Art and Feminism

17 Sep

Sarah Walters is a Goldsmiths graduate, Essex bird and feminist.

Here she writes about how “women have become alienated from feminism and feminism as a lifestyle choice”, with emphasis on the relationship between feminism and art. Its a long one but beautifully researched and written!


Bad Feminism by Sarah Walters

Somewhere along the rocky road that feminism has stumbled down it’s meaning has been contorted and obscured to those of us who should hold it most dear – women themselves. To many women in the 21st century the word feminism has come to mean nothing less than a particular lifestyle choice. Synonymous with lesbianism, the anti – sexual and man – hating, women find that they cannot reconcile feminism with their own lives, regarding it as a movement that doesn’t respect their choices or address their concerns.

A 1992 Ms. Foundation Survey, ‘Women’s Voices ’92: Polling Report’ found that ‘feminists “are seen by many as being more out for themselves than out for ordinary women and their families.”’ (Wolf, 1993, p. 64) Feminism has not only alienated ordinary women from its cause; fellow feminists have also fallen foul to its restrictive nature. Royalle, a feminist herself says,

‘I remember feeling that I was becoming a minority; that I was not sticking to the party line because I did have a boyfriend, and it was kind of like I was sleeping with the enemy. There was a real move towards rejecting heterosexual relationships and embracing lesbianism, or embracing separatism. There are women who won’t want to hear this, but I think a lot of women were calling themselves lesbians who, in the end, really weren’t. Because it was the thing to do, it was more politically acceptable.’

(Levy, 2006, p. 68)

However, not all is lost, although women are disassociating themselves from feminism in crowds, Wolf states that ‘twice as many women believe in the goals of feminism as are willing to use the word “feminist”’. (Wolf, 1993, p.65) It would seem that many women share the values of feminism, although feel unable to align the movement with their own lives. Feminism must acknowledge and accept that women want to work and raise children; women want the right to legal abortion and the right to express their misgivings surrounding the subject; women want to take pride in their appearance and don’t want to have to; and most importantly women do not want to be told how to live their lives. If women today continue to perceive feminism as a specific way of living, it will remain sterile and unused, a movement both stifled and stifling.

Undoubtedly feminism doesn’t wear the overbearing, prohibitive look too well, but is there any point in re-dressing, re-styling and re-vamping feminism back into something attractive to women? If we have the potential means, do we have the potential needs? Is there anything left to fight for in a culture that proclaims women are empowered as well as sexually liberated? We unarguably have the world at our feet like never before in the employment arena. UK National Statistics show that ‘In the second quarter of 2008 the employment rate was 79 per cent for men and 70 per cent for women, unchanged since 1999.’ (National Statistics, 2008) and ‘Over the last three decades there has been a marked increase in the number of employee jobs performed by women in the UK. In 1985 men filled 2.0 million more jobs than women. In March 2008 the numbers were similar, with each of the sexes performing around 13.6 million jobs’ (National Statistics, 2008) We have also mastered work and motherhood, ‘Of working – age women with children under five, 57 per cent were in employment. This compared with 71 per cent for those whose youngest child was aged five to ten and 78 per cent whose youngest child was aged eleven to sixteen.’ (National Statistics, 2008) In light of these statistics we can assume that women have gained serious ground on the employment front – we are no longer required to keep the house, and are now working in equal masses to men, and if we do want a family we are allowed to work with it. We now own choice, therefore it would be ridiculous to expect us to conform to a certain lifestyle just because feminism says so.

However, before we toast our victory and wash our emancipated hands of stuffy feminism we must consider the other side of the coin. It is extremely easy to manipulate these statistics to reveal a glowing, emancipated female population inhabiting Britain, on the other hand, it is incredibly important to ask, why has the employment rate of women not changed in 10 years and are the new breed of working mothers satisfactorily supported? We must take it upon ourselves to look at all statistics, reading between the lines, searching out the reality behind the numbers. The statistics quoted above don’t take into account that ‘almost half of women’s jobs were part time compared with around one in six of the men’s.’ (National Statistics, 2008) and ‘Men are ten times more likely than women to be employed in skilled trades and are also more likely to be managers and senior officials. A fifth of women in employment do administrative or secretarial work compared with 4 per cent of men.’ (National Statistics, 2008) Restricted types of employment are not the only downfall faced if you lack the Y chromosome, not only does a gender pay gap exist but has in fact widened in the UK between 2007 and 2008. ‘The gap between women’s median hourly pay and men’s is 12.8 per cent, compared with a gap of 12.5 per cent recorded in April 2007.’ (National Statistics, 2008) ‘Median weekly earnings of full-time employees in 2008 for women (£412) were 21 per cent less than those for men (£521), unchanged from 2007.’ (National Statistics, 2008) We undoubtedly have more employment opportunities than we did 50 years ago, but this doesn’t erase the fact that many women are over worked, under paid and possibly restricted to a certain type of employment. Another important factor to highlight is that I am quoting the situation of British women, who can be considered as living in one of the most privileged, equal societies in the world. On the balance of it, perhaps feminism has a use for us yet.

