WOMANHOUSE BY ARLENE RAVEN Camille Grey. Lipstick Bathroom. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972


Camille Grey. Lipstick Bathroom. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972

Womanhouse, a daring, avant-garde site installation in an actual house and an unexpected happening during one month in 1972 in residential Hollywood, directly addressed the everyday life of an ordinary housewife. The collaborative art environment was created by twenty-one students in the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts under the direction of artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. For a brief, fan­ ciful moment, a condemned mansion at 553 Mariposa Avenue was transformed into an artistic revelation about women in their homes.

Womanhouse was created in only six weeks in 1971 and then open to the public between January 30 and February 28, 1972. The abandoned house, which had been lent to the group by the city of Los Angeles, was eventually destroyed by the city as planned, but not before Womanhouse made a widespread dif­ ference in feminist art making and in all subsequent American art. Entirely new aesthetic subjects that had until then remained in the distant shadows in suburban American homes burst into the public sphere through the installation and performance art of Womanhouse. The suburban home, where the contents of a woman’s concerns such as nurturance, sex, self-consciousness, rape, and murder had been imprisoned since the 1950s, was well known to the young artists who created Womanhouse. They had lived their childhood and adolescence right there.

Judy Chicago, a pioneer in feminist education, had de­ manded an all-female space for her art class at Fresno State College in 1970. She was convinced that no critical frame of ref­ erence yet existed that would allow for an understanding of a woman’s struggle and suggest an appropriate way to respond to it.1 “Womanhouse became both an environment that housed the work of women artists working out of their own experiences and the ‘house of female reality into which one entered to experi­ ence the real facts of women’s lives, feelings, and concerns,” Chicago summarized.2 Miriam Schapiro was already a well- known painter who had shown her hard-edged works at the prestigious Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York and a fem­ inist leader in the incipient women’s movement in the arts in Los Angeles.

The initial idea to create Womanhouse was Paula Harper’s, then staff art historian for the Feminist Art Program at the Cali­ fornia Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Although Harper helped to conceptualize the project at the beginning of the 1971 aca­ demic year, the collaborative art environment was substantially developed and executed by the twenty-one female students of the program under the direction of Chicago and Schapiro. Los Angeles artists Wanda Westcoast, Sherry Brody, and Carol Ed- son Mitchell also collaborated in the environments and exhibited their work in Womanhouse. Largely responsible for the success­ ful completion of what proved to be a vast creative undertaking, students thus were granted the professional status of artists working among artists, not as trainees in an academic hothouse.

Faith Wilding, a weaver turned painter in Chicago’s all- female class at California State University, Fresno, organized in 1970, had followed Chicago to Cal Arts in 1971 to be a graduate student/MFA candidate in the Feminist Art Program. In her es­ say for this book, Wilding describes in detail the hoped-for accomplishments laid out by the faculty, in which students were




Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago at Womanhouse. Womanhouse catalogue designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. 1971

encouraged to grapple with the emotional and conceptual issues of the project. A “learning by doing” educational method at Womanhouse put into practice the psychological self-discoveries offered by the consciousness-raising format of the women’s movement. Designed to be a structured conversation, consciousness-raising allowed each contributor to speak about her experiences uninterrupted and to hear the testimonies of other women; in this way, women shared life experiences, in­ stead of remaining isloated by their concerns and fears. The insights of the consciousness-raising circle were immediately put to use in the task at hand—building Womanhouse. Concrete and worldly applications meant goals and deadlines, expectations and measurable achievements.

Repairing and structuring the house as an independent ex­ hibition space as well as a work of art in itself was a vital element in a course of study and work designed to build stu­ dents’ skills and to teach them to work cooperatively. This focus on collaboration cannot be over-emphasized, for collaboration as form or subject has characterized much of the feminist art cre­ ated after Womanhouse in Southern California. Because the West Coast became a model and leader for feminist production nationally and internationally, the influence of the transitory col­ laboration at Womanhouse has been pervasive and lasting.

Moreover, every contributor to Womanhouse was forever changed by the experience. Each felt taken apart and put back together, but altogether differently. The profound alterations in self-image, self-esteem, and artistic identity affected the individ­ uals in the group to such an extent that the majority were launched on challenging personal and professional paths.

Abandoned and condemned, the house on Mariposa Ave­ nue was still architecturally imposing but also in need of extensive reconstruction. Vandals had broken windows. Fixtures and furnishings required replacement. The house had no hot water, heat, or plumbing. In November, when the twenty-one CalArts Program students began work on the house, they had a rude awakening. One surprise was the amount of work required to create the collaborative environment. Another astonishing re­ alization was that the nature of the work ranged from cleaning to construction, labor that crossed not only class and gender lines, but that was outside of the scope of “art” experienced by the rest of the art school. Students enrolled in the conceptually oriented CalArts learned graphics and text display, electronic music and “idea art,” in which an art object may not even be made. But for the Feminist Art Program workers, skills such as carpentry and window glazing became part of the creative process. Before picking up a paint brush, etching plate, sculpt­ ing tool, or video camera, each young artist had already used electric saws, drills, and sanders.

The seventeen rooms of the house increasingly inspired the group. One by one, the rooms became clean white cubes and rectangles for the presentation of a radical and complex contem­ porary art. As each young artist unclogged toilets or re-hinged doors, she imagined the transformed environment and even­ tually chose one of the spaces in the house for “her” room, wherein she created her own installation environment. Even the initial plans for the environmental artworks demanded a range of competence never remotely necessary in more conventional



art making or art-educational settings. But involving the art world, the local community, and the American feminist network of individuals and institutions was part of Chicago’s and Schapiro’s pedagogic plan.

Although all women working the stipulated eight-hour day had freely chosen to do so, most found the labor unbearably taxing. In other American art schools of the 1960s, these same students might never have learned the real and absolute neces­ sity of consistent, hard work in the field of fine arts. And they might very well have been among the many women discouraged by art teachers from becoming artists at all.

