A Feminist Critique of Domesticity: Womanhouse

In 1970, the feminist artist Judy Chicago started the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College as a way to insert a new perspective in the art world, addressing gender-biased practices in art schools. In 1972, the success of the program led Chicago to move to CalArts where she and her students organised an ambitious exhibition in collaboration with the artist Miriam Schapiro. This was Womanhouse, which took place throughout February 1972 in an old mansion located at 533 Mariposa Street, Los Angeles (more material from the exhibition archives can be accessed here). In this post, I will discuss the relevance of the show and its relation to the theme of domesticity in 1970s feminist art.


Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago at Womanhouse

When Chicago and Schapiro took over the damaged house that would host the exhibition, major renovations were required. They were carried out by the students, directed by Chicago herself. Whenever they complained about the heavy schedule imposed by their professor, the artist would urge them to refute the patriarchal stereotypes connecting the female gender and weakness by putting more and more effort into the project. Chicago’s domineering and authoritarian nature has been subjected to debate and she has been criticised for reinforcing patriarchal artistic practices, based on concepts of one-man authorship.However, it should also be noted that Womanhouse was among the first attempts to introduce a notable participatory component into the process of artistic creation.

Sandy Orgel, Linen Closet

Linen Closet, Sandy Orgel

The installations organised by Chicago and her students reflected on various issues connected to domesticity and femininity. The work shows the influence of notable feminist thinkers such as Kate Millet, whose work Sexual Politics (1970) highlighted the many forms in which patriarchal society enforces its dominance on women, from the institution of the family to the forms of Capitalist economy. In Linen Closet, Sandy Orgel comments on the condition of women as housewives in American society and the toxic relationship that this establishes with the household. The work consists of a female mannequin incorporated into a piece of furniture, trapped and identified with the object itself. The work denounces the objectification of women and provides a visual example of how the female identity is shaped by the stereotypical connection to everyday house errands.

Judy Chicago, Bathroom

Bathroom, Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago created her own installation in the bathroom of the house, a pristine white space in the middle of which she inserted a bin overflowing with used tampons. The first notable feature is the colour contrast between the whiteness of the space and the red tampons. The work uses shock imagery to challenge the taboo of menstruation, which stands here as a metaphor of the female identity, whose “messy” presence appears as a stain on the tidy tiled room. The choice of the space is not casual since it shows how period blood, a normal physiological occurrence for most women, is a topic relegated to the most private of the house spaces, in secret, banned from areas of public discussion. Chicago herself, discussing the exhibition, notices how she never discussed openly the topic of menstruation with before turning 30, showing how this is not only a taboo set by patriarchal society but a block imposed on women and their bodies.

Vicki Hodgetts, Eggs to Breasts

Eggs to Breasts, Vicki Hodgetts

Womanhouse was an attempt to reveal the influence of the patriarchy on domesticity and the effects of this unhealthy relation on women and their own sense of identity. The collaborative practices enacted by Chicago and her students are important precursors of later artistic trends, hinting at the relevance of participatory art forms in contemporary art. Although Chicago remained the main name connected to the show, Womanhouse resulted in a partial experiment of shared authorship. This evidences the will of feminist culture not only to re-imagine the female identity but also enact it through new social and artistic practices.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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