How Art Fought for Women's Rights

Art History

March 8, 2018

What better occasion to talk about women’s rights than the International Women’s Day? It’s another March 8th, and yet another opportunity to honor female figures throughout history who have fought for equal rights and helped pave the way to equality.

It is certain that the 20th century propelled the greatest progress in highlighting the issues and achieving fulfillment of some basic rights, like the right to vote. But it wasn’t until feminism that the fight gained its momentum, through direct and constant approach and determined calls to action.

Feminism’s most powerful tool for transmitting the message was surely - art, in all its forms. It is true that women were present in art history both as artists and models, but only the latter is widespread and offers plenty of information, while the former barely stands ground. It was the men who painted women, often objectifying and misinterpreting them, and the topic seems to be more than recurrent.

While there’s no doubt some of them are world’s greatest artworks, it was time to bring to light also the achievements of women in the field, and to do it now.

International Women's Day - Louise Bourgeois - Femme Maison, 1946-47
Louise Bourgeois - Femme Maison, 1946-47

The Start of a Revolution

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin asked Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in the title of an article. The answer probably lies in the fact that women were neglected as artists, or anything that differed from their assigned roles, whichever period that was in.

A few lucky women, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, managed to create art and be successful at it, although many think it was due to her much more famous husband, photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz.

Thus, it was a real shock when Yoko Ono performed her 1964 Cut Piece. In it, the artist sat on the floor in a traditional, passive Japanese pose and let complete strangers cut pieces of her clothes until she was naked. This act was loudly protesting violence against women and it was the first of its kind to cry out for women's rights. It happened around the same time when Gloria Steinem’s PlayBoy diary and Simone De Bouvoir’s The Second Sex were published.

Challenging the domestic roles of women was Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the “maintenance artist” who, as part of her Maintenance Art manifesto, performed in an art gallery by cleaning it, in 1969. It was the time when the second-wave feminism kicked in, and women’s art was ready to finally get the attention it deserved.

International Women's Day - Yoko Ono - Cut Piece, 1964
Yoko Ono - Cut Piece, 1964

The Feminist Art Movement

And so, art started to be seen as a powerful medium to introduce the world to a woman’s point of view about their socio-political status, to describe their lives, personal experiences, to show a woman’s body in a different light, coming from the very owner of it.

The goal of it all was to create change, and since female artists were neglected by the institutions and it was hard for them to exhibit in museums and galleries, they had to do it on their own.

They created opportunities by forming their own galleries, in which they curated and promoted women artists’ works and turned them various publications - they even founded schools for feminist art.

It was Judy Chicago who taught the first women’s art class in the fall of 1970 in Fresno, but she didn’t stop there: Womanhouse was a collaborative feminist art exhibition that developed into a feminist studio space and promoted the concept of collaborative women's art.

International Women's Day - Yayoi Kusama - Accumulation #2, 1966
Yayoi Kusama - Accumulation #2, 1966

The Dinner Party

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party installation is considered the first great feminist artwork.

In possibly the greatest homage paid to women ever, Chicago formed a triangular table with 39 place settings, each to an individual mythical and historical female figure. Each place included a hand-painted china plate (evoking a vagina-esque form), ceramic cutlery and a gold-embroidered napkin.

Produced from 1974 to 1979, it involved a great number of volunteers and it toured the world as an exhibition, despite the resistance from the art world. The work represents a monumental testimony of women and it set their place in history in stone for good.

March 8th - Judy Chicago - The Dinner Party, 1979
Judy Chicago - The Dinner Party, 1979

Guerrilla Girls

In years to follow, the position of women within the art world improved, but it was still not enough for women to get equal exposure within cultural institutions.

Making their mission to show this fact to the world, a group of women artists called Guerrilla Girls presented at public speaking engagements and research into the unfair conditions of working women artists and artists of color. They organized protests, created posters, stickers, billboards and artworks and, during their first years, they started the "weenie counts," where members would count the male to female subject ratio in artworks shown in big museums.

The data gathered from the MET’s public collections in 1989 showed that in the Modern Art sections, less than 5% of the works were by female artists, while 85% of the nudes were female. Guerrilla Girls were also famous for wearing gorilla masks, shifting focus from their identities to actual issues, and they also used names of deceased female artists, like Alma Thomas, Rosalba Carriera, Frida Kahlo and Hannah Höch.

The group marked the movement’s activities through the 1980s and 1990s, and is still active today.

March 8th - J. Howard Miller - We Can Do It!, 1943
J. Howard Miller - We Can Do It!, 1943

The Feminist Art Movement - Girl Power Carries On

On International Women’s Days today, it is fair to say that the impact of feminism certainly improved the status of women’s rights, even thought there is still more to be done.

In arts, it was as revolutionary and as innovative as any avant-garde movement. Visual female artists like Tracey Emin, Barbara Kruger, Shirin Neshat, Kara Walker or Marina Abramović are recognized and respected - a scenario which only twenty years ago would have been hard to even imagine. Their artistic work continues to inspire new generations of young women artists and fighters for women's rights, giving them a vision of a better future for which, I hope, we won’t have to fight much longer.

Check out works by Tracey Emin on our marketplace!

March 8th - Kiki Smith - Mary Magdalene, 1994, Alice Neel - Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973
Left: Kiki Smith - Mary Magdalene, 1994 / Right: Alice Neel - Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973

March 8th - Street Artist Combo with members of FEMEN group
Street Artist Combo with members of FEMEN group

Featured image: Barbara Kruger - Untitled (We don't need another hero), 1987. All images used for illustrative purposes only.