Various meetings were necessary to air feelings, discuss plans for the art environments, or to prepare Womanhouse’s eventual exhibition to the public. Group meetings were initiated to air the students’ tangled feelings of anger at one another and themselves, anxiety about the successful completion of the pro­ ject, and resentment of the authority of their female role models, which arose as their own emotional growth and physical dexterity increased. In these meetings, the frequent disputes over territory in the house and the articulation of ideas were often resolved, which in turn pushed forward the progress of the work. Smaller collaboration groups explored the possible forms and meanings they wanted to infuse into the environ­ ment. And because the group as a whole had decided to add special events and present performances during the exhibition, additional work groups were formed.

The relationship between biology and social roles underlay the content of Womanhouse, its rooms and activities. Moreover, Womanhouse presented a special kind of direct—even, some felt, obvious—representation of women in their homes. Most of the rooms replicated the conventional areas of a house- bathroom, dining room, kitchen—while at the same time they challenged the activity of that room and the meaning of that ac­ tivity to women’s self-image, through creative exaggeration of the ordinary physical and emotional elements of each space. Three different conceptual bathrooms, for example, were de­ signed: Robbin Schiff’s Nightmare Bathroom, Camille Grey’s Lipstick Bathroom, and Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom. Shawnee Wollenman’s Nursery, with its giant-sized components, made the viewer feel like a child. Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Envi­ ronment had a second wall or skin of a cavelike protective yet open fabric tent, much like a modern weaver’s version of Afri­ can tribal menstruation huts. Vicki Hodgett’s kitchen, called Eggs to Breasts, featured a ceiling and walls covered with fried- egg “breasts” and innumerable plates of prepared food. Manne­ quins were also employed: one mannequin, in full bridal attire, paused on the staircase, her bridal train (which turned from white to dingy gray) trailing to the kitchen. Another mannequin represented a woman segmented and confined by the shelves of her linen closet. Beth Bachenheimer’s many-shoed shoe closet conveyed ways a woman could change her identity. And there was much more. In every theme room, feelings raged in the striking colors chosen to represent household roles and arenas, in the many media colliding together, and in the surprising jux­ tapositions of abstract forms and representational images.

Womanhouse literally brought to life the ideas and view­ points first articulated in Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine

Mystique and soon to be developed in Ms. magazine, which was founded in 1972. The emphasis in these first feminist ideas and viewpoints concerning menstruation, sexuality, marriage, and promiscuity, pregnancy and post-partum depression, psychic breakdown and suicide in middle-class suburban homes was one of frustration and despair.3 This kind of bold looking at issues created an apprehensive tension in the audience for Woman- house, provoking argument as well as revealing terrible pain.

The only two human figures one sees in Womanhouse are the bride and a mannequin literally closeted with her sheets (Linen Closet by Sandy Orgel, page 55)—the one sumptuously dressed in every convention of bridalwear and the other naked among her clean, pressed linens. They are, in fact, two cinema­ tic aspects of the same woman, who squeezed herself into a cultural identity which finally dictated that, in the words of Betty Friedan, “fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949—the housewife-mother.”4 Many white middle-class women were alone, confined in their homes, and didn’t know who they were except in relationship to family members. How, then, was the American housewife to answer the cardinal existential question about twentieth-century identity es­ tablished in the first years of the modern era—“Who am I?” She could only respond with ‘“Tom’s wife,. . . Mary’s mother.’”5

Friedan saw in the feminine mystique the echo of Nazi Ger­ many’s imperative that women’s realm consist only of “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche.” It was with trepidation that Friedan described in the early 1960s a condition so hidden and censored that even the women affected could not name it. It became the problem that had no name.

In contrast to the linear nature of writing, the visual infor­ mation of Womanhouse could be taken in all at once. Insight into the illogic of the prevailing division of work by gender was first introduced in 1971 by Jane O’Reilly in her article, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth:” “We are . . . clicking-things-into- place-angry, because we have suddenly and shockingly perceived the basic disorder in what has been believed to be the natural order of things.”6 The instantaneousness of feminist insight could be felt as a completely pure personal moment of truth.

A year before Womanhouse was completed, Ms. author Judy Syfers pointed with irony to the advantage of being a per­ son with a wife rather than a wife: “I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, re­ placed … My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”7 No husband appears in Womanhouse, but “husband” symbolically is the whole wider world of social relations and territory beyond the hearth.

Artist and historian Pat Mainardi specified housework as a political issue about which women had been coerced and brain­ washed. “Probably too many years of seeing television women in ecstasy over their shiny waxed floors or breaking down over their dirty shirt collars. Men have no such conditioning. They recognize the essential fact of housework right from the begin­ ning. Which is that it stinks.”8 Even more so, housework is presented in Womanhouse as the stinking fact that is also a mantle of identity.

The bride’s train in Kathy Huberland’s Bridal Staircase



makes no material connection to a bedroom—to consummation of the marriage vows or celebration of the marital union on a honeymoon directly following the wedding ceremony. Rather, we follow the filmy path down the staircase to the pantry, where we pass a row of plates on a sideboard, each illuminated by a bare hanging light bulb. On the plates are breakfast, lunch, and din­ ner, immediately followed by more of the same—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The linear, repetitive path of plates which represents the continuity of “women’s work” finally leads to the entrance of Robin Weltsch’s sensuous, pink Kitchen.

Through Wanda Westcoast’s vacu-formed plastic kitchen curtains, the warm light in which the room is bathed falls on Vicki Hodgetts’ plastic fried eggs mounted on the ceiling, which are transformed into equal numbers of breasts on the walls. Vi­ sually “traveling” to the frying pan on the stove, the small round images reassume the appearance of eggs. When Hodgetts, Weltsch, and Susan Frazier began work on the kitchen, they were stuck for images. Schapiro suggested a consciousness- raising session about feelings raised by the kitchens of their childhood memories. The flesh-pink kitchen, the institutional source of all mothers’ milk, had also been the war zone of the home. Struggles between mothers and daughters for psychologi­ cal power were embedded in the gestures of giving and receiving food. Part of growing up and slipping back into child­ hood often revolved around who selected food— mother or self. The process of probing one’s own autobiography threw light on the personal origins of the social meanings of food. At the stove, the hearth of the kitchen, the egg is the image of nourishment that means food and that also signifies the hunger in many women’s hearts and lives. The food, made of plastic, is not edi­ ble. But because women have breasts, they are to be nourishers and must also cook the family meals. The dilemma between na­ ture and culture, organic food and its plastic representation — the giving mother and the consuming daughter—is succinctly contained in that frying pan.

The Womanhouse Dining Room, a collaboration among Beth Bachenheimer, Sherry Brody, Karen LeCoq, Robin Mitchell, Miriam Schapiro, and Faith Wilding, is a formal family room, but unoccupied (page 56). The table is elaborately laid, but with entirely inedible artificial food (such as treated bread dough) on sewn fabric plates. A mural interpretation of a still- life by Anna Peale on the wall features food more believable (al­ though two- dimensional) than the chilly dinner on the table. The Dining Room is linked to other spaces by the passage of the viewer from room to room.

When moving from the kitchen, through the pantry, to the dining room, questions arise: How did the nurturing breast that becomes the emblem of the Kitchen, the plates of food prepared and placed in line in the pantry, conceptually move from the private rooms of food preparation to the social act of eating and breaking bread together? And how did this evolution become empty and perverted?

Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment, consciously based on the ancient female art of architecture, was adapted by Wilding as a formal mode in her sculptural environment (page 62). Wilding made forms inspired by and derived from those of the female body. Crocheted Environment has numerous meanings,

Beth Bachenheimer. Shoe Closet. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972

Kathy Huberland. Bridal Staircase. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972. The bride is portrayed as an offering- encased in lace, flowers, and dreamy sky blue. As she descends the stairs the blue slowly changes to gray. “The bride’s failure to look clearly where she is going leaves her up against the wall.” (Huberland)





for it represents a mother’s woven nest of blood and everyone’s “first” room, the sacred heart of the Virgin Mary, and the hearth of the home. The traditional housewife may have wanted to cre­ ate this nest of her physical home most of all for herself. Often deprived of having been herself mothered, marrying young and having children before she could complete her own childhood or education, housewives of all ages needed to be nourished again—this time in the metaphorical womb of the home, to de­ velop into fully adult humans. Feminism provided a second look at the all-encompassing needs of people for mothering. The birthing and nurturing nest that Wilding created was a repre­ sentation of not only a site but a biological passage. And because intercourse, pregnancy, and birth can be accompanied by blood, actual menstrual blood and bloodlike color as well as images of body organs concerned with feminine biological events and roles appear with frequency in women’s art.

Menstruation Bathroom is a blood relative of Wilding’s Crocheted Environment, this time presenting women’s blood as taboo and, by implication, puberty as the moment of shame when signs of womanhood appear and must be hidden behind a locked bathroom door. Pristine white, with feminine hygiene products double-wrapped, the bathroom was shrouded in silence and became a metaphor for the unspeakable (page 57). Judy Chicago recalls, “Under a shelf full of all the paraphernalia with which this culture ‘cleans up’ menstruation was a garbage can filled with the unmistakable marks of our animality. One could not walk into the room, but rather, one peered in through a thin veil of gauze, which made the room a sanctum.”9

The black, green, and rust-colored Nightmare Bathroom depicted a woman in the bathtub (page 57). Made entirely of sand, she was literally erased by an audience that couldn’t keep its hands off her during the six weeks of the exhibition. The vulnerability of the naked body in the unguarded setting of the bath cannot exist without the bather’s awareness of a potential intruder. Sand-filled bottles that originally held toiletries serve as a residue and symbol of past losses to both the underside of vul- nerability and the limiting nature of fear. A snake, reminiscent of the slimy creature who was the biblical corrupter of the once innocent Eve, crawls toward her on the ground. Who might come in through the window? Or open the door? Or thrust up from the toilet?

In addition to The Nursery, whose large scale, and in partic­ ular gigantic working rocking horse, makes adults feel child­ sized, there are three other bedrooms—Personal Space by Janice Lester, Painted Room by Robin Mitchell, and Leah’s Room by Karen LeCoq and Nancy Youdelman. Lester’s and Mitchell’s spaces look, appropriately, like college dormitory rooms, with small single beds and references to self and vocation. These two singular post-adolescent bedrooms avoid the decorative quality we associate with homemaking and the sexual and procreational functions of the marriage bed.

In contrast, the watermelon-pink Leah’s Room, a tableau of the aging courtesan of Colette’s novel, Cheri, is elaborate and fantastic (page 60). During the public viewing of Womanhouse, a young woman sat at the dressing table applying the makeup that transformed her from biological female to culturally-created woman. Fantasy far exceeds fact, we may conclude, in the night-

Sandy Orgel. Linen Closet. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972. Orgel wrote: “As one woman visitor to my room commented, ‘This is exactly where women have always been—in between the sheets and on the shelf.’ It is time now to come out of the closet.”

Susan Frazier, Vicki Hodgetts, Robin Weltsch. Nurturant Kitchen (detail). Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972



Beth Bachenheimer, Sherry Brody, Karen LeCoq, Robin Mitchell, Miriam Schapiro, Faith Wilding. D:ning Room. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972. This room was the most extensive collaborat ve effort of the Womanhouse students. Seven women painted walls, ceiling, mural (after a 19th- century still life by Anna Peale), molding; created the chandelier; sewed curtains, tablecloth, and pates; sculpted bread dough for the “food.”



Robbin Schiff. Nightmare Bathroom. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972

Judy Chicago. Menstruation Bathroom. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972. Chicago described her room as “very, very white and clean and deodorized—deodorized except for the blood, the only thing that cannot be covered up. However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us.”



life of Leah and also of the average housewife. But there is no realistic, pedestrian portrayal of the bedroom. Fact meets fan­ tasy only when one contemplates the two female character types embodied in the courtesan and the modern-day Mrs. Are both characters—kept women and working girls at the same time— not poles apart but two sides of the same coin?

Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody created Dollhouse Room, a house within a house, and a world within a world of its own (pages 64, 65). Dollhouse consisted of six rooms under a triangu­ lar roof. In each elaborately constructed and decorated room, safety and comfort associated with the home vied with the yet unnamed terrors of the domestic arena. Schapiro, who used fab­ rics in her paintings, and Brody, who made soft sculptures of sewn garments, employed the same materials, skills, and im­ pulses in the Dollhouse that they did in their individual work. Conversely, the experience of creating art for Womanhouse also affected their subsequent art.

To arrive at the visual and verbal forms of the Cock and Cunt play, Judy Chicago followed the format of simple exercises developed during the previous year in her female art class at Fresno State College. The play was performed in the Woman- house living room by two women wearing black leotards. The SHE character wore a gigantic pink vagina; HE wore a satiny outsized penis. At first this exaggeration of genitals seems comic. But as the dialogue between the two actors progresses, the truly grisly tone of the piece emerges. SHE is doing the dishes and asks for help. HE is shocked: “Help you do the dishes?” “Well,” SHE replies, “They’re your dishes as much as mine!” His retort emphasizes the traditional biology/culture dy­ namic: “But you don’t have a cock! A cock means you don’t wash dishes. You have a cunt. A cunt means you wash dishes.” SHE questions him: “I don’t see where it says that on my cunt.” The scene then shifts from kitchen to bedroom, where sexual inter­ course leads to a wistful statement by SHE—“You know, sometimes I wish I could come too”—and ultimately to the mur­ der of SHE by HE.10

In this schematic dialogue between husband (played by Faith Wilding) and wife (Janice Lester), the deadly portrayal of the battle between the sexes demonstrates the culturally assumed connection between biological differences and sex roles. The Cock and Cunt play addresses the traditional relationship be­ tween white, middle-class men and women in their physical par­ ticulars and also in broad social terms—as an aspect of the balance of power within the political patriarchal institution. The play leaves no doubt in the minds of its audience that the per­ sonal and cultural uses to which biological differences have been put have had dire, indeed mortal consequences for women.

Also during this time, a number of prominent spokes­ women for female autonomy and women’s rights pondered the dangerous dimensions of the social synergy between women and men. Ti-Grace Atkinson explained the interrelationship of the sexes as a political and economic structure.

The class of women is one-half of a dichotomized class defini­ tion of society by sex. The class of women is formed by positioning another class in opposition: the class of men, or the male role. Women exist as the corollaries of men, and exist as

human beings only insofar as they are those corollaries . . . over thousands of years, men have created and maintained an enclosure of institutionalized oppression to fortify their domi­ nation of women by using many institutions and values as vehicles of oppression, e.g. marriage, family, sexual inter­ course, love, religion, prostitution. Women are the victims of this oppression.11

“The rationale which accompanies that imposition of male authority euphemistically referred to as ‘the battle of the sexes’” Kate Millett wrote, “bears a certain resemblance to the formulas of nations at war, where any heinousness is justified on the grounds that the enemy is either an inferior species or really not human at all. The patriarchal mentality has concocted a whole series of rationales about women which accomplish this purpose tolerably well. And these traditional beliefs still invade our con­ sciousness and affect our thinking to an extent few of us would be willing to admit.”12 Shulamith Firestone asked, “How does the sex class system based on the unequal power distribution of the biological family affect love between the sexes?”13

Chicago dramatized what Atkinson, Millett, Firestone, and other feminist theorists illuminated: women’s most intimate rela­ tionships, including love and motherhood, are an intrinsic part of a “sex class system” in this country.

But Womanhouse is addressed to women’s relationships with others primarily as internal dialogues in their/our own minds and as aspects of self. The housewife, whose role is evoked in Womanhouse, has but one clear relationship, and that is to her environment as a whole. In this relationship, she is un­ bearably lonely. The tasks and implications of the home surround her in a complex, unified yoke.

The environment packed with images and objects in every inch and corner of the spaces of the house on Mariposa Street suggests, ultimately, an overwhelming despair. The hundreds of lipsticks and shoes, sheets, plates of food, yards of material, rooms of color and stories and messages do not really offer much of a life. Even though we are told that our life is what we make of it, in fact for mid-century women, the same human ex­ istence seems excessively predetermined and prescribed. The Womanhouse protagonist is tortured from birth to death with these diametrically opposed states of being thrust in her face.

In the performance Waiting, Faith Wilding becomes the woman who maintains and seethes in her home. She exemplifies the consciousness-raising effort of the women’s movement of the time—breaking silence by speaking, and thus revealing women’s bitterness as a chorus of single voices. Wilding’s Waiting is a litany that rhythmically described women’s lives as reactive to the actions of others and as characterized by waiting—“Waiting for my breasts to develop/Waiting to get married/Waiting to hold my baby/Waiting for the first grey hair/Waiting for my body to break down, to get ugly/Waiting for my breasts to shrivel up/Waiting for a visit from my children, for letters/ Waiting to get sick/Waiting for sleep. . . ,”14

Wilding’s waiting woman rocks slowly in her chair and speaks in a low monotone from beginning to end. She is as im­ mobile and expectant as the players of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. She presents herself—when all is said, done, seen, and



Feminist Art Program Performance Group. Scrubbing. Performed by Chris Rush at Womanhouse, 1972. Photograph by Lloyd Hamrol

Faith Wilding. Waiting. 1971. First performed by Faith Wilding at Womanhouse, Los Angeles, 1972. Photograph by Lloyd Hamrol



Karen LeCoq and Nancy Youdelman. Leah’s Room, based on Colette’s Cherie. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972. In this performance, a woman continually applied layers of makeup, expressing, the artsts said, “the pain of aging, of losing beauty, pain of competition with other women. We wanted to deal with the way women are intmidated by the culture to constantly maintain their beauty and the feeling of desperation and helplessness once this beauty is lost.”

heard—as a sign of Nothingness, which is a keystone of modern art and a part of the existential gestalt of our time. But her exis­ tential emptiness is overcrowded with mundane incident. In the act of waiting in the empty space which she attempts to fill with the litany of all she has waited for in her life, Wilding is the American female vernacular of existential modern “man,” a lone figure whom we know in the spare sculptures of Alberto Giacometti or in the narrow space of the stripe of a Barnett Newman painting.

Beckett’s singular figures waiting for God, an interpretation of human hope and futility based on Heidegger’s philosophy and Sartre’s fictional characters, somehow find courage and the

will to be in a world devoid of ultimate external meaning. But the housewife has not freely and fully committed herself to her own life, nor has she been invited by the structure of her exis­ tence to do so.

The housewife is a full-time solitary worker who has not, in her own mind, stood alone. Sitting and waiting, she still feels “stood up.” And for the young women working on the Woman- house project, even as they evoked her they bade her good-bye as an image of the women they would become. Their work had already led them into far different realms than the woefully stricken traditional female model they portrayed.

But what was the relationship between the woman ad­ dressed in Womanhouse and the young women students who created environments? Mostly in their late teens and early twen­ ties, only a very few of the women had married. They had not experienced what they depicted in Womanhouse as wives and mothers, but rather as daughters.

Three Women, written by the Feminist Art Program Perfor­ mance Group and performed by Nancy Youdelman, Shawnee Wollenman, and Jan Oxenberg, differed from most of the Womanhouse performances because it grew indirectly out of the experiences of those developing the piece. In their performance group, they asked themselves a hypothetical question: “What if our lives had taken a different turn?” In roleplaying sessions, they explored the psyche of three female stereotypes: a hippie, a prostitute (with a golden heart), and a mother (naive and still looking for a Mr. Right). Judy Chicago remembers:

One evening, in the performance workshop we [Chicago, Ka­ thy Huberland, Judy Huddleston, Sandy Orgel, Christine Rush, Nancy Youdelman, Faith Wilding, and Shawnee Wollenman], all dressed up, making up our faces, putting on wigs and outlandish costumes. Immediately, the room was transformed into a brothel, as if the act of self-decoration was seen as it really is, a kind of prostitution of the self to gain male approval. We related to each other “through” our roles, and out of that evening grew a piece called Three Women, based on the autobiographies of three women in the group. Each of them had reached crossroads in their lives when they had to make decisions about being “women” in the sense that society demanded, or defying society and being themselves. They had all made healthy choices, but it was easy for them to imagine what would have happened to them if they had ac­ cepted society’s commands.15

In fact, these students—each someone’s daughter—had de­ termined to make original choices in their lives. They wanted to break out of all previously defined roles and live in the world as artists. They were influenced not only by the content of feminist thought current in 1971, but by experiences in their own fam­ ilies. Their child’s and adolescent’s points of view formed the strong center of their oeuvre. Their visions, however, were still to some extent covert. Seldom did a real memory become a di­ rect autobiographical subject, and in their communal work, the Feminist Art Program artists were less clear in articulating per­ sonal realities than they were in their individual efforts. Thus, in Three Women, the focus on fantasy, and the elaborate costuming



that concealed authentic individual identity in favor of cultural exaggeration, drew the text away from imagining the more probable futures of the players.

Since beginning to work together, the participants in Womanhouse shared in a new experience. They had interacted and created in an all-female community of artists, led by Schapiro and Chicago, female teachers who had become power­ ful role models. They were strong and resourceful—and still women!—synthesizing two qualities that had been nearly contra­ dictions in terms. Relationships with their female peers and elders were given a name by feminist theorists: “woman- identification.” These new relationships were expressed in only one performance at Womanhouse.

Birth Trilogy was a ritual of rebirth and new identity sym­ bolizing the community of women who attend their own and one another’s birth. “It was a three-part piece,” Judy Chicago remarks:

In the first part, six women stood in a line, legs spread, bodies close together, arms around each other’s waists. Slowly, they be­ gan to push down with their legs, making them into a birth passage, through which the last woman in line was pushed, propelled by the thrusting legs of the other women. After three “babies” had been born, the three women playing “babies” lay down on the floor while the three other women sat down back to back. Then, the “babies” slowly crawled to the “mother”fig­ ures, who embraced them, rocked them, comforted them, and nurtured them. The third part was called “Wailing.” All six women knelt on the floor, heads together and arms around each other, forming a kind of dome shape with their bodies. One of the women began to hum, a slow, haunting melody. The other women joined in, and the humming became louder and louder, more and more rhythmic. The sound was like the danger cry made by Algerian and Tunisian women, and as it reached a higher and higher intensity, became the sound of orgasm, of labor, of joy, of ecstasy.16

The ritual diagram of Birth Trilogy was almost identical to ancient wiccan initiation ceremonies. The consciousness-raising circle among feminist art performers was historically significant not only as “speaking bitterness,” a practice of modern Chinese culture, but also because it derived from an ancient Western tradition—dramatic ceremonies performed by witches’ covens at sacred sites. In the wiccan initiation ceremony, coven members stand one behind the other with legs spread apart, forming a birth canal. The initiates line up to pass through the canal, but each is first challenged by a coven member who places a knife at her breast, saying, “It is better for you to rush upon my blade than to enter with fear in your heart.” The initiate responds, “I enter the circle in perfect love and trust.” In Birth Trilogy, the circle was recast before an audience, from the private to the public realm and from a secret ceremony to an art performance.

