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Women’s History Month: Feminism and Art

Women’s History Month has become a great excuse for me to delve through the Oxford Online Resources. Today’s excerpt is from Grove Art Online, which provides web access to the entire text of The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner and The Oxford Companion to Western Art, ed. Hugh Brigstocke. The excerpt below, by Lisa Tickner, is about the convergence of art and feminism. Be sure to check out our other posts in this series, On Female Body Experience and Feminism.


Feminist art is work that is rooted in the analyses and commitments of contemporary feminism and that contributes to a critique of the political, economic and ideological power relations of contemporary society. It is not a stylistic category nor simply any art produced by women.

1. The ‘woman question’ and women artists in the 19th century.

‘Feminism’ (Lat. femina: ‘woman’) referred originally to the qualities of women. It did not come into use as a term denoting ‘advocacy of the claims and rights of women’ (OED) until 1895, after a century of debate on ‘the woman question’ or ‘women’s rights’. It cannot be coincidence that a flurry of books devoted to women artists, the first exhibitions that grouped them together as women and the first opportunities for their serious education and employment all accompanied the rise and influence of the Victorian women’s movement. Both as professionals and as amateurs, women became artists in large numbers for the first time in the 19th century: what Virginia Woolf called the ‘battle of the Royal Academy’ was one among many: the battle of Westminster, the battle of Whitehall, the battle of Harley Street. Art was open to women in a way that the institutionalized professions of politics, religion, law and (until the 1870s) medicine were not. The idea of the woman artist, if increasingly familiar, was, however, still deeply uncomfortable. The serious pursuit of art was understood to be incompatible with the demands of femininity, just as the attributes of femininity were incompatible with the production of good art.

A keen awareness of these contradictions made many women artists feminists, and feminists were interested in the woman artist, not only because she was a type of the skilled and independent woman but because women’s supposed lack of cultural creativity was often given as a reason for denying them the vote. In 1897 the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage published a list of suffrage supporters that included the names of 76 women painters, among them Lady Butler, Henrietta Rae, Annie Louisa Swynnerton and Lucy Madox Rossetti. From 1907, after the foundation of the Artists’ Suffrage League (followed in 1909 by the Suffrage Atelier), women lent their artistic skills to the propaganda of an elaborate political campaign… Until then women, in flight from the newly insistent and inferior category of the female artist, tended to concede the conventional wisdom that ‘art has no sex’.

2. The Women’s Liberation Movement and art institutions.

Feminism’s ‘second wave’ emerged in the USA at the end of the 1960s… The emphasis on equal opportunity led women artists to organize against institutional discrimination. The emphasis on a self-defined sexuality encouraged feminists to challenge the images of femininity then current in advertising, pornography and the mass media; it also led to exploration of alternative representations of and for women, and ultimately into an analysis of how representation itself produces social definitions of femininity and determines the way experiences are perceived.

In 1969 women from the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York formed Women Artists in Revolution or WAR. This was followed by a second breakaway group in 1970, the Ad Hoc Committee (of women artists), which was organized to fight institutional discrimination, beginning with the picketing of the Whitney Museum of American Art. At the Whitney Annual of 1969 less than 6% of the work had been by women; the exhibition of 1970 included 22% of work by women. Further demonstrations took place at the County Museum of Art, Los Angeles (1970), the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1971), and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1972). In 1971 WAR and Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (W.S.A.B.A.L.) observed in a letter to the Human Rights Commission that women constituted 52.5% of the American population, 60–75% of the art students, but only 5% of the artist population in galleries and 3% of that in museums. The early editions of H. W. Janson’s standard text-book A History of Art (1962 and 1977) ignored women, and Arnold Hauser’s multi-volume Social History of Art (1951) included only one in a list of 450 names.
Women were also poorly represented in contemporary reviews. This led feminist artists to organize independent exhibitions and women’s cooperatives and galleries such as the feminist A.I.R. (founded in 1972 and housing the Women’s Art Registry) and SoHo 20 (opened in 1973)…

Artists in New York emphasized equal representation and economic parity, but during the 1970s there was also an active women’s art movement in California, which placed greater emphasis on what it perceived as specifically female content (related to women’s bodies and female experiences) and feminine sensibility…

In London the first Women’s Liberation Art Group exhibition was held at the Woodstock Gallery in 1971; the first to make a public impact, however—and bring upon Monica Sjoo the threat of obscenity and blasphemy charges for her painting God Giving Birth—was the Womanpower exhibition held at Swiss Cottage Library in April 1973.… The Women’s Art History Collective, which began meeting in 1972, joined women artists’ groups to picket the Hayward Gallery Condition of Sculpture exhibition in 1975, after the model of the Whitney demonstrations, demanding 50% representation in state-housed and subsidized exhibitions and on Arts Council selection panels; in 1978 the Hayward Annual was selected, controversially, by an all-woman panel and reviewed in the press, as ‘The Girls’ Own Annual’ and ‘Ladies’ Night at the Hayward’, in terms that reiterated the 19th-century category of ‘feminine’ creativity. Thereafter it was tacitly recognized that women should be represented on major grant-awarding bodies and selection committees, although a level of institutional discrimination remained.

…Much feminist work was exhibited in libraries, women’s centers or other non-gallery spaces, sometimes from necessity but often as a matter of principle. For some, ‘art’ was primarily a form of expression and communication between women rather than something to put in a gallery. The Feministo Postal Event (1975), which developed from an exchange of objects through the post between a network of women, both professional and amateur artists, was characteristic of collaborative work only later exhibited as Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife (1976–7). Jo Spence’s ‘photo-therapy’ was based on a refusal to acknowledge traditional distinctions between photography, communication, therapy and ‘art’. For others, the point was to reach an audience in the overlap between avant-garde interests and those of the women’s movement, to address feminist and art-world constituencies at the same time. May Stevens suggested that where their political intent is unrealized, feminist works in museums and galleries ‘hang like unopened letters, unanswered invitations’ (Robinson, p. 181).

3. Feminism and representation, the 1970s.

At the same time that feminist artists struggled for equal rights in existing institutions and set up alternatives of their own, they worked at developing a political culture that would intervene in the ‘interlocking network of images, values, identities which saturate our daily living’ (Parker and Pollock, 1987, p. 79). This has involved transformations or role reversals at the level of content (e.g. Sylvia Sleigh’s male nudes and other images by women of men); cultural ‘heroinism’, exemplified by Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (installation, 1974–9); and great goddess and matriarchal imagery (Mary Beth Edelson, Monica Sjoo). The Red Poster Workshop produced overtly propagandist graphics, while the social position of working-class women was treated in works by Kay Hunt, Mary Kelly and Margaret Harrison from the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union and the Hackney Flashers. The subject of women’s health was tackled by Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson, and particularly explicitly in Jo Spence’s photographs. Women’s relation to the unconscious and the unspoken was treated by Susan Hiller. An emphasis on such uniquely female experiences as menstruation and motherhood and on domesticity was made in work by Judy Chicago, Vivienne Binns and Kate Walker. Artists such as Lynda Benglis, Hannah Wilke and Suzanne Santoro celebrated the female body in its difference, often using parodied glamour imagery, or what the American critic Barbara Rose termed ‘vaginal iconology’… Among artists, as in the Women’s Movement itself, there existed a plurality of feminist positions and strategies. Feminist art drew on the possibilities of conceptual, environmental, scripto-visual, film, video and performance work, or on more traditional techniques of painting and sculpture. In certain circumstances it may not be the intention of the producer but the eye of the beholder and the context in which the work appears that secures its political reading: Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings were, to her dismay, perceived as celebratory sexual images by feminists; in the context of the Women’s Images of Men exhibition, Elisabeth Frink’s bronze heads lost their generalized humanism and became pointedly masculine. ‘Feminism’ is not necessarily a consciously determined ingredient of the work but a product of the relation between the work and the representations of a dominant culture, a particular audience, and the uses to which it is put. It has also been argued that there is no feminist art but only art that can be read as feminist….

4. (?)Post-feminism, the 1980s and the 1990s.

The three exhibitions at the ICA in 1980 represented a turning-point in the institutional visibility of feminist art in Britain. The influence of theories of ideology and the subject (in particular the impact of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis) encouraged a shift away from ‘cultural feminism’ towards a recognition of the processes of sexual differentiation and of the hopelessness of excavating a free or original femininity beneath the layers of patriarchal ‘oppression’. The vexed question of whether men could make feminist work was answered in the 1980s by an increase in the number of men making work about masculinity (e.g. Victor Burgin and Sunil Gupta). A younger generation of women came to take the insights of feminism for granted, dealing with gender and identity through parody and masquerade: Laurie Anderson used a voice coder to heighten her sexual ambiguity; Cindy Sherman presented herself as the object of the look while refusing, in a mobility of self-constructed identities, to be discovered in it; Barbara Kruger’s montages offered women the pleasure of answering back. Despite a use of neutral pronouns, the posited spectator is invariably male (We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture).

Feminism is no longer (necessarily) marginal. Jenny Holzer and Rebecca Horn (in 1989 and 1993 respectively) have had solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum; Jenny Holzer was selected for the American Pavilion at the Venice Bienniale (1990); Rachel Whiteread became the first woman to win the Turner Prize (1993) at the Tate Gallery. At the same time, and perhaps significantly, the visceral strand in 1970s feminist art has re-emerged in work by such artists as Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finlay, Sue Williams and Kiki Smith, and in publications including Angry Women (1991) and Bad Girls (1993). The foreword in Bad Girls claims to chart a reaction against the puritanism and ‘hard-edged didactic work’ of the 1980s in favor of a return to ‘the surrealist traditions of Louise Bourgeois and Meret Oppenheim’ and ‘the aggressive camp of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party’. It is now almost impossible to generalize about feminist art…

… There is no perfect marriage between feminism (as a political ideology) and art (as a cultural activity). Feminism promises at the same time to enrich the products of art, to expose the pretensions and vested interests in art and to break open the category of art altogether.

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  1. Askia

    while this article is very well written It has 2 critical errors. One the extreme generalizations about African indigenous societies and the coming of Islam to Africa. The other error is in using the word Feminism, which is better avoided. Womens rights = feminism is debatable. I would say constant borrowing of words which are loaded weakens our agency as African people.

    But on the 1st point. Islam is far too dynamic to be placed in the context the writer tries to do. It is basically taking a very Western position (i.e. Islam removes Womens rights) and placing it in Ancient African history. There was far more Justice for the African women under Islamic rule of Songhai than in pre-Islamic Mali. This is beyond debate. There is far more justice with Sharia in Sokoto than in any other part of history. Didn’t Uthman Dan Fodio pave the way for this so-called debate around women equality? Was he not a hardcore Muslim. So we must be careful in how we approach history and how we use terms like Arab invasion. Because there was also an Ethiopian invasion of Arabia so we lose our objectivity if we continue to inherit these little phobias and perceptions.

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Women’s History Month: Feminism

I was raised on “Free To Be You And Me,” and my favorite story in it was of Atalanta, a young princess who lived “happily ever after” in a very modern way (check it out for yourself). The story, off an album from the 70’s, narrated by Alan Alda, inspired the little feminist in me.

Why I am blogging about fairytales? Because March is Women’s History Month and to celebrate we will be presenting a post each Thursday related to this year’s theme, “Generations of Women Moving History Forward.” While the stars of “Free To Be You and Me,” like Marlo Thomas and Roberta Flack inspired me, generations of women laid down the path that I now follow. To kick off the celebrations we have excerpted the introduction from Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters. We hope that Walters’s introduction will impress upon you the changing role of Feminism throughout history. Be sure to check back next week!

‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is’, the writer Rebecca West remarked, sardonically, in 1913. ‘I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’ The word was a comparatively new one when she wrote; it had only Feminism
appeared in English – from the French – in the 1890s. Interestingly, the earliest examples of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary carried negative meanings. In 1895 the Athenaeum sneeringly referred to a piece about a woman whose ‘coquetting with the doctrines of feminism’ are traced with real humor. ‘In Germany feminism is openly socialistic’, the Daily Chronicle shuddered in 1908, and went on to dismiss out of hand ‘suffragists, suffragettes and all the other phases in the crescendo of feminism’.

In those years, some writers used an alternative term – ‘womanism’ – with the same hostility. One long-forgotten writer was roused to angry sneers in his memoirs when he recalled meeting an intellectual woman living in Paris (she comes across, despite his prejudices, as lively and interesting) whose writings reflected ‘the strong-minded womanism of the nineteenth century’.

Curiously, one of the sharpest attacks on the word ‘feminism’ came from Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One’s Own is such an effective and engaging plea for women. In Three Guineas, written in 1938 in the shadow of fascism and of approaching war, and probably nervous about any ‘-ism’, she rejects the word out of hand. No one word can capture the force ‘which in the nineteenth century opposed itself to the force of the fathers’, she insists, continuing:

Those nineteenth century women were in fact the advance guard of your own movement. They were fighting the tyranny of the patriarchal state as you are fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.

They were called, to their resentment, feminists, she claims (she is historically inaccurate – the word was unknown in the previous century), and she goes on to insist that we must

destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day. The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated. That word, according to the dictionary, means ‘one who champions the rights of women.’ Since the only right, the right to earn a living has been won, the word no longer has a meaning. And a word without a meaning is a dead word, a corrupt word.

