It's been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was published and hundred years since suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was fatally injured during her protest for the cause of Votes for Women. Feminism rages on – in different guises and often clouded with irrelevant arguments about semantics by my shallow reckoning (dipping in and out of Guardian think pieces by Julie Burchill, Tanya Gold etc is enough to make your head spin) but not enough concrete or life-changing action seems to be happening.
The London-based artist Phoebe Davies makes comment on this through her thoughtful ongoing project Nailwraps: Influences, which seeks to answer in some part, what feminism is today and what it actually means to women at large. The premise is simple and yet highly effective. Davies worked in collaboration with groups of women exploring current attitudes to feminism and female expectations and aspirations, which resulted in a set of printed nail wraps depicting women of influence or significance, adding a meaningful dimension to the culture of nail art. Initially, it started off as a two month dialogue with 'Life for Girls', a pupil referral unit in Lewisham London, where they collectively researched attitudes towards female imagery, experiences of growing up as young women in London. The first set of wraps featured women such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi and Tavi Gevinson but then expanded to include more suggestions, which Davies took through Twitter and email as well as working with other social enterprise charities and groups. That expanded list includes more populist figures such as Coco Chanel, Jessica Ennis, Adele and Lena Dunham as well as leftfield pioneers like the artist Miranda July, choreographer Pina Bausch and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
At the Women of the World Festival at the South Bank Centre back in March, Davies set up a Nailwraps: Influences nail bar so that these designs could be applied and distributed. People were encouraged to learn about these icons and their achievements. You might say there's a dichotomy between the act of getting your nails done, something that gratifies your own personal vanity and that at best is a mere expression of aesthetic leanings, and the feminist struggle. Davies is unlikely to be in the hardline school of thought that dictates women who care about their appearances can't be feminists. In fact it's precisely something as simple as applying a set of themes nail wraps that at the very least, spurs people to think about their own aspirations and goals as women, when they look down at their hands and see what those famed women have achieved. There's a small chance that they might go on to further question why there's still a 9.6% pay gap in this country for full-time workers. Why only 22% of MPs are women. Why misogynistic attitudes still exist period.
Davies also created a nail set depicting African women of influence for an event for the site Styled by Africa, bringing in racial inequality issues that have yet to be fully resolved.
Most recently, Davies set up another nail bar, with a whole new set of designs as part of the Late at Tate event. She worked with the Tate Collective and university of the Arts London's student ambassadors to determine the women who have promoted innovative creative talent or campaigned for social change. The list of ten that could grace your pinkies and thumbs include my beloved fashion designer Louise Graph, the author Andrea Levy and the aforementioned Davison. I've applied them rather poorly (can't quite do the whole filing thing… female fail?) but you get the idea. Davies is still taking suggestions on Twitter for nail wrap subjects if you're interested in nominating your own heroines under the #femiheroes.