Beginnings of Feminist Art

Feminist art production in the West began in the late 1960s, during the "second-wave" of feminism in the United States and England, but was preceded by a long history of feminist activism. The "first wave" of feminism began in the mid-19th century with the women's suffrage movements and continued until women received the right to vote in 1920. Organized feminist activism then effectively ceased until the late 1960s, but women's concern about their role in society certainly remained.

Painter Berthe Morisot created a striking 1885 self-portrait showcasing her in the male-dominated Impressionist movement. Throughout the history of art, it is possible to find daring artists they explored their personal visions.

Artists that expressed some of these concerns in their work have been posthumously identified as proto-feminist. For example, Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois created works that contained imagery dealing with the female body, personal experience, and ideas of domesticity, even if the artists did not explicitly identify with feminism. Others, such as the German-American Anni Albers and the English Vanessa Bell worked to elevate media that was previously seen as “women’s work" and “handicrafts,” such as weaving and pottery-making, to the status of “art.”

These subjects were later embraced by the Feminist Art movement that began producing work during the resurgence of the larger women's movement in the late 1960s. The American Feminist artists of this "second-wave" of feminism expanded on previous themes by linking their artwork explicitly to the fight for gender equality and including a wider visual vocabulary to help describe their goals. As Andrea Giunta, Argentinian art historian, notes, “these processes were paralleled in Latin America and Europe,” with notable developments occurring in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. Just as American women artists were identifying statistics that demonstrated their underrepresentation in major arts institutions, so were Latin American women artists noting very similar discrepancies.

The United Nation’s first World Conference on Women was, in fact, held in Mexico City in 1975, and was focused on addressing issues that women face around the world (including domestic abuse, feminicide, and lack of access to education, among many others) and on identifying potential policy changes to improve these issues in numerous countries. The conference was followed by a high number of exhibitions and events that foregrounded the work of women and Feminist artists in Mexico and beyond, with much communication and collaboration between American Feminist artists and international Feminist artists driving Feminist art making worldwide in the following years and decades.

The 1970s

In New York City, which had a firmly established gallery and museum system, women artists were largely concerned with equal representation in art institutions. They formed a variety of women's art organizations, like the Art Worker's Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and the AIR Gallery, to specifically address Feminist artists' rights and issues in the art community. These organizations protested museums like The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, which exhibited few, if any, women artists. Protests of the Whitney Annual led to a rise in the number of women artists presented, from ten percent in 1969 to twenty-three percent in 1970.

In California, women artists focused on creating a new and separate space for women's art, rather than fighting an established system. In 1972, artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, who were co-founders of the California Institute of the Arts' Feminist Art Program, organized the project Womanhouse, which encompassed an entire property in Los Angeles at which various female artists contributed on-site installations. In 1973, Chicago along with graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven created the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW) - a two-year program for women in the arts that covered Feminist studio practice as well as theory and criticism. The FSW was a part of the Woman's Building in Los Angeles, which was created by Feminist artists as an inclusive space for all women in the community, and contained gallery space, a cafe, a bookstore, and offices for a feminist magazine, among other resources.

Art critics also played a large role in the 1970s Feminist Art movement by calling attention to the fact that women artists had been completely omitted from the canon of Western art. They were important advocates who sought to rewrite male-established criteria of art criticism and aesthetics. In 1971, ARTnews published critic Linda Nochlin's provocatively titled an essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" The essay critically examined the category of "greatness" (as it had largely been defined in male-dominated terms) and initiated the Feminist revision of art history that led to the inclusion of more women artists in art history books. In 1973, England's art critics Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock founded the Women's Art History Collective to further address the omission of women from the Western art historical canon. In 1976, Nochlin and fellow art historian Ann Sutherland Harris organized the first international female-only exhibition "Women Artists: 1550-1950" to familiarize the public with 400 years worth of work that had gone largely unrecognized.

The 1980s

With the end of the 1970s, an era of radical idealism in the arts came to a close with the new conservatism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. The Feminist artists of the 1980s focused more on psychoanalysis and Postmodern theory, which examined the body in a more intellectually removed manner than the embodied female experience that dominated the art of the 1970s. Artists continued to expand the definition of Feminist Art and although they were not always aligned with a coherent social movement, their works still expressed the need for women's equality. The Feminist artists of the 1970s made many advances, but women were still not close to equal representation.

Guerrilla Girls' Poster (2001) for a make-believe film that would allegedly be about the start of feminism, but featured contemporary sex symbols

This continued discrepancy spawned the Guerrilla Girls, a group formed in 1985, best known for fighting against sexism and racism in the art world by protesting, speaking, and performing at various venues while wearing gorilla masks and adopting pseudonyms to hide their identity to avoid real-world repercussions for speaking out against powerful institutions. The Guerrilla Girls took Feminist Art in a new direction by plastering posters all over New York and eventually buying advertising space for their images. Their posters used humor and clean design to express a pointed, political message. Other 1980s Feminist artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger also focused on mass communication that drew on the visual vocabulary of advertising in both use of graphics and the distillation of complex political statements into catchy slogans. These artists sought the destruction of male-dominant social precepts, and focused less on the differences between men and women associated with 1970s Feminist Art.