Let us think about another avenue of women’s success – sexual liberation. We may have a few more rounds to fight on the employment front but at least we can do it dressed however we want, objectifying the sexy guy who we are up against as we go. What more do we need – we’ve got Sex in the City on tap as well as our very own Playgirl magazine to enjoy. Women are seemingly enjoying pornography like never before, the ‘percentage of visitors to adult websites who are women being 1 in 3.’ (Ropelato, 2008) In June 2004, The Guardian ran a story celebrating a new women’s porn magazine, writing ‘now a new publication, the New York based Sweet Action, is offering something a little different. Sweet Action is, as its creators are quite happy to spell out “porn for women, made by women”’. (Forrest, 2004) Living a life in which women’s heterosexuality is being openly celebrated, it would seem ludicrous to subscribe to a women’s movement that caters only for lesbianism, rather than embracing all sexual preferences. If we continue to hang out within the mainstream we can appreciate our new position – we are no longer pieces of meat for men’s enjoyment – we’ve learnt to enjoy men.

But is it really that simple? We have learnt to objectify men in the same way that we have fought against being objectified for so many years and we are now queens of our own sexual destinies? This is not what the statistics surrounding the rape of women seem to reflect. Kira Cochrane, a journalist for the Guardian writes, ‘the rape conviction in Britain has plummeted from 33 per cent in the 70’s to just 5.7 per cent today, and that the 14,000 rapes reported each year are thought to be the tip of the iceberg.’ (Cochrane, 2008) Rape was a core issue for feminists of the 1970’s and 1980’s who fought hard for the provision of rape victims, providing 68 rape crisis centres in England and Wales by 1984. Cochrane writes ‘Today, with rapes at an unprecedented high (the tally of recorded rapes rose by 247 per cent between 1991 and 2004), the number of rape crisis centres have almost halved – there are now only 38’. (Cochrane, 2008) This is hardly a surprise when you consider that ‘three of the most important women’s charities in the UK – Refuge, Women’s Aid and Eaves Housing for Women – all of which support female victims of violence, have a combined income considerably lower than that of The Donkey Sanctuary, a charity that supports ageing donkeys.’ (Cochrane, 2008) If we assume that the number of recorded rapes rose so dramatically not because the action of rape has increased but because more women felt confident in coming forward we are still not able to justify an astonishing drop in the conviction rates since the 1970’s. In fact in this age of sexual liberation the attitude to rape has become one of ‘drunk in a mini skirt – sexual liberation? No – she was asking for it.’ As well as lack of provision for victims this trend indicates that either sexual liberation comes at a cost or perhaps we aren’t as in control of our sexual identities as we believe we are. Either way, once again we might think of calling upon the F word for help.

The issues I have raised have been picked at random, many similar ideas could also demonstrate that although we have travelled the distance we have obviously not reached the destination of equality quite yet. With everything left to fight for, women undoubtedly need to be reunited with feminism. We have the need, we have the means, although we must recognise that one substantial barrier we must cross is that of lifestyle. It is unacceptable that women should be expected to conform to a type of lifestyle in order to gain equality – feminism is about handing women the opportunity to choose their own life paths, let us never forget this. Asking why women feel feminism offers a lifestyle only desirable to a few, rather than a movement open to all, at the same time acknowledging how we got to this point is absolutely essential in reconciling women with the weapon with which we need to fight for our own equality. As Naomi Wolf writes ‘By not getting to the roots of this alienation, we lose nothing less than the future.’ (Wolf, 1993, p. 66)

Feminism has been embroiled in a destructive relationship with the media since its very birth. In exploring this association we may be able to reveal how and why women feel that feminism is a lifestyle choice, and whether or not this was an inescapable pitfall of feminism. In doing so, we may identify a passage leading forward. Undeniably the media have launched a hugely successful campaign against feminism, dirtying both the image of the feminist movement and feminists themselves. The media have ensured that the lifestyle choices of women have become entwined with feminism, depicting feminism as a particularly undesirable lifestyle choice. On purely these terms, a generation of women have fled from feminism, convinced that they cannot reconcile feminism with their own lifestyles. Not only have the media attacked feminism, but also perhaps more harmfully they have created an alternative feminism – a stereotypical, almost caricatured image of the feminist. The highly unfortunate result being that we don’t want to live like, or look like feminists.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as the second wave of feminism took hold the media took little interest in the movement. Those that did were quick to celebrate the re-birth of feminism. The minimal press coverage that did occur in this period lacked much reasoning and rationality and instead opted for the sensational. Even now, we can still picture the flames of burning bras engulfing the Western world. Sensationalism was soon tired of and the movement was proclaimed dead. ‘The ‘grand press blitz’, as some feminists jokingly called the media’s coverage of the movement, lasted three months; by 1971 the press was already declaring this latest ‘fad’ a ‘bore’ or ‘dead’.’ (Faludi, 1992, pp.99-100) By the mid – 1970s it was decided that ‘[women] were now equal and no longer seeking new rights – just new lifestyles. Women wanted self – gratification not self – determination – the sort of fulfilment best serviced at a shopping mall.’ (Faludi, 1992, p.100) The liberated single girl made an appearance in countless advertising campaigns and women were encouraged to spend the money they had earned in their new jobs on a new pair of tights or frilly knickers. Liberation, money and sexiness were linked in the indestructible chain that is still convincing in the 21st century. It was the provision of an alternate vision of a woman’s lifestyle that assisted in branding feminism as such a repulsive choice of living. Not only would a woman commit to feminist principles, but also in order to do so she would have to reject the mainstream ideals of what an emancipated, successful lifestyle would entail, instead living in a specifically feminist way – or so the media had us believe.

