Originating first time, filling positions previously deemed fit

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Last updated: December 24, 2019

  Originating in the nineteenth century, First-wave Feminism, emerged after centuries of widespread female oppression.  The movement resulted in suffrage for American women in 1920, as well as ‘laying the groundwork for future feminists’ (Buchanan, 2010) who emerged during the 1960s.  First-wave Feminism, alongside the outbreak of the Second World War, resulted in vast numbers of women entering higher education and the workforce for the first time, filling positions previously deemed fit only for men (Friedan, 2010).      The end of the war, however, brought the inevitable return of the soldiers and, for many women, the end of working life.  Men reclaimed their pre-war jobs, and many women withdrew to the home, no longer ‘needed or wanted in the workforce’ (Bok, 2011).

  Concurrently, the number of women attending university or in employment, other than in positions of servitude to men (Cottingham, 2000), decreased, and so arose the ‘feminine mystique’ (Friedan, 2010).  This term, conceived by iconic feminist author, Betty Friedan in her book of the same name, describes the strange discrepancy between the reality of life for a woman in mid-20th century America and the desired image they were told, from early adolescence, to conform; that of doting wife and mother, glorying in her femininity.  Infiltrating the lives of Americans for over a decade, this image was fed to the public, via advertisements and the media, depicting women ‘almost exclusively in the domestic, or private, realm’ (Press and Strathman, 1993).  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional role of homemaker was the principal employment for women (Cottingham, 2000) and dreams of anything other than this pursuit was faced with disapproval; something that Judy Chicago would experience from early in her pursuit of an artistic career, sparking her commitment to feminist art.  This shall be discussed later in Chapter One.  The pressure to adopt the role of adoring housewife, alongside discrimination in areas such as employment and education, slowly gathered silent dissatisfaction among American women throughout the 1960s.

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  Left suffering in silence from growing feelings of identity loss, women began asking, ‘is this all?’ (Friedan, 1963).  This ‘problem that has no name’ (Friedan, 1963) haunted women across America who were too ashamed to admit their suffering, believing that others were content in their roles. The dissatisfaction was treated as a ‘problem of gender or sexual maladjustment’ (Bok, 2011) as women blamed themselves, rather than society.  The results: vast numbers of women received psychiatric help for problems such as depression and extreme fatigue (Lamb, 2011).      The late 1960s, however, saw the rise of Second-wave Feminism, followed by Radical Feminist art, both taking a prominent role within American society over the following decade, as well as within the life of Judy Chicago, a forerunner of feminist art.  Sparked by an air of social and political change, women began to challenge inequality.

    1.2   The various political movements of the 1960s, such as the anti-war protests and the civil rights movement, encouraged a challenge to traditional thinking, particularly among the young, across America (Hanks and Goetzman, 2014).  Second-wave Feminism, ignited in the late 1960s as women recognised their need for a separate movement.  They were tired of male domination within the actions of the decade, as well as male hegemony within society and throughout history (Cottingham, 2000).  The growth of populism around feminist literature was also catalytic, inspiring women to reclaim their identities and demand equality.

   In the late 1960s, women, who until this point had lacked the ‘concrete means for organising themselves into a unit’ (Beauvoir, 1935), began to group together and challenge male domination in the Western world.  This movement quickly spread across America, leading to the emergence of Radical Feminist art.    1.

3    Growing out of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Radical Feminist art gave thousands of women the opportunity to challenge the art world through the creation of personal artwork and the establishment of alternative structures.  It was a pivotal moment in Western art history which had, until this point, excluded women and dissuaded them from their creativity.  For the first time, the opportunity arose for women to unite and demand the right to freely exhibit and produce art, inclusive of female experience (Martinez, 2016).  They began to break the rules of established visual culture in the American art community, which was centered around the gendered formalism of art critic Clement Greenberg, a highly regarded influencer of visual culture in the 1960s.  The American art world celebrated the neutrality of modernism, favouring white males and disregarding women on the basis of their gender.  Female artists often struggled to achieve recognition unless sexually involved with or married to an artist associated with the ‘high art’ world (Cottingham, 2000), however, if recognised, women often disguised their femininity in order to retain success within the male-dominated community.

  The desire to reach beyond the exclusivity of the art world was a fundamental aim for feminist artists who used their artwork for consciousness-raising, allowing female spectators to identify with and learn from their work (Walker, 2002). Artists also challenged modernism’s lack of personal subject matter, demanding the opposite: the creation of art not merely for aesthetic admiration but the personal and political.  Feminist artists created this artwork predominantly within an alternative art system over the decade, which responded to the needs of female artists.   Thousands of women connected through this support system which offered an exclusively female space for discussion, exhibition and the creation of feminist artwork.  The development of female-only spaces for women to thrive was an area that Judy Chicago had a profound impact upon throughout the 1970s.     1.

4    Born in 1939, Judy Chicago was raised by a politically active, liberal family of Jewish heritage. Both Chicago’s parents had a profound impact on her interests and beliefs from a young age, later reflected on her pursuit of feminist art and teaching.  Chicago’s father, a Marxist, cultivated her belief that she could achieve anything, confidence that Chicago would later realise was uncommon among other female artists (Chicago, 1982).

Chicago’s mother also played an essential role in her development, supporting her creativity from a young age (Chicago, 1982).  Advancing her artistic education in Southern California, Chicago enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), graduating in 1964 with both a BA and an MA in art.  During this time, Chicago was confronted with the art world’s institutionalised sexism in various ways. Chicago began by producing expressive artwork that ‘grew out of direct feeling and were overt in their femaleness’ (Chicago, 1982).   A notable example is Bigamy (fig. 1.1, 1963), a large-scale painting featuring abstract bodily forms, which evolved from the loss of two family members.  Given the exclusion of women’s experience throughout art history, Chicago’s female imagery was uncommon and found ‘too womanly’ (Chicago,1982) among tutors.

  Chicago was also confronted by a male tutor who claimed that women had failed to make any significant contributions to society throughout history (Judychicago.com, 2018), as well as recognising the lack of successful female artists in the art community.  Chicago’s experience with gender discrimination in her early artistic career laid the groundwork for her later pursuit of feminist art and her desire to create an art history inclusive of women and their perspective.    The negative reception of Chicago’s work, alongside her desire to be ‘taken seriously in an art world that had no conception of, or room for, feminine sensibility’ (Sackler, 2002), led her to a period of highly minimalist work.

  Chicago concealed her instinctively female imagery, seen in Rainbow Pickett (fig 1.2, 1965) which includes no personal or female subject matter, while also masculinising her persona in an attempt to be accepted in the L.A. art scene, defined by its ‘swaggering machismo’ (Lucie-Smith, 2000).

  In 1968, however, Chicago created the Domes series (fig. 1.3., 1968), dome-shaped sculptures, which can be seen as Chicago’s first steps towards the creation of female-centered imagery.

  When producing Domes, Chicago was not aware of the subtle female forms that she was creating, however when made aware of their femininity, she realised that she ‘could no longer pretend in her art that being a woman had no meaning in her life, her entire experience was being shaped by it’ (Chicago, 1982).   From this point onwards, Chicago began creating artwork that reflected her experience as a woman, defying the empty subject matter of the art world; however, having never experienced any other visual language Chicago continued working within the predominant style of minimalism.  Through bold and aggressive imagery, Chicago explored her sexuality and the experience of being centered around a ‘cunt’.

  Chicago embraced this derogatory term for the female genitals, striving to shift the negative connotations of the word, and in doing so ‘implicitly challenge male superiority’ (Chicago, 1982).  Pasadena Lifesavers (fig. 1.3., 1969-70), a series of abstract paintings featuring circular forms, exemplify Chicago’s early efforts to ‘create an abstract art which could convey specific personal content’ (Chicago, 1982). This initial exploration of personal content laid the groundwork for the clear female-centered work that Chicago would go on to produce and use to educate and empower women.  Chicago began entering into a form of imagery that had been denied throughout Western art history, and was particularly prohibited within the Modernist movement of mid-20th century America.  This step towards feminist artwork coincided with Chicago’s discovery of Second-wave Feminism.

Liberated with the realisation that she was not alone in her struggle as a woman and an artist, Chicago gained the courage to speak out about her experiences, accepting a job teaching a feminist art programme at Fresno State University in California in 1970.  Chicago recognised the near impossibility of the creation of personal and female artwork within the current art system, centered around the interests of men, and the importance of developing a new and alternative art system, inclusive of female artists and their perspectives (Chicago, 1996).  Fresno, therefore, was a momentous moment for both feminism and art education, and a key aspect of Chicago’s success in challenging female oppression in the art world.  For the first time in recorded history, a women-only, female orientated art education was available to American women, and Chicago had pioneered its development. Fresno allowed Chicago the opportunity to experiment with new ways of teaching, allowing for the combination of ‘education and empowerment’ (Chicago, 1996).  Key to the programme was the encouragement of artwork that was ‘authentic to one’s lived experience’ (Broude, 1994).