Feminist Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

A Multi-Disciplinary Movement

There is no singular medium or style that unites Feminist artists, as they often combined aspects from various movements including Conceptual art, Body art, and Video art into works that presented a message about women's experience and the need for gender equality.

Feminist Art and Performance art often crossed paths during the 1970s and beyond, as performance was a direct way for women artists to communicate a physical, visceral message. It had the impact of being face-to-face with the viewer, which made it more difficult to disregard. Performance kept the work on a highly personal level, as there was no separation between the artists and the work itself.

Body art was another medium that was conducive to Feminist artistic concerns, as it provided a means to convey an immediate message to the viewer that was unequivocally connected to the personal space of the artist. Often Body and Performance art overlapped in Feminist Art.

Video art emerged in the art world just a few years before Feminist Art, and provided a medium, unlike painting or sculpture, that did not have a historic precedent set by male artists. Video was viewed as a catalyst that could initiate a media revolution, placing the tools for television broadcasting in the hands of the public, and thus providing the Feminist Art movement with vast potential to reach a broader audience. The Woman's Building housed the Los Angeles Women's Video Center (LAWVC), which provided women artists with unprecedented access to the expensive new equipment required for making video art.

Gender Performance

Mierle Laderman Ukeles explored the idea of women's work with her Maintenance Work series (1973), in which she eliminated the separation between art and life by performing typical household chores within the museum. Viewers had to walk around her while she cleaned the steps of the entrance, and common tasks were made into art that could not be ignored. Carolee Schneemann pulled a scroll from her vagina in public, a shocking attempt to reclaim the vagina to its rightful place as sacred source and birth passage. Yoko Ono revealed her own vulnerability in a performance where she sat submissively on stage as audience members were invited to cut off her clothes. By sharing gender specific experiences with audiences, these artists were using the "knowledge is power" model to influence new ways of thinking about traditional female stereotypes and to inspire empathy and compassion for the female condition.

Performance Art Movement Page

Body as Medium

Artists often distorted images of their bodies, changed their bodies with other materials or performed self-mutilation not only to shock, but to convey a deeply felt experience in the most visceral manner. Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta used blood and her own body in her performances, creating a primal, but not violent, connection between the artist's body, blood, and the audience (and nature). Mendieta and many other Feminist artists saw blood as an important symbol of life and fertility directly connected to women's bodies.

Body Art Movement Page

Sexual Equality and De-Objectification

Many Feminist artists illuminated an imperative to end sexism and oppression with works that went against the traditional ideas of women as merely beautiful objects to be visually enjoyed. As Lucy Lippard stated, "When women use their own bodies in their art work, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject." These works compelled viewers to question society's social and political norms.

For example, Dara Birnbaum used video art to deconstruct women's representation in mass media by appropriating images from television broadcasts into her video-collages, re-presenting them in a new context. In her most prominent piece, the 1978-79 video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, she used images from the popular hit television show to expose its sexist subtexts. Birnbaum's peer Judith Bernstein was known for using sexually explicit images, many drawing reference from the male phallus and reminiscent of signs that might be found in a graffiti-scrawled men's restroom. Her monumental drawing Horizontal (1973) consists of a domineering, swirling screw - a metaphorical jab at male domination.

Domesticity and Family Life

Miriam Schapiro coined the term "femmage" to describe works she began to make in the 1970s that combined fabric, paint, and other materials through "traditional women's techniques - sewing, piercing, hooking, cutting, appliqueing, cooking and the like..." This put a spotlight on "women's work" as a viable contribution to the category of traditional "high art." Artists Faith Wilding and Harmony Hammond, among others, used fabric in their work to interrogate the deletion of feminine crafts from the arts.

Martha Rosler explored the various facets of female and domestic life. In her A Budding Gourmet (1974), we see a video of a woman describing efforts to improve herself and her family through gourmet cooking. Her dialogue is randomly interrupted with slides showing glossy images from food and travel magazines meant to depict consumerism's baiting of the everyday housewife.

Making and Reshaping Art History

Judy Chicago's <i>Dinner Party</i> (1979)

Many feminist artists made work intended to show the inequity in the absence of women from historical cultural texts and documentation. In Judy Chicago's seminal Dinner Party, 1974-1979, credit is given toward the influence of women such as Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Gertrude Stein, and many others on contemporary female artists. One artist particularly concerned with toppling unfair male domination was Nancy Spero. Her Notes in Time (1979) is a long scroll-like work that explores the place of women throughout history, traveling across epochs, continents, time and space, lending them overdue documentation and significance.

