The Handy Art History Answer Book (2013, Visible Ink Canton MI) written by Madelyn Dickerson, was written for someone like me. The author wrote a book of art questions then provides interesting and concise answers. Her answers often stimulate thought and a desire to know more on the subject. Ms Dickerson thank you so much for your book. But in your next edition please place a warning that many of your answers will lead the reader down rabbit holes both fascinating and daunting. Especially to the art ignorant, but curious, as I. I was beginning to research Judy Chicago when I saw the question, What was Womanhouse?
“Womanhouse was a 1971 art installation, performance piece, feminist collaboration and actual house-located at 553 Mariposa Avenue in Hollywood, California. The project was run by the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of Arts. A group of twenty-six women repaired the home before a planned demolition, using their carpentry skills to transform it into a space for women-made art, and a work of art in and of itself. Womanhouse contained eighteen installations within its rooms, including Nurturant Kitchen. The house opened to the public in 1972 and attracted nearly ten thousand visitors. When the exhibitions were complete, most of the art created there was destroyed, including the home.” (Dickerson, Madelynn, 2013, The Handy Art History Answer Book pg. 248)
What caught my attention was the last line. “When the exhibitions were complete, most of the art created there was destroyed, including the home.” This statement fascinated me. Here were twenty six artist that collaborated on this art project, and only pieces of the art exists today. Now I have journals and partial stories in notebooks that I’ve kept from 1970 when I was an eighth grader. Though I’ve often thought of throwing them out, I never have. These prized notebooks of often silly stories, questions and ideas have traveled with me. I have no talent. Just lots of ego. These twenty six artist had talent and no doubt their art reflected passion and something integral to the person they were. The term Feminist Art would evolve from their work. Yet they destroyed their important exhibition. Why?
And with that question I fell into a rabbit hole. Womanhouse was the first major exhibition of Feminist Art. As a 63 year old, white, heterosexual male, I am perhaps the most poorly equipped person to delve into the topic of Feminist Art. Most often my generation and gender are accused of ignoring equal rights. In many cases the accusers may be right. If not openly biased, our silent stance on the sidelines, allowed for discrimination and harassment to continue. Judy Chicago , Miriam Schapiro and these other talented courageous artists had made a bold statement that brought attention to an issue not only in the art field, but the issue of equal rights across all fields. Thus the why of Womanhouse burned in my mind.
In 1971 I was a freshman in a catholic high school sitting in religion class. The Sister was teaching us about the Bible and was starting at the beginning of it. You know the part. Out of nothing, God created everything about 5,000 years ago. And I quote, “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (NIV 2002. Genesis 2:18). Then what followed was the creation of a woman from the rib of a man. Adam upon becoming woke, stating, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” (NIV 2002 Genesis 2:23)
Religion class was then followed by language, science, history, and math. You know what I learned in those classes? Humankind evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Women and men jointly ruled various civilizations. Mothers raised rulers and prophets. That over 25,000 years ago there existed for 20,000 years goddess worship which was replaced about 5,000 years ago by a god worshipping civilization*. And finally, personally, I learned my female classmates were quicker to learn than I and being turned down by one for a date was soul crushing. So what I learned in Religion class just didn’t jive. I mean, who got whose rib? Generations of males were educated in much the same manner with stories of the dominant male.
Read these quotes from the founders of WomanHouse, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Let them inform us today of how things stood for women in the 60’s and 70’s.
“In the 60’s one of the common things I was told, all the time, is that you can’t be a woman and an artist too. And what WomanHouse did, was WomanHouse challenged that, it not only demonstrated that you could be a woman and an artist too, it demonstrated that female experience is as much a pathway to universal human experience as male experience has been for centuries.“. [Chicago, Judy, (at 27:37) 2017 YouTube Video from an interview for the National Museum of Women in the Arts]
And this quote from Miriam Schapiro; “The story of WomanHouse is about me and Judy Chicago beginning an art course for women. To make women understand that to be an artist they had to find their identity. As well as working hard to create images that came from their belief system. I mean, they didn’t even know what a belief system was, there was so much to teach, you know. Ultimately, they were creating their own autobiography. [Schapiro, Miriam, (at 1:28) 2006 YouTube video from an interview for the SAAM]
And this from Judy Chicago; “WomanHouse was the first female centered art installation to appear in the western world. And the response indicated that there was a huge audience for feminist art. There wasn’t even a term, feminist art yet. I mean we made it up.” [Chicago, Judy, (at 18:10) 2017 YouTube Video from an interview for the National Museum of Women in the Arts]
Stuart stated in our podcast about visiting Museums, “…sometimes art makes us uncomfortable, it challenges us…but in the end it can inspire something within us.” Womanhouse did all those things to me. As I close this piece I circle back to the “why”. Why did they create a project that they would physically destroy? So here is my thought.
The destruction of the art contained in the home, and the destruction of the home reflected menopause. I was a sophomore in high school when my mother started menopause. Of course, I had no idea what was going on with her, but her mood swings and sadness at times were unnerving to witness. One evening during a commercial break on the “Here’s Lucy” show, mom apologized for a recent burst of anger. I remember her words to this day. “Scott, I feel like I’m losing everything that made me a woman, and I’m sad.”
I didn’t fully understand her, but knew that in medical terms she was losing the physical gifts that led to child bearing. She felt like she was losing something essential to her as a woman. Yet I could see, hear and somehow understood that the essence that made her a woman was still present. She lived thirty more vital years as a mother, confidant, grandmother, nursing home proxy, and friend with her unique perspective of the world, intact. The essence of the artists that created Womanhouse was not lost because the building and the art inside were destroyed. In fact, they made a courageous statement that revealed the strength and character of female artists and the Feminists Art Movement.
The fact that even today women often feel that they are treated as second class citizens is shameful. Historically women rights movements occur during the same period as civil rights movements. This historical fact alone should alert us to the current need to become vocal and support artist and people of all gender, race and creed.
Like looking at good art, we should feel uncomfortable, challenged and inspired to take action. Thanks for taking time to read this piece.
* Brodie, Norma, and, Garrard, Mary D., 1982, Feminism and Art History, Questioning the Litany, (Harper and Row, NY) Introduction: Feminism and Art History, pages 2-3,,