Julia Rothman was studying the art featured in her bathroom magazine collection when she realized that every cover in the stack had been created by a man. She dug into the magazine’s archives to investigate the year’s covers, and discovered that out of 55 covers released in 2015, only four had been created by female-identified artists.
“I called Wendy MacNaughton and I was like, ‘Did you know about this,” said Rothman. “‘This is wild and terrible and what do you think? And what should we do about it?’ Ultimately, we decided it wasn’t the specific magazine, it was something more systemic and across the board, and we should try to do something positive instead of ousting a magazine that is just one of many.”
When Women Who Draw launched in 2016, Rothman and MacNaughton reached out to about 50 of their female illustrator friends to join the database. “We had no idea it was going to be this huge thing, but it grew and grew. On the first day the whole thing crashed because so many people tried to get on.” Today, there are 4,000 female illustrators on the site.
In order to be included on the site, female-identified artists are required to upload an image of a woman and have a professional website. There are options to self-identify by ethnicity/race, religion, location, or orientation, but none of those fields are mandatory. Female illustrators looking to identify as white or straight won’t find those boxes to check on the sign-up form. And on the flipside, potential clients exploring the Women Who Draw database can’t search explicitly for white or straight talent. Rothman explains: “The idea of the site is to promote women of color and groups that are underrepresented, so why would we have a function that could weed out all of those people?”
And yet, there are plenty of illustrators on the site who are both white and straight. “I’m a white woman who’s not LGBTQ+, so I identify as East Coast and Jewish,” said Rothman. “The idea is if you have an article about Hannukah, you want to hire somebody who knows something about it. Or you just want to hire from a more diverse group so you can have a bigger perspective from all different kinds of people. A lot of art directors used to say, ‘I would hire more African American illustrators if I knew who they were.’ Now they can never say that because it’s easy to find them. Here they are.”
Despite their vision for the site’s future, the unexpected growth of Women Who Draw has not inspired Rothman and MacNaughton to hold tighter to the reins. “Once this took off, we realized we could extend it and make more sites, like women who write, women who direct. In the end, that’s the big dream. To collaborate and have a lot of different genres of women working in directories of all kinds.”
Rothman and MacNaughton share the brunt of the work that goes into maintaining Women Who Draw, and they’ve brought on a coordinator, illustrator Kaylani McCard, to help keep up with things. For independent artists with jobs, projects, and lives of their own, it starts to look like a lot to handle. “Yes and no. We all should do our part. And it’s just illustration. I hope other people will feel inspired by two women thinking ‘Oh, this sucks, let’s make a change.’ And we did. And it’s working.”