How Frida Kahlo helped pave the way for female empowerment

Photo courtesy of friducha_arte (Flickr)

By Olivia Espinoza

Every year, we dedicate the month of March to recognizing the women who contributed to history and our society, otherwise known as Women’s History Month. This month invites us to reflect on the progress made in women’s rights and celebrates the brave women who took action to create a better future for all women. 

In the early 1900s, women were stuck in a society structured by strict patriarchal standards. The idea of a woman expressing herself in a “masculine” manner, sharing real womanly experiences and trauma while not shying away from politics, was rare and stigmatized. 

Then, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo presented her groundbreaking paintings to the world. 

Kahlo steered away from the beauty standards that were typically presented in art. She instead painted honest depictions of women’s bodies and experiences. The artist explored abortions, miscarriages, breastfeeding, and many other taboo subjects in her work. Discussion of many women’s issues such as these were considered improper for public conversation, but Kahlo pushed against this barrier to illustrate these subjects through her paintings.  

Kahlo’s surrealist painting “Henry Ford Hospital,” created in 1932 after she’d had a miscarriage, for example explores women’s emotions not often allowed in public in that time.

With the iconic uni-brow, shadowed mustache, and compliments of embellished flowers in her hair, Kahlo added both femininity and masculinity in her art, appearance, and lifestyle. 

She showed courage in exploring her identity at a young age. In her youth, she would take family portraits in a suit, while her sisters and mother would wear dresses. Kahlo would smoke, box, and compete in tequila challenges against men. She refused to alter any of her “masculine” features because they were among the things she loved most about her looks. 

She once wrote in her diary: The most important part of the body is the brain. Of my face, I like the eyebrows and eyes.”

Even in her self-portraits, she would exaggerate her “masculine” features because she adored them. 

Kahlo’s demonstration of the beauty in her “masculine” features opened doors for other women to experiment with their appearance and allow uniqueness beyond strictly feminine beauty standards to shine. 

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you,” Kahlo said.

Through her art, Kahlo also exposed her physical and emotional trauma. The artist suffered from polio starting at the age of six and was diagnosed with spina bifida at the age of 18. She even suffered a nearly-fatal car accident that left her unable to bear children. However, Kahlo used her experiences as fuel to create her art, showing her audience that pain is indeed a part of life, but a part we shouldn’t let ourselves be defined by. 

“Frida is an inspiration because, as a woman and an artist, she broke a lot of barriers. People think she is only an icon because she defied society’s beauty standards, but she was way more than that. She gave us a lesson in resilience,” Mexican painter, photographer, and sculptor Erika Harrsch said in an interview with Nylon Magazine. 

Harrsch reflects Kahlo’s deeply personal work and self-exploration in her own artwork.

Even with the major impact she made through her art, she didn’t stop there. Kahlo joined the Cachuchas, an informed young people’s group that rebelled against everything consvervative and openly discussed philosophy. In the last years of her life, she still participated in demonstrations against the CIA’s invasion of Guatemala. 

Frida Kahlo was a critical figure who helped give women in the early 1900s hope of freedom from the patriarchy. Even today, she still empowers women to continue the fight. 

“I must fight with all my strength so that the little positive things that my health allows me to do might be pointed toward helping the revolution. The only real reason for living,” Kahlo said. 

Self‑Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn by Frida Kahlo  *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Niña con máscara de la muerta (Girl with Death Mask) by Frida Kahlo 1938 Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston