Portrait of Argentinian activist Azucena Villaflor by Rori If you’ve been paying attention to Wikipedia lately, you might have noticed some new portraits of lesser-known feminist figures on the online encyclopedia. They're all a part of the "100 Days 100 Women" series created by Rori, a St. Louis graphic designer and freelance illustrator. Although originally
If you’ve been paying attention to Wikipedia lately, you might have noticed some new portraits of lesser-known feminist figures on the online encyclopedia. They’re all a part of the “100 Days 100 Women” series created by Rori, a St. Louis graphic designer and freelance illustrator. Although originally a personal project started with no press or fanfare, “100 Days 100 Women” has turned into a bit of a phenomenon seen all over Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook with many online magazines covering Rori’s collection of feminist icons. Just before Rori’s 100 days were up in early November 2016, I had the chance to sit down with her to discuss US politics, trends in the study of world history, and of course, her project.Rori first came up with the idea of doing the “100 Days 100 Women” series during the 2016 Democratic Convention when she noticed that the convention was 102 days before the November 8th US election. A few more days and it would be 100 days until the election, she realized, a “nice round number.” Unable to resist the idea of creating a new portrait of a feminist figure every day for the next 100 days leading up to the election, Rori began compiling a list. Her goal was to highlight influential but little-known women. That meant that several Western feminist figures who “had more than one movie” to their name were vetoed.
[pullquote]Her goal was to highlight influential but little-known women. That meant that several Western feminist figures who “had more than one movie” to their name were vetoed.[/pullquote]”I just tried to balance a lot of things…[and be] inclusive across racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender…geographically, time-wise,” Rori acknowledged when I brought up the diversity of the women in the series, though she also acknowledged that her list was somewhat lacking. “No list of 100 women can truly be inclusive,” she added. “The best you could do is try to make it as inclusive as possible.”
Initially, Rori came up with a list of about 40 to 50 women on her own, but soon the popularity of the series inspired fans to make their own recommendations. Rori, a white woman, particularly gives credit to her international fans for suggesting non-American women of color such as Azucena Villaflor, the Argentinian human rights and social activist who worked to shed light on Argentina’s disappeared. “The international suggestions and the relative anonymity of the women suggested, however, meant that Rori spent a lot of time trying to find and read resources in other languages. “It was a lot of translating function on Google…the pronouns would always be wrong,” Rori laughed.
Aside from the language barrier, there was difficulty in finding sources in the first place. Without access to a network of university libraries, Rori had to depend mainly on the internet for information, as well as on photos or artistic depictions of each woman. But what about women like Murasaki Shikibu, history’s first-ever novelist, who lived long before the camera was invented and whose depiction was never captured by an artist? In those cases Rori would look at pictures or photos of “any surviving peoples that would be direct descendants.” If Rori really couldn’t find images of any peoples related to the woman in question she tried to pick peoples from the same area and base the portrait on someone’s real face. The result is a portrait series where each portrait is beautiful and wonderfully unique, a true testament to the estimated two to five hours Rori spent researching and illustrating each woman.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Rori isn’t even a history major. “I just always loved history ever since I was a kid,” Rori explained. This love helped fuel the series and opened Rori’s eyes to a lot of issues and movements not known by many Americans, including the global suffragist movement of the early 1900s. “[I]t wasn’t just the United States and England,” Rori explained. “It was in the Middle East and in Asia, in Australia, there were Maori suffragettes, there were Turkish suffragettes, there were Iranian suffragettes, there were Chinese suffragettes, and it was a global phenomenon and that gets cut out.” And because most of history gets written by the (Western) victor it becomes biased. “You don’t really have historical fact,” Rori mused, “You kinda just say ‘in my experience’ and not think what you think as a 21st-century person but think about where they were and what you believe and you just have to make this choice to believe.”
[pullquote]This love helped fuel the series and opened Rori’s eyes to a lot of issues and movements not known by many Americans, including the global suffragist movement of the early 1900s.[/pullquote]Which brought us to truth and today’s politics. “It’s always this narrative of righteous progress and that is inaccurate,” Rori noted of how history is portrayed. “I think it sets us up like the election to think like Trump is an outlier or fascism because history is a story of progress. It’s not, it’s edited. We edited out about 90% of [history.] I think people were just unprepared when you don’t learn any of that.”
And what about history in the making? “[E]ven [with] contemporary people there can be such a lack of first-person sources,” Rori commented. “What the person was like, what they actually thought, what they actually said…You kinda have to look at it like there’s probably layers…” And even when there are sources you have to beware of bias. “Every time someone’s done something amazing people are gonna take it and use it for their own purposes,” Rori admitted. “It’s very disturbing, there’s almost something non-consensual, that you become someone else’s property…because it’s you, but people are like, ‘we’re going to take you and use you for our ends.'” Like with art, I suggested.
Rori’s been kind enough to allow some educational organizations and charity organizations to print some of her art and has donated portraits to the Wikimedia Foundation to spruce up some of the profiles that lack depictions. Otherwise, however, she plans on retaining control over the use of much of the series and its derivative works. “I like having control over my work, it just really comes down to that,” Rori stated. When I pressed her she admitted that she’s worried about nefarious usage of her art that run counter to her intent. Given the truth of her statement about narratives being used for other people’s agendas, who can blame her? Look at Pepe, the cartoon frog that’s been adopted by fascists and white supremacists without creator Matt Furie’s consent and splashed all over the internet prior to the election as well as since.
Appropriately, the last portrait of Rori’s “100 Days 100 Women” series was released on election day and depicted Hillary Clinton. It’s hard not to feel that the whole thing is bittersweet, but like the series itself, there’s hope, too. Certainly, Rori hasn’t given up. In fact, she’s hardly slowed down. Since the official end of the “100 Days 100 Women” series in November, she’s continued producing portraits and larger illustrations of feminist icons including civil rights activists Ella Baker and Septima Poinsette Clark, anti-fascist resistance fighters Sophie Scholl, Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Sara Ginaite, and Salaria Kea, and actress and mental health activist Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. Rori also has more plans for her 100 women. Her long-term goal is a “100 Days 100 Women” book (hopefully to be translated into many different languages for her international fans!) while her short-term goal is a crowdfunding campaign to print posters of her series. In the meantime, you can get “100 Days 100 Woman” prints as well as political action postcards to send to your government representatives with $10.00 USD from each postcard set’s sale going to the ACLU.
History, feminism, and art turned into charity, civil rights, and political resistance. Nothing could be more appropriate.