Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we meet illustrator and designer Jane Bowyer, whose Women in Print project highlights women from history and provides a platform for contemporary female artists.
Several years ago, Jane Bowyer was working at a graphic design agency in Manchester when she got involved in her local No More Page 3 campaign. The experience got her thinking – not just about how women were depicted in tabloids and lads’ mags, but about the ways in which images of women were used elsewhere in advertising and the media, and in her own “very, very male-dominated” field.
“There were a few campaigns I was working on that relied on very outdated stereotypes of women to sell things,” the 29-year-old says. Not only that, but she noticed that whereas the women employees at her agency were almost always put to work on female-orientated projects, “the men were allowed to work on anything”.
“It was frustrating,” she says. “And when I thought about the kind of women you see in print, I realised that it was very two-dimensional.” The images on offer were “very much like the virgin or the slut, or the bubbly blonde or the cold-hearted feminist bitch.” She decided that she “wanted to challenge the way women are portrayed in print” – and soon after, Women in Print was born.
Launched in 2016, Women in Print is an initiative set up by Bowyer to raise the profiles of significant women from the 19th and 20th centuries, and to give a platform to contemporary female artists. Over the last two years, she has commissioned over a dozen illustrators and designers to create beautiful prints of historical women, including suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, birth control pioneer Marie Stopes and comedian Victoria Wood.
On the Women in Print website, you’ll find prints honouring sportswomen, librarians, journalists and scientists, painters, playwrights and feminist academics, in a striking variety of styles. Binding all the works together is the fact that each depicts a woman who was either from the Greater Manchester area, or who made an important contribution to Manchester’s history. Similarly, Bowyer only commissions female artists from the north of England to create the prints.
Honouring the work of northern women is important to Bowyer, who grew up in Manchester. The women depicted by Women in Print “were absent from my history lessons growing up, and are still absent now in most conversations about the success of Manchester as a city and the success of the area,” she says.
She is also conscious of the need to raise the profiles of women working outside the “very insular” London design scene. While Manchester’s status as an artistic hotspot is becoming more broadly recognised, some creative publications still tend to “focus only on London and the rest of the country is ignored,” she says.
This can present something of a double obstacle for women working in cities such as Manchester. “It’s more challenging as a woman designer to get your work into publications anyway,” Bowyer says. “Add on the fact that you’re based in the north, and it’s just another barrier to overcome in terms of getting national recognition. So I liked the idea of promoting northern talent.”
An initial Women in Print exhibition took place in 2016, with another show currently on at Dunham Massey, a National Trust stately home in Altrincham, Greater Manchester (until November). The first exhibition was very much a passion project: Bowyer researched, organised and curated it around her day job as a freelance designer, with all of the artists contributing work for free and all proceeds going to Manchester Women’s Aid. (Women in Print also supports The Monthly Gift Manchester, a campaign that aims to increase donations of sanitary products to homeless charities and foodbanks.)
Today, all proceeds from Women in Print still go to charity, and Bowyer still juggles the project alongside her commercial work. But the support from the National Trust allowed her to offer paid commissions to contributing artists – as well as earn money from the initiative herself for the first time.
“It was never about making money, it was just about addressing those issues and being able to raise money for Manchester Women’s Aid,” she says. “But the great thing about being approached by an organisation like the National Trust was that it then filtered into my actual day-to-day work.”
While she suspects she could earn more at a prestigious creative agency, Bowyer is happier being able to pick and choose her own projects as a freelance designer. Part of this is down to the fact that “lad culture” is still prevalent in many male-dominated agencies, she says.
“People have said to me, ‘We’d really like to get you in to work with our agency, but just to let you know, it’s quite laddy in our office, there’s lots of talk about tits,’” she says. “I just think, you shouldn’t be telling me that! I’m one professional meeting another; it’s weird that you’re trying to gauge what my attitude is towards that [kind of culture].”
Her advice to other female designers is based on her own experiences. “The best thing for me was to break out and do my own thing,” she says. “I feel like agencies are still set up on a very old-fashioned, patriarchal way of approaching business and relationships, and if you climb up through those structures, at some point you’re going to have to conform to that patriarchal model in some way. Whereas if you work for yourself, you can redefine what success is.”
Women in Print focuses on highlighting women’s successes, but Bowyer also thinks it’s worth reconsidering what we mean when we talk about success.
“There’s a focus on success as being the creative director of an amazing agency. But is that really what success is?” she says. “Can success be running your own business, even if it’s small and never reaches a big financial turnover, if that’s what makes you happy and you’re doing the kind of work that you want to do? I feel like conversations need to shift around what success actually is, rather than always aiming for the top position at some agency.
“For some people, and I include myself in this, it’s more rewarding to see your work doing good on a smaller scale than to do a massive campaign that gets seen by millions of people,” she concludes. “I’d rather make meaningful work than cool work.” We think she’s making both.
Images: Courtesy of Jane Bowyer