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The transing of Marlow Moss

It is narcissistic to project our own ideas back through history

Born in London in 1889, the artist Marlow Moss spent her childhood in a world where women needed to know their place; they didn’t have the vote and weren’t allowed to own property or serve on a jury. 

As an artist she encountered misogyny from the start of her career, when her guardian insisted he would only pay for her tuition if she agreed to never turn professional, to the end when her plan to open an English chapter of the French abstract club Groupe Espace was scuppered by the better known Henry Moore and Victor Pasmore partially because she was a woman. She was a member of the International Women’s Art Club — a sisterhood of artists aiming to help each other in a male dominated world. 

The fact that she had changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow aged 28 after a “shock of an emotional nature” which led her to abandon her studies at the Slade school of art and adopt a more masculine way of dressing — cropped hair, jodhpurs — did not mean people stopped seeing her as a woman. Just as, when she fled occupied Europe on a fishing trawler at the start of World War Two — leaving behind both her work and her girlfriend — she knew that being an atheist did not mean the Nazis would stop seeing her as a Jew. 

And for decades … she was an almost forgotten artist

And for decades, like thousands of other female painters and sculptors, she was an almost forgotten artist — literally a footnote in the story of her friend Piet Mondrian whose work she inspired. But in 2014 the Tate — which along with other museums realised they didn’t have many female artists on their walls (they had her work in their vault) — decided to help revive interest in her. And they did a good job of it until now.  

Marlow’s battle with misogyny doesn’t make it into the Tate’s latest literature because the fashion has moved on. The pecking order of the oppression Olympics has changed — some might say reverted. Women are OUT. Trans is IN. And while Marlow was a non-gender conforming lesbian, as many lesbians have been throughout the centuries, the museum has decided to posthumously trans the artist — a retelling of history which might even leave George Orwell gasping — and which is reminiscent of the controversial Mormon practice of baptising dead people including Jewish Holocaust victims and the Queen Mother. 

But perhaps even more invidiously, it has decided to use her newly crowned “non binary” status to teach children that they should always use pronouns. 

In this new description of Marlow the grammatically onerous pronouns they/ them are used throughout. “Was Marlow male or female? Or neither? We are not totally sure,” says the literature even though, actually, we are totally sure that she was female. 

‘We do know that Marlow loved their name which they picked themselves,’ continues the museum’s website. ‘This is something that a lot of artists and LDBTQ+ people do because it helps them tell the world who they are and how they want to be understood.’ I wonder what JK Rowling and George Eliot were trying to tell us when they changed their names. 

The museum then continues in a vein which reads more like gender ideology propaganda than anything to do with art: 

Perhaps if Marlow was alive today, the artist would identify as transgender, which means that your gender is different to the one that the doctors or midwives presumed you were when you were born, or non-binary, which means that neither the word ‘boy’ nor ‘girl’ are a good fit for you. We’ve used the pronoun ‘they’ in this article because it can be used for all genders, and is handy if you’re unsure what to call someone.

‘Do you prefer to describe yourself as she, he or they? Do you think you could ask someone their pronouns while making them feel comfortable and respected? Sharing your pronouns is a great way to make people feel comfortable with sharing theirs.

It is genuinely chilling; the demands of gender ideology being sneaked into our youngest minds. 

The they/ theme continues in a short video on the museum’s Facebook page in which it ponders the mystery of why she was only ever in Mondrian’s shadow; because, of course, if you can’t name her as a woman, you can’t name misogyny. And a they/ them label has gone up next to Marlow’s work at the St Ives Tate — as discovered by The Critic writer Jo Bartosch

But, interestingly, the Tate’s page on Marlow from 2014 for grown-ups hasn’t been updated; she remains gloriously female for those old enough to scratch their heads at the idea of demanding people’s pronouns. 

A brief glance at the Tate online shows that Marlow isn’t the only female artist who have been “deadclaimed”. Claude Cahun, an androgynous French photographer and artist who assumed a variety of male and female performative characters but always referred to herself as “elle” is also given “they/ them” pronouns. 

Perhaps this should not be surprising. The Tate is a Stonewall champion, it co-authored a teaching guide with transgender lobby group Gendered Intelligence and in February hosted controversial Drag Queen Aida H Dee for their children’s half term event. 

We don’t know what Marlow would have thought if she was alive today; perhaps she really would have lapped up the idea of being non-binary or perhaps she’d be a radical feminist and a butch lesbian and recoiled at the idea of ever being told she didn’t know what her essential sex was. But there are some things that we do know: she did use she/ her pronouns and was addressed as Miss Moss. And as a woman living in an extremely patriarchal world, she knew that she couldn’t change her sex as easily as changing her name and her clothing. 

This feels like oppression heaped on oppression. Women have always been penalised for their sex in the art world: even after the brief flurry of women’s rights being talked about in the #MeToo era, a poll last year found that just seven per cent of art in top galleries was created by women. In the 1980s, as recounted by Marlow’s biographer Lucy Howarth, the Tate’s director Alan Bowness told artist Michael Canney that Moss’s work would remain forever in the vault. 

The transing of Marlow also follows other examples of the frankly sinister and offensive rewriting of iconic female figures from history. Joan of Arc was portrayed as non-binary in a new play at The Globe last year. An academic writing for the theatre claimed that Elizabeth I was also likely to be non-binary — of course — and that people criticising this were denying the “historical existence of trans experience”. 

Women were labelled as bigots for asking that strong females from history should not automatically be regarded as not-women — that there is something male about being extraordinary. But who is the bigot here?

Historic men never seem to get the same treatment — and there are simply far too few celebrated women for us to be told they weren’t really women after all. Marlow’s lesbian and female experiences have been erased and it’s no coincidence that it goes hand in hand with an ideology in which young girls are being told that if they aren’t feminine enough, they must not really be women. 

This ideology that females all have to adhere to stereotypes — the dresses, the long hair — is a regression to a time when Marlow would recognise. A time when women were told to be quiet and stop rocking the boat. But like her, we won’t conform to what society is demanding we do.

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