“On the first night that Womanhouse was open,” Judy Chi­ cago writes,

we performed only for women. The response was overwhelm­ ing. The actresses could hardly get through the lines of the

Cock and Cunt play (a comedy), the laughter and applause was so loud. During the Three Women piece, women cried, laughed, and empathized, and the Waiting play caused a pro­ found silence—everyone was deeply moved. After the perfor­ mances, the acting group was ecstatic, and our ecstasy lasted until our next performance the following week, which was for a mixed audience. Through the evening, there was inappropriate silence, embarrassed laughter or muffled applause.’1

Womanhouse turned the house inside out, thereby making the private public. The anger that many women had felt in iso­ lation in the single nuclear-family suburban American dwelling was flung out at the 10,000 people who came to see the environ­ ment and performances. The audience for Womanhouse became, after the fact, much larger than the sum of its eye wit­ nesses. Johanna Demetrakas, who made a 40-minute color feature film about Womanhouse, provided those who were not at the site a dramatic view of the rooms and many of the perfor­ mances, including the strong, spontaneous reactions of the audiences present. The hundreds of thousands of readers of Time magazine in 1972 got a sense of Womanhouse’s startling effects in the magazine’s lively report on the project.18

It would be impossible to overstate the impact of Woman- house on its artists and audience. Those who did not see the installations or witness the performances (including this author) experienced Womanhouse through its visual and verbal docu­ mentation, and through its kinship with the work of female artists working in the early 1970s.

Looking back on Womanhouse more than two decades later, we can see this extraordinary student project as more than a mirror of the tone and concerns of the women’s movement of that time. Womanhouse held the raw, explicit expression of an incipient feminist sensibility that has, to this day, provided a source and reference for a tradition of innovative and socially concerned contemporary art made by women.

The heritage and legacy of Womanhouse is a work-in­ progress of its own. As the lives and works of female artists of the past are retrieved and incorporated into the canons of femi­ nist art and so-called high art, the installations and performances produced for Womanhouse will be seen to rest on a broader, much richer base. And as Womanhouse is written into current history and criticism, its influence will be more fully acknowledged.

The kinship web among woman-made art over time em­ braces Louise Bourgeois, for instance, whose series of works in the mid-1940s called Femme-Maison (Woman House) merged the female form and the house form (page 20), to Miriam Schapiro, who extended the subject of home and the personal experience of community in Womanhouse when she created a group of paintings in the 1980s using collage elements and shaped canvases. A vintage embroidery that says “Welcome to Our House” is glued to the center of Schapiro’s monumental canvas, Wonderland (page 84). Schapiro, always respectful of the so-called traditional female arts of sewing, quilt making, and embroidery, symbolically linked her contemporary collage- paintings with the handiwork of other women by incorporating the design, color, or even, as in Wonderland, the piecework itself, in her art.




Birth Trilogy, a group performance conceived and written by the Feminist Art Program Performance Group, and presented at Womanhouse, 1972. Photograph by Lloyd Hamrol

Faith Wilding. Crocheted Environment. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972. According to Wilding, this environment was a contemporary response to the round-shaped shelters built by female ancestors for themselves and families.

Sheila de Bretteville, director of the Women’s Design Pro­ gram at CalArts and, in 1973, a cofounder with Chicago and this author of the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, made the 1972 catalogue for Womanhouse in the simple shape of a house. Schapiro’s The House That Miriam Built, 1982 (part of my ex­ hibition “At Home” held at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1983—two months of installations, performances, artists’ books, poetry readings, and videotapes celebrating feminist art in Southern California), was also shaped like a schematic house. Schapiro recalled:

Inspired by the theme of this [“At Home”] show, I have made several new paintings whose materiality is literally the fabric of the home. Augmenting my paintings is an installation worked on by a number of California artists close to me (friends, ex-students, mentors). Their contribution is a way of enlarging the scope of my room, making it symbolic of the larger framework of feminist connections.19

Poet Adrienne Rich warned that “Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as some­ thing else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but un­ speakable.”20 Although the bedroom was represented in five incarnations in Womanhouse it was never actually occupied. The bedroom of sex and intimate secrets is probably the most tightly closed closet of all, yet has also been a persistent model for for­ mulating feminist and humanistic artistic statements specifically from the female point of view about sex, sexuality, marriage, domesticity, and violence. Lesbians in the Feminist Art Program did not find rooms of their own in which to express their sex­ uality, much less their sexual practice. But a decade after Womanhouse, Nancy Fried, a participant in the community of the Woman’s Building, created the lesbian bedroom—a double taboo—as the subject of her art. Made on plaques of bread dough, Fried’s work depicts homey scenes of lesbian life, includ­ ing sexual relationships, which serve to break the conspiracy of silence and calm the hysteria about lesbianism and lesbians, common to the Womanhouse project and subsequent educa­ tional feminist art programs.

The fertile shoes of the Womanhouse Shoe Closet are but one of literally hundreds of objects and images that found their way into women’s art after Womanhouse. Artists such as Cheri Gaulke, Eleanor Antin, Anna Homier, Nancy Kay Turner, and Carole Caroompas are but a few of the feminist artists who were inspired by Womanhouse’s shoe clbset environment. Cheri Gaulke, who arrived in Los Angeles a few years after the Womanhouse project and had gone to study at the Feminist Stu­ dio Workshop, where she made this project a major part of her education, used shoes as a major metaphor in her work. Her shoe stories include Golden Lotus, 1977, a tiny artist-made book of printed images glued to gauze and wrapped in a rectangle on a wooden platform. Golden Lotus makes a connection be­ tween two kinds of distortion—Chinese footbinding and the bonsai tree, culture-directed nature cut back and twisted for



Sherry Brody and Miriam Schapiro. “Artist’s Studio,” from The Dollhouse. Three-dimensional construction and mixed media for Womanhouse, 1972. Collection Miriam Schapro

Opposite: Sherry Brody and Miriam Schapiro. The Dollhouse. Three- d mens onal construction and mixed med a, 48 x 41 x 8″. Created for Womanhouse, 1972. Collection Miriam Schapiro. The Dollhouse juxtaposes the beauty, charm, and relative safety of the traditional home with the unspeakable terrors that actually exist there.