Towards the end of the 1970’s the media that had produced images of women’s success suddenly proclaimed that they were deeply unhappy. ‘In the 1970s the press had held up its own glossy picture of a successful woman and announced, ‘See, she’s happy. That must be because she’s liberated.’ Now under the reverse logic of the backlash, the press airbrushed a frown into its picture of the successful woman and announced, ‘See, she’s miserable. That must be because women are too liberated.’ (Faludi, 1992, p.102) From this point onwards the media have depicted women with equal education as spinsters and those with equal employment ambitions as sterile, whilst those of us who enjoyed equal rights were bad mothers. By the early 1980’s the media had once again announced the death of feminism. This time around not only had feminism died a grizzly death but it had left behind feminists that ‘were just women who ‘let themselves go physically’ and had ‘no sense of style’.’(Faludi, 1992, p.101) This compilation of images still today taints our view of feminism and feminists. Ask a young woman living in 2009, completely detached from the 1970’s what feminism is about, or what a feminist is. She is likely to regurgitate the images present in the media of the 1970’ and 80’s – hairy legged, short haired, man hating lesbians – rather than reminiscing over the women that fought for her right to work, education and abortion. Unfortunately the longevity and brilliance of these images came from feminism itself. If there was not a hint of truth to the words and images that the media published, they may not have succeeded in their quest. Perhaps feminism lay in an impossible position? If so, our concentration must shift from, how to detach feminism from these images, instead focusing on to how to expose the artificial nature of these images.

In examining the complex relationship between feminism, lesbianism, separatism and the media, it may be possible to identify how the term feminism became synonymous with lesbianism, what effect this had on women, and whether or not this was avoidable. It is important to emphasise that when discussing separatism and lesbianism as political actions I am referring specifically to radical feminist practice – interestingly a distinction not made by the mass media. Radical feminists propose that all men are systematically advantaged by society and as a result are active in oppressing women. In the book ‘Feminism and the contradictions of oppression’ Ramazanoglu attempts to define radical feminism writing,

‘Radical feminism focused directly on women’s relation to men as politically problematic. It brought sexuality and reproduction into the political arena and transformed women’s political consciousness…The radical feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’, allowed women to make sense of their own lives as part of common experiences in male – dominated societies. This turned rape and other forms of male violence into public political issues…Radical feminists produced knowledge of women’s oppression by challenging conventional assumptions. By redefining the most intimate human relations as political, rather than as private, radical feminists politicised sexuality and exposed men’s normal, everyday behaviour as a widespread social problem.’ (Ramazanoglu, 1989)

In declaring that the personal was political, feminist’s politicised sexuality, creating the possibility of lesbianism as a political statement. Similarly, separatism became a political action in a variety of ways including the practice of women only groups.

Today, separatism is unpopular with women, construed by the media as man-hating, linked closely to the rejection of heterosexuality, although at the time it had an extremely important role to play in establishing the independence and liberation of women from men. Rosemary Mayer, Nancy Spero and Rachel Bas-Cohain, the founding members of A.I.R gallery, the first women’s co-operative gallery, give an insight to the motivations of separatism whilst in conversation,

‘RM: Why are you so adamant there can never be a man in this gallery?…

NS: Because I think for a while we have to separate ourselves from the ruling class.

RB–C: I think that’s the point, a while is our generation, maybe our kids won’t have to wait a while.

NS: I can’t even think about it, nor would I want it, and I think that our stance would be completely weakened if we did such a thing, we have set up in such a way that women realise a radical stance for feminism.’

(Cottingham, 1998)

Rachel Bas-Cohain raises an interesting detail; she acknowledges that although separatism was, in the 1970’s, necessary, this would not be the case forever. In 2009 one strains to imagine the benefits of separatist action in the continued fight for women’s equality, although one does not need to strain to see the remnants of such actions in today’s media. The living stereotypes of feminists as man haters directly echo the distorted sentiments of radical feminists beliefs that men could not help the cause as they were systematically advantaged by a sexist society. The active caricatures of feminist’s as lesbians mimic and twist the support that feminism has shown for lesbianism.

It would be naïve, and completely wrong to portray feminism as a helpless victim, mutilated by the media. In coining phrases such as ‘until all women are lesbians there will be no political revolution!’ (Cottingham, 1998) feminists made the media’s job laughably easy. They did however encounter two choices in the face on the media onslaught. The first, to distance themselves from lesbianism publicly, accepting the oppositions terms that a woman’s sexuality can compromise her politics, whilst banishing a group of women from a women’s movement. The second, to embrace lesbianism in response to the media dyke baiting, risking the further alienation of women from feminism. Either option would and did surely result in negative press; therefore we can assume that although particular feminist’s actions added fuel to the flames, the flames were inevitably raging from the very beginning. A further detail to acknowledge is on the part of women themselves. All women are not alienated from feminism because they are homophobic – some of us do not have the luxury of being able to embrace lesbianism, and the lifestyle associated with this, not due to our own homophobic attitudes, but those of others. Those of us that are able to embrace lesbianism may not feel that feminism offers a viable position with regards to a heterosexual lifestyle.

But this isn’t the full story – we didn’t just write off feminism because we heard it was only for lesbians and man haters – we wrote off feminism because through the din of manipulated sentiments we couldn’t hear feminism itself anymore. If feminism had a retort to the media assault it was suffocated at birth. The media spilt much ink in ridiculing and directing the feminist message, but they certainly did not waste ink on words from feminists themselves. ‘The Western media culture grants women approximately one quarter of its forums in which to try to work out what they think, and indicates again and again that their opinions have one third of the value of men’s.’ (Wolf, 1993, p.95) The lack of public space awarded to feminism not only disabled feminism from controlling its self image, but also denied feminists the room in which to debate the contradictions and predicaments faced by feminism. In stifling feminism the media was able to position itself between women and feminism, summarising and manipulating the feminist message, creating the myth of the feminist lifestyle, even before the original message had reached our ears.

The lack of space and time dedicated to feminism proved debilitating in two ways. Firstly, feminist issues became increasingly black and white.

‘When the issues are debated, polarisation becomes extreme to the point of being surreal. TV and press love a good catfight, but are almost never interested in good-faith debate within feminism. So rather than hearing from black feminists and white feminists on racism in feminism, or from anti-censorship feminists and anti-pornography feminists we only get this feminist versus a man, and that feminist versus a right-wing woman. In such a situation it becomes intellectually reckless for a feminist to concede ambiguities in her position.’ (Wolf, 1993, p.109)

In debating only in the company of non-feminists a feminist faces the burden of defending her feminism rather than addressing the issue in hand. Combined with a severe lack of airtime we become witnesses to feminists frantically expressing sweeping, unjustified statements, rather than well thought out and well articulated ideas. Secondly, feminists come to inhabit the margins of public debate as a result of their treatment in mainstream media. ‘The unhappy consequence of the press’s relegation of feminist debate to the margins was that some feminists responded by glamorising, or privileging, the margins of debate, which reinforced a beleaguered us-against-them mentality.’ (Wolf, 1993, p.107) In assuming an us-against-them mentality feminism seemed to forget that ‘them’ included all the ordinary women absorbing mainstream media everyday. In revelling on the edge of society, as with any subculture, feminism indulged in its own fashions, unfortunately approaching the reality of the elitist clique that the media had so successfully portrayed. In doing so feminism came close to betraying its core belief – universal sisterhood – leaving us in the position of disliking what feminism was, and how it was depicted.

Whilst basking in a feminist way of life, the movement retreated into the institutions, resulting in the huge language barrier that now divides women and feminism. Impenetrable to women, feminist theory now has its own academic rhetoric, thus increasing the gulf between feminism and women’s everyday lives. In the film ‘Not for Sale: Feminism and art in the USA during the 1970’s’ Judy Chicago expresses angrily her frustration regarding this predicament from a feminist perspective,

‘One of the things I’m really angry about is with women is how fucking ignorant women not only are, but insist upon being. It’s like you say ‘I want to make change’ and we tell you, and you say ‘I don’t want to do all that, that won’t make change.’ We say to you those of us who are effectively making change are not ignorant…Which is one of the reasons women have such a fucking hard time. Women are fucking ignorant, and we have to take responsibility for it, and face it, and do something about it.’ (Cottingham, 1998)

Chicago is correct to identify the ignorance of women surrounding subjects of both feminism and their own equality. She is almost certainly wrong to imply that the reason for this ignorance is pure bone idleness on the part of women. If women can not access feminism theoretically due to a language barrier, nor practically, as they can not reconcile feminism with their own daily lives, why on earth would they respond to ‘we tell you’ how to make change? Perhaps we want to hear the arguments and considerations ourselves, in relation to our own lives, rather than be expected to dig around in a dusty library a million miles away from the reality that we know? In the fight for women’s equality, it is every woman’s duty – feminist or not – to take responsibility, and face our own ignorance and that of others. Naomi Wolf alludes to a solution when writing, ‘academic feminists cannot be blamed for this development; [the retreat of feminism into the institution] all professions mutate toward specialisation. The crime was that the academy tends to sneer at those who try to translate these ideas for magazines, newspapers or TV.’ (Wolf, 1993, p.137) The answer must partially lie in the popular culture of today, if feminism were allowed the space and possessed the will, it could talk to so many women in so many ways that it has not done for years.