But though Virginia Woolf ’s ‘right to earn a living’ was, and remains, central to feminism, getting on for a century after she wrote it is clear that its attainment by no means solved all women’s problems. Women’s work – despite the much-publicized earnings of some high-fliers in the business world – remains lower paid; or, in the case of housework, not paid at all. When Woolf was writing in the 1920s, feminists had hardly begun to articulate, let alone address, women’s special problems: issues to do with childbirth and child-rearing, or the strain on women who had to combine housework and/or childcare with work outside the home.

…. When women began to organize again in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement called itself Women’s Liberation (borrowing the term from black, Third World, and student movements). This was often shortened, sometimes affectionately, sometimes in a derogatory way, to ‘women’s lib’. But those years also saw the word ‘feminism’ being brought back into general use, and its meaning was extended. Though there was still a justified concern that civil and legal equality had not been fully achieved, the new movement tended to concentrate on problems specific to women in their reproductive and social roles. In those years, too, feminists in Britain made an attempt, at least, to reach out across national boundaries and discover what they had – or did not have – in common with feminists abroad.

But how often, still, do we hear women anxiously asserting ‘I’m not a feminist but . . . ’ as they go on to make claims that depend upon, and would be impossible without, a feminist groundwork? The American feminist Estelle Freedman argues that right from its origins, the word has carried negative connotations; that surprisingly few politically engaged women have styled themselves feminists. In the 1990s some feminists in England and the United States identified and warned against a ‘backlash’ against feminism and its undoubted achievements. Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley, for example, called their third collection of essays Who’s Afraid of Feminism?, with a cartoon of a big bad wolf on the original jacket cover. They argued that ‘attacks on feminism frequently merge into a wider misogyny’; ‘the feminist’ is now the name given to the disliked or despised woman, much as ‘man-hater’ or ‘castrating bitch’, ‘harridan’ or ‘witch’, were used before the 1960s. They added that women also have to expose and eradicate the misogyny inherent in feminism itself.

Just as troubling is the caution that the term ‘feminism’ seems to arouse in many younger women, a surprising number of whom seem to shy away from the concept. One English tabloid recently published a double-page spread entitled ‘Is Feminism Dead?’, which managed, neatly enough, to sit on the fence; equal space was devoted to arguments yes and no, to those who felt the term was still urgently relevant, and to those who were sure it was dated, even embarrassing, and should be retired. The piece was illustrated with a photograph of ‘militant women’s libbers’ picketing a Miss World demonstration. (In fact, everyone in the photo was laughing.) Faintly embarrassed, I recognized my much younger self, with long hair and long skirts, clutching a distinctly uninspired placard announcing that ‘women are people too’. I had almost forgotten that the Miss World contests still existed (in those bad old days it was on prime-time television), until in 2002 the event received unexpected publicity, first when Nigerian militants demonstrated violently against its ‘parade of nudity’, which they thought would encourage promiscuity and Aids, then when several contestants refused to participate because a young Nigerian woman, sentenced to death under Islamic sharia law for having become pregnant outside marriage, was reprieved – but only until she had weaned her baby. The beauty queens’ gesture was both courageous and effective, though interestingly, one insisted, with a hint of anxiety, that she took up her stand, certainly not because she was a feminist, or even because she was a woman, but because she was a human being.

When I recently asked some women in their early 20s – some of whom were university educated, others working, and all, clearly, beneficiaries of earlier battles for women’s rights – whether they considered themselves feminists, or indeed had any interest in feminism, most of them replied, flatly, no. The very term itself, one woman claimed, sounds stuffy and out of date. Feminism, she felt, has become, on the one hand, a playground for extremists – she termed them ‘fundamentalists’ – who had nothing useful to say to women like herself. On the other hand, she argued, feminism has become ‘institutionalized’, and she compared it to communism: it demands commitment, not simply to ideas, but to a generalized ideology. Moreover, she added, it is nowadays just another academic subject. You can get a degree in ‘gender studies’ and that, she felt, is the real kiss of death: proof, if any were needed, that feminism is no longer urgently relevant. Perhaps these younger women will feel differently in ten years or so, when they find themselves juggling family, housework, and a job; perhaps they will find that they need to re-invent feminism to suit their own experience. But in a way, I hope they will not need to.

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  1. Mindy

    I am proud to say that the editor of this very blog is the wonderful woman who introduced me to “Free To Be You and Me” only about a year ago. You’re never too old for this movie and it certainly brought out the “little feminist” in me as well. Happy Women’s History Month, OUP!!!

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