“beauty.” Eleanor Antin’s one hundred black boots “stood in” for the artist in 1971 as they became a character in a hybrid perfor­ mance work of hers. Anna Homler’s Birthing Shoe is an actual woman’s high-heeled shoe containing numerous tiny plastic babies. Homier made a womb house of the shoe, with the proverbial old woman in the shoe or the modern working girl her implied but absent subject. Nancy Kay Turner’s Rubbing Her The Wrong Way, a handmade one-of-a-kind artist’s book, uses pictures of spike-heeled shoes culled from Japanese comic books, newspapers, magazines, 1930s-60s “how to” self-help books, and dream fragments, to retrace her steps and thus re­ flect on herself as an artist and woman. Los Angeles artist Carole Caroompas “shoe-walks” through time in a work titled Remembrance of Things Past.

From Womanhouse’s repetitive washing and ironing, Mierle Laderman Ukeles took scrubbing into the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, in July 1973, when she performed Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Maintenance Art Activity III. Ukeles would wash several areas of the museum where visitors were sure to walk. She would then wait for spectators to soil the floor with their shoes. Then she would rewash the space, doing so in this fashion until the museum closed. The rags that she used were piled on the site, and the area was stamped with a Maintenance Art stamp as an artistic self-documentation.

Ukeles’s Maintenance, broadly interpreted and applied to muni­ cipal, national, and global sites and issues, became the central concern of her art from that time.

In 1993, as I write this essay about Womanhouse, Rhonda Roland Shearer has placed eight colored nine-foot bronze statues of women vacuuming, caring for children, and cleaning the toilet at the foot of an imposing equestrian statue of George Washington in New York City’s Union Square Park. “I want George to get off his high horse,” Shearer told me, echoing the sentiments of the Womanhouse performer SHE, “and help with the dishes.”

“If men had babies, there would be thousands of images of the crowning,” Judy Chicago insisted on the logo of her The Birth Project. The Womanhouse dining room and kitchen had been expressed and expanded in a 1979 multimedia installation. The Dinner Party. The Birth Project, which merged fine arts and the traditionally female craft of needlework, was inspired most by The Birth Trilogy and and executed in the early 1980s by women in their homes across the United States.

The outermost historical and conceptual perimeters of the great and complex tapestry of women’s art, thought, and heart that draw from the threads first spun by Womanhouse are still spinning off. And the axial lineage of Womanhouse, back and forward in time, is not yet whole cloth.




23. WEB was an international network of women in the arts started by Chicago, Schapiro, Lippard, Ellen Lanyon, Marcia Tucker, and others in 1971.

24. Faith Wilding, By Our Own Hands-. The Women Artists’ Movement, Southern California, 1970-1976 (Santa Monica, Calif.: Double X, 1977), 41. Nevertheless, de Bretteville has since held positions at Otis Parsons and is currently Head of the Design School at Yale University. Her ideas about the humane, content-driven, democratic basis for design in the real world have profoundly influenced many of her students, who have developed workshops, products, publications, and artwork based on these ideas.

25. Schor, “Authority and Learning,” 33. 26. Suzanne Lacy published a letter protesting this show in the CalArts Newsletter in

1981. Cal Arts students to whom she lectured in 1979 had no knowledge of the Feminist Art Program.

27. Laura Cottingham, “Claiming the Forefront: The 70s Feminist Art Movement and the Idea of Postmodernity,” lecture at the symposium “Contact Zones between the Aesthetic Media in the United States in the 20th Century,” held at Amerikahaus, Berlin, on June 26, 1993.

Raven/Woman house

1. Judy Chicago, Through the Flower: My Struggle as A Woman Artist (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975; New York: Penguin, 1993), 65.

2. Ibid., p. 114. 3. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1963). 4. Ibid., p. 38. 5. Ibid., p. 64. 6. Jane O’Reilly, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” Ms., introduced in New York

Magazine, December 20, 1971, 54. 7. Judy Syfers, “I Want a Wife,” Ms., introduced in New York Magazine, December

20,1971,56. 8. Pat Mainardi, “The Politics of Housework,” in Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthol­

ogy of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1970), 448.

9. Chicago, Through the Flower, from caption for Menstruation Bathroom, n.p. 10. Chicago, Cock and Cunt play script, in Through the Flower, 208-12. 11. Ti-Grace Atkinson, Amazon Odyssey (New York: Links Books, 1974), 41-42. 12. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 46. 13. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New

York: William Morrow/Bantam, 1970), 91. 14. Performance texts of Cock and Cunt and Waiting are reproduced in Chicago’s

Through the Flower. 15. Chicago, Through the Flower, 121. 16. Ibid., 119-20. 17. Ibid., 123. 18. Documentation of the Womanhouse project includes Womanhouse, a catalogue

with pictures and descriptions of the environment, designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville; a forty-minute documentary color film by Johanna Demetrakas; re­ views in Time and New Woman among others, contemporary with the installation; a description of the process, the project, and the performances in Chicago’s Through the Flower, chap. 6; a one-hour television special on KNET-TV, Los Angeles (Channel 28), produced by Lynn Litman, in 1972; a short interpretative film by Mako Idemitsu; a description in Faith Wilding’s By Our Own Hands1, and a collection of color slides first housed at the California I nstitute of the Arts, then by Miriam Schapiro.

19. Miriam Schapiro, letter to the author, June 21, 1983. 20. Adrienne Rich in Sinister Wisdom, no. 6.

Garrard / Feminist Politics

1. For exam pie, statistics publicized by the Guerrilla Girls in the mid-1980s show that major exhibitions of “contemporary” or “recent” art at the Guggenheim, MoMA, Brooklyn, and Whitney museums between 1984 and 1987 were 80 to 95 percent male (seeJosephine Withers, as cited in note 42, below). In the 1991-92 New York season, there were thirty-six one-person museum exhibitions; seven of these were by women. Women’s Action Coalition, WAC Stats: The Facts about Women (New York: New Press, 1993), 15.

2. Jo Freeman, The Politics of Women’s Liberation: A Ca se Study of an Emerging Social Movement and Its Relation to the Policy Process (New York: David McKay, 1975), 57.