Take a best selling British women’s magazine of the 21st century – Cosmopolitan. It claims to be feminist in its ethos, providing today’s women with a ‘gentler brand of feminism…more realistic and palatable.’ (Benjamin, 2009) Cosmopolitan ‘are happy to have played such a significant part in women’s history, and we look forward to many more years of empowering chicks everywhere.’ (Benjamin, 2009) Let us reserve our cheers for pop feminism – it is not as hopeful as it sounds. On searching the Cosmopolitan website for the term ‘women’s rights’ a grand total of 2 articles appear. One of which is entitled ‘Winning fashion – step up your career by looking the part with these great styles.’ Search the word ‘boyfriend’ and you would be greeted with 854 articles, the word ‘sex’ would uncover 1381 articles. Of course one is glad that a women’s magazine has dedicated so much ink to women’s desires. Unfortunately, popular articles on such desires include ‘Sex worries – Am I tight enough?’ and ‘10 sex cravings all guys have: scorching sex tricks that’ll send him through the roof’. We seemingly have moved from man hating back to man pleasing in one swift step. Although there is nothing wrong with pleasing a man it is a sad state of affairs when women consider this their feminism. We desperately need feminist intervention in such situations – not to celebrate separatism and lesbianism – but to present real issues and alert us to our newly oh so liberated attitudes to sex, rather than this ‘palatable’ version of feminism for ‘chicks everywhere’.

We have spoken about the feminist lifestyle that may or may not exist, and our concerns regarding such a lifestyle, but we have not presented our alternative – the mainstream raunch culture that the media promotes. This is not to say that as a woman we have only two feasible lifestyles – that of lesbian man hater or that of breast implanted flirt – but these are two stereotypical ways of life promoted or demoted by the media rightly or wrongly, that influence many young women’s lives. Our alternative lifestyle includes Brazilian bikini waxes, thongs and boobs, once a certain type of sexual expression, now sexuality itself, ‘“It’s like it’s cool to be a stripper, it’s cool to be tarty.” An interest in these things used to seem like a way of resisting the status quo. Now it feels like a way of conforming’ (Levy, 2006, p.188). In her book ‘Female chauvinist pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture’, Ariel Levy questions ‘how is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering?’ (Levy, 2006, p.4) Living within the midst of this ‘bawdy world of boobs and gams’ (Levy, 2006, p.5) I’d like to hazard a guess. If we were to equate attention with power, which is now customary, women that subscribe to such a lifestyle attain more attention from men, and as a result feel empowered. Power is not only to be found in the result, but also in the decision. We decided to look like this, to act like this – we weren’t told to do so– as Lisa Page says regarding women as sex objects ‘it doesn’t need to threaten us anymore’ (Levy, 2006, p. 115).

There are at least two worrying results to arise from such attitudes, the first being that young women are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate their sexual desires from their desire for attention. In her research of teenager’s lifestyles Levy found that many of the girls she spoke to said that ‘sex for them was an “ego thing” rather than a lust thing.’ (Levy, 2006, p.162) Having gained sexual liberation we must surely agree that we are not using our newfound freedom successfully? The assimilation of attention, power and sexuality is unproductive in freeing young women’s sexual desires; rather than reflect our emancipation, raunch culture exposes how far we have yet to go. It is vital that women have the opportunity and ability to reconcile a feminist framework with their own heterosexual lives, if not, we will continue to unleash our sexual desires in impotent and ungratified ways. Secondly, there is an increasing trend for women to equate such sexual behaviour with men:

‘“There is something empowering about waking up next to a guy and thinking, I’ve got to go; what’s on the menu next? I used to get so hurt,” when it was the morning after the big night, and the adventure had not yielded an enduring bond. “Then, eventually, having a sense of humour and perspective about these things made it so I could wake up and get on with my life. When I felt that switch flip in my head, I thought, Yeah! Now I’m like a guy.”’ (Levy, 2006, pp. 188 – 189)

If women are to deem their behaviour to be like a man’s, associating such conduct with power, we will continue to reinforce the notion that a woman’s actions are inferior to a man’s. In order to gain true liberation and power we must resort to acting ‘like a man’. Allowing this mentality to go unchallenged inhibits us from ever making real progress.