Later Developments - After Feminist Art

Perhaps Kiki Smith said it best, when describing the major impact the Feminist Art movement had on the art world of its time: "I would say that without the feminist movement I wouldn't exist; and an enormous amount of the artwork that we take for granted wouldn't exist; and a lot of the subject matter that we assume can be encompassed by art wouldn't exist. The feminist movement exponentially expanded what art is, and how we look at art, and who is considered to be included in the discourse of art making. I think that it caused a tremendous, radical change. You don't want to have a cultural notion that one specific gender embodies creativity. All humanity - and all aspects of gender and sexuality and how people define themselves -are inherently creative. It's against the interests of the culture at large not to embrace feminism as a model, just like many other models of liberation, because they don't only liberate women, they liberate everybody."

Because of the progress made by previous generations of Feminist artists, many contemporary female artists no longer necessarily feel the responsibility to identify as "women artists" or to explicitly address the "women's perspective." Building on the precedent of the 1980s, many women artists began to produce work that focused on their individual concerns and less on a general feminist message.

The catalogue for the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition (2008)

Cindy Sherman, for instance, photographed herself in the roles of different iconic stereotypes portrayed in film and history and by doing so she reclaimed those stereotypes while at the same time questioning the male gaze so prevalent in cinematic theory and popular culture. In the 1990s artists such as Tracey Emin showed the influence of Feminist Art by focusing on personal narratives and using non-traditional materials, such as the famous piece My Bed (1998), which consisted of her own slept-in bed strewn with used condoms and blood-stained underwear. These varied practices, even if not directly identified as feminist, grew from and are connected to the first and second generation Feminist artists and critics in the variety of materials, roles, and perspectives they exhibit.

In 2008, the Feminist Art movement was given its proper due in the annals of art history through its first major retrospective titled WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. The seminal exhibition, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles featured works from 120 artists and artists' groups from around the world.

Today, much Feminist Art and discourse takes an "intersectional" approach. The concept of intersectionality was first put forth by legal scholar and feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 as a way to acknowledge that aspects of identity, such as gender, race, and sexuality could not be examined in isolation from one another, but rather, should be understood as intersecting aspects of one’s being, which overlap and often compound the power disparities that one experiences. Though the term and theory of "intersectionality" first appeared just a few decades ago, looking back through history we see that proto-feminist and Feminist artists have been taking this approach to identity in their art making for much longer. For instance, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's representation of her gender identity is intricately woven together with her experience of disability, race, and cultural heritage, and South African artist Helen Sebidi’s art grapples with her identity as a woman of color, not just as a woman.

The representation of the woman's body and of female sexuality continues to be politically charged and to express the tension between personal and public identity. Today's generation of women artists, like Kara Walker and Jennifer Linton, continue to speak directly about sexism and equality in their works. The topic persistently shows up in works as diverse as Mary Schelpsi's Beauty Interrupted, 2001, which shows a model walking down a runway covered in a blur of the artist's white brush strokes that obscure both her eyes and her rail thin ideal, and Mickalene Thomas' paintings that reframe the identity of African American women while dismantling historical beauty memes. Whereas the Feminist Art movement opened doors for these very important dialogues, female artists continue to pinpoint the exhaustive and never-ending presence of its issues.

Key Artists

  • Judy Chicago is an American feminist artist and author. Originally associated with the Minimalist movement of the 1960s, Chicago soon abandoned this in favor of creating content-based art. Her most famous work to date is the installation piece The Dinner Party (1974-79), an homage to women's history.
  • Miriam Schapiro is a leading figure in the feminist art movement. Often tied to the 1970s era Pattern and Decoration movement, Schapiro creating a path forward for herself and her colleagues as she worked to resurrect the reputations of women artists who had been forgotten or dismissed by art historians. She is perhaps best known for co-founding, along with colleague Judy Chicago, the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute for the Arts.
  • Barbara Kruger is an American conceptual artist. Much of Kruger's work merges found photographs taken from existing sources with pithy and aggressive text. Her captions engage the viewer in the work's greater struggle for power and control.
  • Carolee Schneemann is an American visual artist, known for her discourses on the body, sexuality and gender. Her work is primarily characterized by research into visual traditions, taboos, and the body of the individual in relationship to social bodies. Schneemann's works have been associated with a variety of art classifications including Fluxus, Neo-Dada, the Beat Generation, and happenings.
  • Now seen as an iconic and path-breaking Feminist artist, Wilke's performances and photography are a crucial component of the Feminist movement in their use of the artist's own body in ways that addressed issues of female objectification, the male gaze, and female agency.
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Do Not Miss

  • Many Performance artists used their bodies as the subjects, and the objects of their art and thereby expressed their distinctive views in the newly liberated social, political, and sexual climate of the 1960s. From different actions involving the body, to acts of physical endurance, tattoos, and even extreme forms of bodily mutilation are all included in the loose movement of Body art.
  • Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
  • Beginning in the 1960s, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community.
  • "Queer Art" became a powerful political and celebratory term to describe the art and experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Feminist Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Feb 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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