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Steve Schapiro, Martin Luther King Jr. (with Flag), Selma March, 1965 © Steve Schapiro & Fahey/Klein Gallery
Steve Schapiro, Martin Luther King Jr. (with Flag), Selma March, 1965 © Steve Schapiro & Fahey/Klein Gallery

The First Ladies exhibition at the Cross MacKenzie gallery follows the success of Fabulous, a four month solo show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. Both projects were created from a series I developed over the past fifteen years on extraordinary women who made significant contributions in the fields of arts, sciences, social justice. It is titled The Rebel Age and is part of a forthcoming book project.

We are in a time of necessary changes and today more than ever before it is vital that we share the lives, the strength and the wisdom of these extraordinary women. They are a source of inspiration and are as relevant today as they always were. They have shaped the world we live in. They fought for women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, equal pay and stood against sexual harassment, and violence against women.

For them it was all about debunking the beliefs and the myths about women as seen for hundred of years. They came a long way. There is still a very long way to go.

I started thinking of the The Rebel Age project in the early nineties shortly after I turned forty. Recently divorced, alone in Los Angeles with younger friends, I had this incessant question: what was it going to be like to age in a society where thirty was the beginning of the end? How will I be 70 and still be heard, seen, and feel relevant?

I looked for role models, women who made a difference, live their life at their own beat and continued to be creative in their later years. I set to photograph and interview women I always admired and discover what motivated them and inspired them to continue and stand for what they believe.

I found a lot more than a recipe for old age. I find a lifelong commitment to being the best that one can be, to continue to inspire and be inspired and to stand for one’s belief against convention, authority and societal beliefs. Through the course of some twenty years, I met writers, social activists, artists, business women. It became one of the most extraordinary ventures of my life.

In 1998, I photographed Beatrice Wood, an artist, a beacon of the Avant Garde, the friend of Marcel Duchamp. She was to be called “The mother of Dada“, a bona fide start to a series on women who lived life to their own beat. Certainly she did have a few tips on living your life to the fullest till her last breath. On my visit to her studio in Ojai, three months before her death at 103 (some say 105) she was still working at her kiln. She was living with a man significantly younger and declared to whom wanted to hear that she owed her longevity to young men and chocolate – not necessarily in this order.

A few months later, I met Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, the first American doll with an adult body who was a working girl, followed by Betty Friedan, the “housewife” who wrote The Feminine Mystique and became one of the pioneers of the Women’s Movement. “At my age,” she said, “you have a choice: to masturbate, become a lesbian, or share! I asked her which option she chose: she said: I share!”

Then came Jane Russell, the movie star who played Calamity Jane and Gentlemen Prefer Blonds with Marilyn Monroe. She founded in 1955 the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), and helped the adoption by American of thousands of foreign-born children. A certain twist in a movie star career.

While in New York I visited Muriel (Mickie) Siebert, the first woman to enter the New York stock exchange and take a seat with 1365 men. We talked about politics, the changing role of women in society.

Then came Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, the Grande Dames of the arts, Dolores Huerta, the First Latina who co founded with Cesar Chavez the National Farm Workers Association. At 85, she continued to protest against unfair business practices and any form of inequalities. She is proud to say that she was arrested 22 times and is still counting. She coined the phrase “Si Se Puede” – “Yes we can!” Three words that continue to tell the story.

I interviewed Helen Gurley Brown, who published Sex and the Single Girl when she was forty and was the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan for 32 years she received me in 2001 in a little pink mini dress bordered with pink fur. She also had a complain about sex in her eighties. “It is more and more difficult: You have to bring the sled and feed the huskies.” She was the one, in 1972, who had Burt Reynolds lay naked on a fur blanket for the first ever male centerfold.

Somehow the prosaic had met the sublime. Nothing with these women was as it seems. Most dressed conservatively and hid their iron fist in a velvet glove but all were extraordinary achievers: they have assured the place of women in society, they cracked the glass ceiling.

No woman is sitting at the head of the government yet but we have many first ladies:

Three female secretaries of state: Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton. A fabulous First Lady: Michelle Obama who stood for what is right and just. Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, Three women at the Supreme court: Justices Sonia Sotomayo, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nancy Pelosi, the minority Leader of the House of Representatives is the highest-ranking female politician in American history.

I am curious about the next generations. Will they beat their head against the wall or shatter the glass ceiling? Will they let some of the victories of the past century being challenged? Who will they have to be to have it all, do it all and be who they want to be? I wish the life and wisdom of these women will be the North Star for future generations.

Michele Mattei


Michele Mattei, The First Ladies
January 13 to Feburary 28, 2017
Cross MacKenzie Gallery
1675 Wisconsin Ave.
Washington DC, NW 20007

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Michèle Mattéi