If raunch culture is contested in the context of feminism it is not uncommon for women to respond with accusations of a stifling, serious feminism commanding against a fun, care free raunchy lifestyle. In response to this many have suggested that modern raunch culture is a form of rebellion ‘against the too-radical uptightness that was turning the movement I loved into these old biddies telling me we shouldn’t have relationships with men.’ (Levy, 2006, p.69) Imelda Whelehan writes, ‘The use of raunchy language, though it may be evidence of generational rebellion against the old feminist order, does not itself offer radical social critique.’ (Whelehan, 2000, p.80) The defence of rebellion may once have been logical, but today it is weak. Such a rebellion against feminism would assume that just because young women of the 21st century have had the fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement everything that they do is saturated by its agenda. This is simply untrue. Perhaps grown women did appropriate raunch culture as a form of rebellion against feminism, but this can not be the case for today’s young women – we have never had a feminism to rebel against. Whelehan highlights that whatever the reason; our behaviour may make a statement, although goes no further than this in examining our current situation. It would seem that in pointing our painted fingernails accusingly at the media and feminism we overlooked our own role in this story. As women it is our responsibility to search feminism out, to not settle for what the media tells us. We must demand our right to an individual lifestyle, not dictated by feminists or the media, but central to our lives must be the fight for women’s equality.

Lifestyle is inherent within every feminist concern and as a result has become ingrained into every woman’s relationship with feminism. The inseparable nature of feminism and lifestyle can be seen particularly clearly when examining feminist art. Feminist art deals with women’s concerns and struggles in both straightforward and ambiguous ways. In analysing this specific form of feminist practice we will be able to recognise the intricacies of the relationship between feminism and lifestyle, why the two are entwined, identifying how we may progress from this point onwards. The issue of lifestyle can be detected in the organisation, style and content of feminist artwork. Spanning such a broad spectrum of forms and contents, I will narrow my exploration of feminist art to encompass predominantly performance artworks in relationship to our discussion of lifestyle. In the essay ‘Feminist performance art: performing, discovering, transforming ourselves’ Josephine Withers describes this particular artistic medium, ‘A performance event is usually presented only once, before a live audience, and seldom has the polish one associates with theatrical performance; if the performance is repeated, it is seldom the same. It can happen just about anywhere: in a loft, on a beach, a bridge, a stage, the street, a cave, or even involve an entire city.’ (Withers, 1994, p.158) Performance art was particularly appropriate for the feminist cause in a number of ways; Cheri Gaulke observes ‘in performance we found an art form that was young, without the tradition of painting or sculpture. Without the traditions governed by men. The shoe fit, and so, like Cinderella, we ran with it.’ (Withers, 1994, p.160) In endeavouring to carve our own history from existing art discourse, at the same time as striving to create a new history and future, inclusive of women, it became extremely significant, even inevitable, that a new art form was used, one free from male dominated dialogue. Performance art provided a medium that feminists could use to explore womanhood intimately, detached from any meaning that men had given it. In its ability to resist tidy definitions performance art granted women the freedom to produce art that generated questions rather than just slogans. It had the capability to avoid comfortable classification, a predicament that feminism continues to battle hard against.

Performance art suited the organisation of the feminist movement due to its easily collaborative nature. Collaboration was a central concept to 1970’s feminism, Wolf writes ‘the legacy of the consciousness-raising movement gives great weight to the act of having other women confirm one’s own life experiences, thus breaking down isolation and putting individual struggles into a social context.’ (Wolf, 1993, p. 120). Through sharing experiences, whether in the framework of women’s groups or art groups, women were able to produce a ‘confirmation of reality by sharing.’ (Wolf, 1993, pp. 120 – 121) Collaboration in the feminist visual arts movement took many forms and scales, both physically and theoretically. Through shared experience women learned how to expose their concerns, struggles, and insights, building upon one another in order to effect social change. Collaboration was not a wholly positive experience for those women involved, and others witnessing. It has been accused of breeding a culture of domination in which one may not express their individuality. ‘The Dinner Party’ created by Judy Chicago; one of the most ambitious and widely known examples of feminist collaborative art faced such criticism. ‘In 1984, critic Robert C. Hobbs called Chicago “less a collaborator than an enterprising businessperson,” who farms out work to technicians but “is not really allowing [the fabricators] to collaborate fully in the work.”’ (Stein, 1994, p. 230) Comparable to the central feminist movement such collaborations were condemned as overbearing and dictatorial. Although criticised, collaboration has a huge place within the women’s movement, assisting in exposing the inequality of women. As women, we must learn to embrace collaboration, at the same time celebrating divergent viewpoints, which can be pieced together to form a better understanding of what women need.

The untidy, explorative nature of performance events and collaborations has unfortunately led to the existence of poor, or no documentation. Many of the performances that were documented can not be done justice; how can we ever capture through documentation, what these performances meant at the time to both the performers and witnesses, and the hand they had in developing feminist consciousness and theory? Withers writes, ‘the very qualities that gave feminist performance it vitality are the same ones that make it hard to document, to re-create – in a word, to historicize.’ (Withers, 1994, p.160) Withers highlights an important point in noting the difficulty in historicising feminist performance art. In failing to document a central part of the women’s movement successfully, we have ironically left a void in the space of history that we worked so hard to forge for ourselves. Performance art, so indispensable and relevant to feminist practice unwittingly places itself at the margins of art history through its very nature. Similar to the central women’s movement it becomes difficult for women to access, and as a result, the women whom it was created for and concerning can not immerse themselves within it and learn from it, as they should.

