According to Lee Krasner, the art world in New York in the late 1930s was an egalitarian place. Discrimination arrived in the persons of the French Surrealists, renowned misogynists, who considered women to be children or muses. In the 1940s, the few token women in the art world had been either sponsored by or associated with a male in the art world. In the pre-war era, the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe were among the most valuable in New York, but she moved to New Mexico and left the scene in the late forties.  A new generation of artists, mostly male, displaced the aging coterie of American Modernists led by Alfred Stieglitz who died in 1946. It was only after the Second World War, when New York became the leading capital of art, that women began to be pushed to fringes of the gallery scene. The memory of important women artists, from O’Keeffe to Gertrude Greene to Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White, evaporated and these women vanished from history.

Krasner and Eileen de Kooning were overshadowed by their famous husbands and their art careers were doomed by the prevailing machismo left over from the war.  Although she too was married to a well-known artist (Robert Motherwell), Helen Frankenthaler survived the coupling and the divorce because she was sheltered by Clement Greenberg, the most powerful art critic in New York. Both O’Keeffe and Frankenthaler owed their careers to the attentions of amorous and powerful men who were willing to promote them. It is doubtful that either woman could have succeeded without this male support but, to their credit, they rose above their protectors and became significant artists.

With these exceptions in mind, it is fair to say that in the post-war period most women were ignored or belittled as artists and were rarely shown in galleries or taken seriously.  The main reason was economic. Given that art was an investment, a mini hedge fund, no collector would pay the same amount of money for a work by a woman as by a man. The work of women, whatever that work was, was universally devalued in comparison to that of men, and it made no economic sense for a gallery owner who was a business person to carry a commodity that did not bring the greatest monetary gains. The other reason for ignoring women who were artists was the universal male practice of dominating women by excluding them from the lucrative spheres reserved for men.

The Personal is Political

In the Sixties, women in the art world existed solely due to the tolerance of men and to their acceptance of the superiority of the male as the norm.  Thus in New York City, Carolee Schneemann was a favorite of the male community because she performed in the nude. But by the 1970s, for many women, the Women’s Movement was a revelatory experience and a means of articulating their experiences in a male world. Schneeman shifted her art to feminist issues and her performance, Interior Scroll, is considered a classic example of the reclamation of the female body.

Feminism was unavoidably a political challenge to the status quo of male domination.  As the post on the history of feminism suggested, for a woman to claim control over her own destiny was a political act in and of itself: “The Personal is Political.” Over time, Feminism developed its own discourse. The feminists appropriated the Marxist methodology of “consciousness raising” to help women to see the means of their oppression.  The prevailing ideology placed the male above the female by claiming that male supremacy was “natural.”  Because the secondary status of women was near universal, it took years of hard work on the part of feminists to lift the “veil” of ideology to reveal that male domination was, in fact, cultural and not at all natural.

The term the feminists used was “click”, meaning that something supposedly “natural” “clicked” into place as being part of the culture of male oppression. When the New York art world was introduced to feminist theories, surely one of those moments of raised consciousness had to be the contradiction between the prevailing practice of formalist art criticism which focused on the formal elements of the art work alone and the near complete lack of women and artists of color in the galleries and museums.  Clearly, critics and curators were not looking at the work only, as they claimed; they were looking first at the artist and then at the art. The resulting exclusion of women and people of color or gays and lesbians was disastrous for those who were rejected, denying them economic opportunities solely on the basis of gender, race or sexual preference.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of pushback from  the gay and lesbian community and from the women in the art world. The American feminist movement was divided into two parts, East Coast and West Coast.  Broadly speaking, both feminist movements changed the art world but they did so in different ways.  To counteract the male domination in the art world, women in New York challenged the dominate institutions and demanded membership in the boys’ club of the art world.  They had to assault the fortresses of the museums and of the established galleries.  They had to fight to enter into male dominated fields, such as painting, that had been reified as sites of masculine struggles. They had to confront the entire tradition of humanism in academia, where women were considered problematic students or teachers.

Feminism in New York

Women protested and organized and marched during the Seventies. New York City was a bastion of male power, and museums and art galleries were supported by male curators, male art historians, male dealers, and male critics, and it was these powerful institutions that had to be assaulted. Thanks to the expansion of graduate programs during the Sixties, there were many educated women coming into the art world as art and art history teachers.  These women attempted to reform history and criticism by researching about forgotten “women artists” and by writing about contemporary “women artists.” In 1970 Linda Nochlin wrote the now canonical essay, Why Have there been no Great Women Artists? It was a brave question with a social answer: women were excluded, denied opportunity, pushed aside because of their gender and the roles that the culture had devised for women.

Nochlin went on to co-curate with Ann Sutherland Harris, Women Artists, 1550-1950,a landmark exhibition of women artists that restored women to the history of art.  The exhibition was a direct counter to the traditional art history “survey” texts that routinely and stubbornly refused to include women, even when they were, like Georgia O’Keeffe, historical figures. It was easier for courageous art historians to begin the archaeological re-discovery of women artists—Mary Garrard wrote on Artemisia Gentileschi—than for contemporary women artists to get a gallery in the 1970s.

This recovery and support effort was international, extending to England, where Griselda Pollock joined the efforts of Linda Nochlin and Lucy Lippard and Cindy Nemser, who began to specialize in writing about women in the arts in New York. Lippard, who had been key in writing of Process Art in her The Dematerialization of the Art Object, switched to writing of women and other outsider artists.  From the Center was another early work exclusively on women artists and Lippard could make this career move only because she was already established as an art critic. In London, film critic Laura Mulvey used Jacques Lacan’s male-made theories about women in order to demonstrate how men dominated women in Visual and Other Pleasures. Griselda Pollock followed up with Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology in 1980.

Feminism in Los Angeles

The courage of the women art historians and art writers in New York should be noted and applauded.  Each took great risks in taking up an unpopular and contentious topic—women artists—and in the process they laid the foundation for a historical discourse on women. If the name of the game in New York was seizing a place in the economic and intellectual terrains, the game in Los Angeles was re-educating women. Women in Los Angeles countered male bias in education by founding separate courses and classes. According to feminist theory, there was an essential “feminine” which would emerge in women’s art if they were allowed to make art freely, taught by women in an all female environment.  To those who came later, this discourse would seem “essentialist”, a mere reiteration of Freud’s “anatomy is destiny,” but to the women of the Seventies, it was a necessary concept that enabled them to understand their own art in their own terms.

There were no powerful art institutions in Los Angeles, but those that existed also managed to ignore the presence of women in the art world.  Because the art world was less visible and the territories were less guarded and not as well established, the women in Los Angeles had more opportunities to make a difference than those in New York City. The education of women through teachings in the classrooms became one of the main avenues of liberating women.  For the first time, women in large numbers were taking up teaching positions as the California system expanded to accommodate the baby boomers and the growing population.  Some women, such as Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, were political activists, demonstrating publicly against the treatment of women by law enforcement and the characterization of women by the press In Mourning and in Rage (1977). Many of these early feminist women became important teachers at prestigious institutions, such as Sheila de Bretteville now at the Yale University School of Art.

Other women attempted to reform the unequal education of women as artists.  Judy Chicago set up women only programs at California State Fresno and one of her pioneering programs in feminist art making and art teaching was the Feminist Art Program with Miriam Schapiro at Cal Arts.  Paralleling the co-ops of women artists in New York, the Woman’s Building was founded in Los Angeles in 1973 and all-women classes were taught there as well. The Woman’s Building, like the co-ops in New York, gave artists a place to gather together and exchange ideas, discuss and critique their art, and, most importantly to exhibit their work. In these early years, a key idea was the deliberate separation of women from men, with the assumption that, without men, women could flourish.

The climax of these separatist activities is The Dinner Party, 1979, conceived and designed by Judy Chicago and made by a cooperative workshop of women (and men).  An installation exhibition ahead of its time, this work was criticized for its sociological and anthropological bent and for its political-historical subject matter.  Encyclopedic in nature, The Dinner Party was an attempt to visualize and celebrate the history of women.  For the mainstream art world, the brief vogue of politically aware art was over and the implied critique of all that art theory asserted was irritating to conservative critics.

Aside from celebrating women and their contributions to history, The Dinner Party refuted the notion of the lone artist and refused to accept the distinction between art and craft.  The Dinner Party remained in storage for over a decade and was rarely exhibited.  Recently, through a generous gift of a woman donor, this large work was donated to the Brooklyn Museum, now its permanent home. In retrospect the best thing about The Dinner Party was and is the delighted reaction of the art audiences which have embraced the complex work.

When Feminism Becomes Art

For women artists, Feminism meant a new designation: “Women” artists became a new category to be not excluded but considered.  Previously, “artist” was a word referring to men and women-as-artists had existed as exceptions that proved the rule of male superiority. Feminism brought the problems and concerns of women in the arts to the fore, to the relief of those who hoped for an end to discrimination by museums and galleries and universities and to the irritation of women who merely wanted to be “artists” who made “art.”

Thanks to the G. I. Bill, meant to benefit male soldiers, a university education became common and many women naturally followed their brothers to college. During the Viet Nam War, graduate schools expanded and, for artists, it became more and more common to have an undergraduate and a graduate degree.  Thanks to Civil Rights legislation, it was difficult to deny women entrance to higher education. As a result, women, seeing an unprecedented opportunity, poured into colleges and into art schools.  By the 1970s, the sheer number of women in the art world made progress inevitable, if slow.

In the early years, many women sought refuge from male-orientated art schools where “toughness,” “hardness,” and “strength” were taught as necessary attributes of art and from the narrowness of art history which considered any work of art by any woman to be “derivative” (of men) by definition.  In theory, there was an essential “feminine” which would emerge in women’s art if they were allowed to make art freely, taught by women in an all female environment.  Forty years later it is difficult to understand the need to find “essential” female forms but certain landmark exhibitions such as the Womanhouse of 1972 where the intimate relationship between the female and domesticity was explored in a series of themed rooms and provocative performances showed the particularity of a woman’s life.

The first generation of feminist artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero, were not successful or recognized until old age. Many of the younger women, such as the late Hannah Wilke, would become significant historical figures but not famous artists. But the next generation of women would benefit from the pioneering efforts of their predecessors and Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine learned how to speak “feminism” without saying the word.  They would become famous artists, leaving the qualifying adjective “woman” behind in the dust bin of history.

Some women welcomed the new visibility, others feared being ghettoized by the title “woman artist.” Some women felt that women as artists would make very specific forms of art, not just social content, but formal content.  Others felt that women were artists, period, and should make whatever kind of art they wished.  Although there were women who ultimately disagreed with the aims of the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, any woman who choose to do so benefited from the efforts of the pioneering women in New York and Los Angeles who felt that the only way to be equal was to be separate—at least they would be allowed to develop their art without interference.

The exhibition of The Dinner Party would be the high water mark of the Women’s Movement as the now-famous conservative revolution swept the nation in 1980.  One could argue that a decade is simply not enough time to change the habits of millennia. In the end, most women preferred to remain attached to the (male) mainstream traditions and inside preexisting (male) institutions, hoping to succeed within the male world and striving to eradicate the term “woman artist.”

The Feminist Art Movement not only opened doors for non-male, non-Caucausian artists, it also opened the doors for new content that was personal, political and expressive, even decorative and figurative art was made newly respectable, thanks to this new impact.  The  Pattern and Decoration Movement made “mere” decoration acceptable, if a male did the art; and New Figuration brought back representation, as long as it was a male representation. In a larger sense, feminism was part of art world Pluralism in general and part of a new demand for more content orientated subject matter in art. In the cultural and social sense, feminism was part of the Civil Rights Movement that liberated people of color, gays and lesbians, and that biggest group of all—women.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

8 + 2 =