3. For WITCH and radical feminist actions in general, see Freeman, Politics, 111 ff.; and Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1970), photo insert between pp. 282-83.

4. “Redstockings Manifesto,” July 7, 1969, reproduced in Women Together: A His- lory in Documents of the Women’s Movement in the United States, ed. Judith Pa­ pachristou (New York: Knopf, 1976), 237.

5. New York Radical Women, “Principles,” reproduced in Morgan, Sisterhood, 520. 6. Pat Mainardi, author of the w idely reproduced “Politics of Housework” (Morgan,

Sisterhood, 447-54), was, according to Cindy Ncmscr, “the first to write about the plight of women artists in feminist terms.” Neinser, “The Women Artists’ Move­ ment,” Feminist Art Journal 2 (Winter 1973/74): 8.

7. On the New York Art Strike, see Elizabeth C. Baker, “Pickets on Parnassus,” ARTnews, September 1970, 30-33 and 64—65. See also Faith Ringgold, “An Open Show in Every Museum,” Feminist Art journal 1 (April 1972): 10.

8. For information on the New York women’s groups, I thank Jackie Skiles, Lucy Lippard, and Nancy Spero. Invaluable for the history of WAR/AWC, though now out of print, is A Documentary Herstory of Women Artists in Revolution (Pittsburgh, Pa.: KNOW Press, 1971; 2d ed. 1973). An essential overview of art and political action in the early seventies is Lucy R. Lippard, Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: Dutton, 1984).

9. See Women in the Arts, “Women Choose Women,” Feminist Art Journal 1 (April 1972): 16; also, Corinne Robins, The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968-1981 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984): 57-59.

10. Papachristou, Women Together, 239. 11. Morgan, Sisterhood, xxviii-xxix. 12. Ibid., xxxiv. 13. Faith Wilding, By Our Own Hands: The Women Artists’ Movement, Southern

California, 1970—1976 (Santa Monica, Calif.: Double X, 1977), 17-21. 14. Ibid., 22-23. 15. Tamarind Lithography Workshop, “Tamarind Issues Bias Report,’’ Feminist Art

Journal I (April 1972): 20. 16. Wilding, By Our Own Hands, 31-32; Alexis Ktasilovsky, “CalArts Conference,”

Feminist Art Journal 1 (April 1972): 8. 17. Statement of principle by Woman’s Building founders Judy Chicago, Sheila de

Bretteville, and Arlene Raven, quoted in Wilding, By Our Own Hands, 83. Double X, founded in 1976, was similarly both a gallery and a political structure (Wilding, 95-97). See also Nancy Manner, “Womanspace, a Creative Battle for Equality in the Art World,” ARTnews, Summer 1973, 38—39.

18. Cindy Nemser, “Directory of Women Artists’ Activities,” Feminist Art Journal 2 (Spring 1973): 23.

19. On the “mushroom effect” of the growth of the women’s liberation movement, see Freeman, Politics, 147 ff.

20. Kay Brown predicted “a coming together of all women in the arts,” as a step beyond their previous division of allegiance in the fights against racism and sexism. Nemser, “Women Artists’ Movement,” 10. By contrast to the other groups, Women in the Arts still existed in 1993, issuing a newsletter and sponsoring women’s exhibitions in nonprofit spaces.

21. Cindy Nemser, Editorial, Feminist Art Journal 1 (April 1972): 2. 22. Cindy Ncmscr, “The Women’s Conference at the Corcoran,” Art in America,

January/February 1973, 86-90. 23. This impact is attested by the Twentieth Anniversary Celebiation of the 1972

Corcoran Conference of Women in the Visual Arts, held on April 12, 1992, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Included among reunion conferees were the seven original organizers and many of the original participants.

24. For example, the A.I.R. Gallery in New York and the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. For coverage of many panels and conferences of the period, see Judy Scigcl,ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975—1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992).

25. Ann Sutherland Harris, “College Art Association Women’s Caucus,” Feminist Art Journal 1 (April 1972): 12-13 and 17, and Harris, “The Second Sex in Academe,” AAUP Bulletin, Fall 1970.

26. The Rip-Off File was actually produced for the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Group and circulated by the Caucus; the committee also included Maude Boltz, Loretta Dunkelman, Joan Snyder, and May Stevens.

27. WCA’s second Affirmative Action Officer was Mary Fifield, who, with Ly nn Chapman Grant for the WCA Affirmative Action Committee, produced Anger to Action: A Sex Discrimination Guidebook, published by WCA in 1978. Results of the museum survey were presented at a panel chaired by Diane Russell and Bernice Davidson at the annual meeting of the CAA in Los Angeles, 1977. Janice Ross’s Survey of MFA Programs, Students, and Faculty (1978) is circulated by the CAA. Mary D. Garrard, Slides of Works by Women Artists: A Sourcebook (WCA, 1974); Athena Tacha Spear and Lola B. Gellman, eds„ Women’s Studies in Art and Art History (WCA, 1974; 2d ed., 1975); Elsa Honig Fine, Lola B. Gellman, and Judy Loeb, eds., Womens Studies and the Arts (WCA, 1978). An important publication produced by WCA members is Claire R. Sherman with Adele M. Holcomb, Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820—1979 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981).

28. Front Range was founded in 1974, WWAP in 1973. Other Washington groups were the Washington Women Printmakers, the D.C. Registry of Women Artists, the Adhibit Committee, and the Foundry Artists. Members of the executive committee for WWAP/WCA were Donna Ari, Eleanor Fink, Marsha Mateyka, Ellen Miles, Diane Russell, Susanna Saunders, Claire Sherman, Sue Stromberg, and Roslye Ultan.

29. A broader spectrum of women’s representation on the CAA Board: 1963—1; 1968 -2; 1968-2; 1970-1; 1971-4; 1972-5; 1973-7; 1974-9; 1975-11.

30. According to Judith Brodsky, presentation at WCA Presidents’ Panel, at the annual meeting of the CAA in Chicago, 1992.

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