  Chicago also realised the importance of consciousness-raising within a female-only environment, key to the Women’s Liberation Movement, and presenting the women with ‘positive female role models’ (Edwards, 1996) through an exploration into women’s history, an area that severely lacked available information.  Chicago pioneered feminist teaching methods while at Fresno, providing a preliminary model for women’s art education.     After a year of teaching at Fresno, Chicago relocated to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Now named The Feminist Art Program, she taught female students alongside artist Miriam Schapiro.  Initially, the program manifested itself in a collaborative installation piece, Womanhouse, situated in a 17-room rundown Mansion in Los Angeles.  The students transformed the house into ‘a three-dimensional canvas’ upon which they explored their experiences as women.  The importance of Chicago’s methods to empower and educate within Womanhouse cannot be understated within feminist art history, and its challenge to female oppression in American society.

  Despite receiving mixed reviews from the students involved, the project positively impacted the lives of those who participated, as well as Chicago herself.  Growing in confidence as both women and artists, the students were empowered through the opportunity to explore personal and dominant issues of sexism within American society and to challenge these issues; particularly ‘domestic activities that had been devalued by society’ (Lippard, 1976).   The students explored these issues through various mediums, including performance art which provided the students, as well as Chicago, with ‘a release for debilitating, unexpressed anger’ (Chicago, 1975).

  Womanhouse was also a significant consciousness-raising tool.  Over 10,000 people visited Womanhouse during the month-long display to the public, as well as it being the ‘first public exhibition of ‘feminist art” (Wilding, 1977) to receive national media coverage, drawing attention to the problem of female oppression in America and bringing ‘entirely new aesthetic subjects that had until then remained in the distant shadows in suburban American homes…into the public sphere’ (Raven, 1996).

  Raven (1996), also comments on Womanhouse’s impact on collaborative art in Southern California, ‘an area that became known globally for collaboration, expanding the concept throughout the world’, as well as mentioing the profound effect that it had on feminist art, which widely utilised collaborative working after Womanhouse.  Raven (1996) comments, Because the West Coast became a model and leader for feminst productipon nationally and internationally, the influence of transitory collaboration at Womanhouse has been pervasive and lasting.’ After the success of Womanhouse, Chicago also led in the opening the Feminist Studio Workshop in L.A. in 1973, a culmination of Chicago’s, alongside other female artists, previous years of women-only education.

   The Women’s Building, functioning until 1991, was home to the program which supported and aided the development of research and practical skills for women.  The building also housed three galleries and spaces for other non-art related feminist organisations to be based (Wolverton, 2003).  Situated within an old art school, the Women’s Building was separate from any established institutions.  Chicago realised the importance of providing alternative spaces out with male institutions in which women could exhibit and produce work, to avoid their artwork being ‘funneled back into an art system controlled by men’ (Chicago,1982).  Through the establishment of the first women-only feminist art programme in Fresno, followed by The Feminist Art Programme and Womanhouse in Valencia, and then the Women’s Building in L.

A., Chicago pioneered in feminist art education and alternative spaces, leading in the establishment of a thriving female art community in Southern California.  Chicago empowered the students involved in these projects, as well as the women who witnessed the artwork, encouraging the exploration of their authentic experiences as women through artistic expression, an unquestionable achievement in an art world dominated by men, past and present.  While teaching at the Women’s Building, Chicago made significant progress within her personal artwork.  Despite appreciating the significance of performance and installation art as significant mean for self-expression and consciousness-raising (Lucie-Smith, 2000), Chicago (1982) ‘didn’t want to repudiate the aesthetic tradition in which she was raised, albeit male or pretend that her skills and sophistication were something to be devalued and discarded as ‘male’, ‘elitist’ or ‘bourgeois’.

  Returning to painting and drawing, Chicago created the Through the Flower series (fig.1.6, 1973), followed by the Great Ladies series (fig.1.7, 1973), both of which broke through her previously abstract work into overtly female-centered imagery, while also including informative text celebrating historical achievements of women, ‘a big step in making her content clear and comprehensible’ (Chicago, 1982). Chicago also developed an interest in china painting while at the Women’s Building, practicing in both china painting and ceramics with the help of china painter Rosemary Radmaker.  In 1974, Chicago left teaching to focus on combining her newly developed skills with her growing interest in women’s history, as well as her breakthrough into explicit female imagery.  Chicago successfully combined all these aspects in Rejection Quintet (fig.

1.8, 1974), which saw ‘form and content completely meshed’ (Sackler, 2002).  All of these aesthetic and technical aspects, as well as her experiences from previously working within a male-dominated art system followed by teaching within a female-only environment, would come together in Chicago’s next and most notorious work, The Dinner Party.       

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