At the time of creation feminist performance art had a massive impact on feminist practice and thinking. Through the use of performance art, feminists were able to blur the boundaries between art and life. In breaking down these barriers it became possible to expose the daily struggles of women’s lives through the framework of art. On occasion an artist’s performance work and everyday life were indistinguishable. This was the case for Linda Montano, a female artist with feminist concerns, who has used her daily life as material for her art since 1969. Her work ‘7 YEARS OF LIVING ART’ is a time based, endurance/performance piece in which she wears one colour of clothing religiously each year. Montano ‘considers her life to be a work of art and her art to be a transformed reflection of her life.’ (Montano, 1998) More significant than wearing one colour each year is the unification of her artwork and life. Montano transforms the private in to the public, furthering such feminist practices as consciousness-raising. Through her artwork Montano demonstrates the act of sharing ones private experiences as an empowering and exposing experience. Her work may also be thought of in the context of the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. Montano re-invents the private into a public political issue, revealing womanhood in a way that allows us to form new, insightful questions about the way we lead our lives.

Not only has performance art been used to expose women’s everyday lives, but it has also been utilised in revealing the performative nature of these everyday experiences. Feminist theory has challenged the assumption than ‘being a woman’ is a natural concept innate to all females. Instead, it has been suggested that gender is an ‘act’ shaped by society. Judith Butler writes,

‘When de Beauvoir claims that “woman” is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, a biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity that has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of “woman”.’ (Butler, 2003, p.394)

In the context of this thinking, gender and the being of ‘woman’ becomes a performance. ‘Performance is not a difficult concept to us [women]. We’re on stage every moment of our lives. Acting like women. Performance is a declaration of self.’ (Withers, 1994, p. 160) With such radical challenges being made to society, performance art would seem an appropriate method with which to contest the system. It became popular practice for feminist artists to create and perform personas as part of their work; one such artist was Eleanor Antin. ‘Working from the outside in, Antin used costume props to create a group of archetypal characters she has continued to deploy over the years: a king, a ballerina, a nurse, and a black movie star…by living through these “four great personas, I have learned a lot about my life and character and my situation in the world.”’ (Withers, 1994, p.167) In producing these mystic characters Antin is able to know and understand the world in a fresh way, rejecting the single focus of life imposed by the dominant culture and instead embracing a collective ego, exploring who ‘we are’ rather than only ‘who I am’. Other practitioners such as Lynn Hershman focused on performing more ‘ordinary’ personas. Hershman created Roberta Breitmore, a woman living in San Francisco, engaging in everyday encounters. In performing such an everyday character, one is able to get to the root of the daily struggles that women face, exposing through self reflection the anxiety that many women encounter in negotiating their lives. The performance of personas were extremely important in feminist art, allowing women the space to escape from the rules that society had imposed upon them, and granting them the freedom to truly analyse and experience their situations through a different perspective.

Feminist performances dealt with the performativity of womanhood as well as inquiring into anything from women’s desires to women’s ambitions to women’s domestic chores. Artworks ranged from performance pieces to paintings to more traditionally female associated crafts such as needlework. One such work that deals directly with women’s daily lives is ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ by Martha Rosler. Made in 1975, Rosler’s film features her standing in a kitchen setting. Wearing an apron, unsmiling, she proceeds to run through the alphabet redefining signs of domesticity as she goes. From apron to tenderiser Rosler trudges through numerous kitchen utensils, using her body language to convey her anger and frustration to the viewer, stabbing at the air with a fork, and slicing through the space with a knife. In attempting to redefine such familiar objects within the language of anger, Rosler exposes the original definitions as artificial and changeable, examining women’s position within this conditioned setting. ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ demonstrates quite clearly the crisis that women and their lives faced at that point in time. Humorous yet serious, mundane yet compelling, Rosler expands the slogan of ‘domesticity is bad’ to give birth to numerous questions surrounding domestic life – what it is; how we, as women, are located within the domestic realm; and how we feel about filling this role. Her performance, although powerful, allows the viewer the space in which to raise these questions and in time attempt to answer them.

Faith Wilding approaches the same theme in a different manner in her piece ‘Waiting’ of 1971. Wilding uses words to break the silence, in a consciousness raising, sharing experience.

‘Wilding’s Waiting is a litany that rhythmically described women’s lives as reactive to the actions of others and as characterised 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”…’ (Raven, 1994, p.58.)

Wilding speaks in a low monotone voice throughout, rocking slowly in her chair during the performance. ‘Waiting’ comments on the housewife – a solitary worker, uncommitted to her own life, living and working as a consequence of others actions. The work is mundane and empty, the woman – a sign of nothingness. Through repetition the domestic life of a woman is confronted, this confrontation enabled women to deconstruct the image of the ‘housewife’, beginning to redefine their position within society. Wilding’s ‘Waiting’ and Rosler’s ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ are merely two examples of how feminist art has directly addressed the issue of women’s every day lives. In examining such artwork it is clear to see the impossibility of ever separating feminism and lifestyle. Feminism lives to change women’s daily lives. It is hardly a wonder that at the core of women’s current divorce from feminism is the matter of lifestyle – we are simply contesting a certain way of life, just as women were doing in the 1970’s. However, we might learn from feminist art of the time – rather than encouraging a complete shutdown against feminism, we may produce questions and responses that address in an open ended way how we feel with regards to feminism, and more generally our lives as women in the 21st century.

