women’s lib was born—and I got pulled in a bit. I joined a few protests, designed some terrific picket signs. We “catcalled” hard hats at a work site on Madison Avenue to “show them how it feels.” When they spewed lecherous spitballs back at us, we twirled and marched up to East 59th Street and stormed the Playboy Club “to liberate the bunnies.” But we “got no satisfaction” there either. When club management locked the doors behind those of us in the front line (to keep the other women out) we found ourselves, picket signs in hand, surrounded by a bevy of big-bosomed bunnies in skimpy powder-blue costumes and dark-suited “ad men” sipping martinis. All of them looked thoroughly perplexed, as if to say, “What the Hell are you doing here?” I thought, “What the Hell am I doing here?” Change was not going to happen this way. I had not thought this thing through.

As a young designer, I put up with my share of sexual harassment and inequality as I made a place for myself in the profession. I found these social issues hard to unpack and even harder to objectify. There was the personal and then there was business: I didn’t have time to work, have a social life and rethink the position of women in the twentieth century, did I? My big feminist statement was masking my sexual identity by changing my professional name from Deborah Katherine to DK. My activism and energy was directed toward design, through which I was convinced progressive social change could be nurtured.

But 20 years later, when designer Ellen Shapiro called to ask me to be on an AIGA panel discussion about how to get ahead in design, I realized I had done my gender a disservice. Ellen sighed, “Do you know a woman I could invite to be on the panel?” It was a sad, sad moment for me as I asked her, “Besides me?” In the pre-digital age, any professional accomplishments of mine were, like my name, gender-neutral. The night of the AIGA event, a highly revered male designer of a certain age sat to my left. He and I looked out at a rather large audience chock full of women. He whispered in an ominous tone, “Design certainly has changed.” I replied, “Fees are flat.” He added, “And half of the designers are women.” I took this to mean “women will be the downfall of the profession”—we were better off at home baking bread, bearing babies. A gust of cold wind swept across the stage. 

Many brave women of all stripes have made sacrifices to right injustices in our country, using their intelligence and insight to convene a coalition of like-minded activists. Women have often spoken truth to power in this way. City planner Jane Jacobs, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton (AKA Norma Rae), social activist and devout Catholic Dorothy Day, birth control activist Margaret Sanger, political activist Jane Fonda, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, feminist leaders Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and women’s advocate Eve Ensler are just some of the courageous well-known American women who have relentlessly swum against the tide. Even while each suffered harsh criticism, they all remained determined to manifest positive social change in the United States, in the world. All these women, in one way or another, vowed to speak truth to power, “to stick my neck out.” And so they did.

• Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson stood against the corporate destruction of the environment. She wrote the book Silent Spring more than half a century ago, garnering the attention of President Kennedy. Both were passionate about marine biology and so a bond was formed. Her work ultimately lead the United States government to ban pesticides like DDT, which were toxic to the Earth. Although Rachel was ostracized and demeaned (her critics said her thinking was backward), her wisdom prevailed and launched the environmental movement of today. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.