Having established that feminist art is deeply entwined with ideas of lifestyle, it may be beneficial to ask how the works we have considered differ from other forms of more traditional feminist activist actions. The intricacy of feminist art as opposed to feminist activism may provide us with a means to progress our relationship with feminism. Feminist art and feminist activism are similar in a number of ways, at some points overlapping and combining, to form new kinds of experiences. Peggy Phelan writes that ‘feminist artists were explicitly inspired by political activism and saw their art as contributions to the advancement of that activism.’ (Phelan, 2007, p.347) If the two are so intimately linked, what exactly defines feminist art from feminist activism? Take the performance piece ‘Three Weeks in May’, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, the artists themselves write that the piece was, ‘a performance that laid the groundwork for a form we called the public informational campaign.’ (Labowitz, Lacy, 2003, p.304) As part of their artwork Lacy and Labowitz utilised the media just as activists would, creating a media worthy spectacle in order to get their message across to a wider public. Lacy reports ‘Three Weeks brought together normally disparate groups – including artists, self defence instructors, activists and city officials – in a temporary community that suggested future collaborative possibilities.’ (Labowitz, Lacy, 2003 p.303) Similar to other types of feminist practice, ‘Three Weeks in May’ embraces collaboration, in this case, between many working groups of people rather than individual women. In its organisation and promotion ‘Three Weeks in May’ would seem to be no different from traditional activism – if this is the case, what is it that defines Labowitz and Lacy’s efforts as feminist art, and is this even a useful distinction to make?

Peggy Phelan attempts to define feminist art, as opposed to feminist activism, writing,

‘And yet, great art compels because it cannot be reduced to a political slogan, no matter how righteous. Refusing to confirm a simple political formula along the lines of “voyeurism is sexist, therefore we must give it up,” the claims of the best feminist art illuminate the often ambivalent relationship we have to the distinction between what we know and how we feel.’

(Phelan, 2003, p.347)

Although Labowitz and Lacy’s performance piece was activist in its nature, its multifaceted, original approach to the issue of rape promoted the act of questioning and responding to the theme, rather than closing down discussions with slogans such as ‘rape is bad’. In bringing together many groups of people, through various different events – some direct and some more ambiguous – rape is seen to be a whole subject with diverse debates and questions that need to be raised. The same can be said for Rosler’s ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ and Wilding’s ‘Waiting’. Both works encouraged an open forum in which to unpick the matters at hand, rather than condensing complex subjects into catchphrases. In attempting to define what exactly feminist art is, as opposed to feminist activism, are we not falling into the same trap that we accuse the media of embracing? Should we not accept feminist art and feminist activism as facets within feminist practice, rather than diminishing them with the constraints of definition? Perhaps as an entire movement we could learn to possess the willing to infiltrate the feminist message throughout society, similar to feminist activists? Perhaps we could acquire the ability, from feminist art, to open up debates within a free forum, not reducing our inequality to slogans. Whichever way we decide to proceed, we must all agree that in looking back at all kinds of feminist action we have lessons to learn, as Susan Fraiman writes,

‘Feminist mothers, I firmly believe, have much to pass on – the lessons of their own mistakes, for one thing; the barely remembered optimism of a more progressive era; not to mention an evolving archive of theoretical and practical knowledge about women/gender and their relation to sexuality, race, class, and nation. The point, as I say, is to claim some legacies and let the rest lie, celebrate some ideas while crucifying others…’ (Fraiman, 1999, p.528)

There is no doubt in my mind that we, as women in the 21st century, have distanced ourselves from the term feminism and the idea of feminists on the basis of deep rooted concerns surrounding our lifestyle choices. We have not, however, stopped believing in the ideal of equality, and knowing that this has not yet been achieved is as much reason as we need to cross the gulf between women and feminism. It is important to articulate the problems that we have with feminism in order to address them, realising that outside forces are also at play. We must understand that feminism lives to challenge women’s ways of life, and accept that as a result we will always be vulnerable to attack and manipulation regarding our lifestyle. It is our responsibility to demand that feminism provides women with the space to debate which is present in the best feminist artworks, and it is our responsibility to order feminism to inhabit popular culture as it did during the activist years. As women we must fight for a feminism that serves us all. In knowing what has crippled feminism in the past we may hope to overcome these obstacles in the future – feminism exists for women, because of women – if we don’t like its image, let’s take hold of it and change it. Let’s never forget that feminism is about broadening the possibilities of women’s lives, it is not about defining how women should live.



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Not for Sale: Feminism and art in the USA during the 1970’s, (1998). Written and directed by Laura Cottingham


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