A+ Gender & Sexuality

Inside the Womanhouse

9 Mins read

Words by Josephine Schulte

A collection of lipsticks, carefully arranged on a wall shelf and pairs of bright pink, lace and satin undergarments, are the only objects not drenched in red lacquer in the lipstick bathroom, a room inside the ‘Womanhouse’.

In 1972, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, their students and three other Los Angeles artists turned an old Hollywood mansion into the western world’s first female-focused art installation, and so put on a one-month event that in the light of ongoing gender inequality debates bears significance till today.

This they called ‘Womanhouse’.

“We started in the fall of 1971, it must have been September that we were looking for a place, we had different teams going around the city, and a couple of students found what looked like an abandoned mansion in Hollywood”, remembers Nancy Youdelman who was then one of the students and in her 20s.

Over the course of two and a half months the 23 women manually transformed the rundown house into a collaborative art installation that would be open to the public for one month. Every space was created by a different artist or group of artists, all related to the topic of women and domesticity.

There was for instance the Menstruation Bathroom by Judy Chicago herself. The Linen Closet by Sandy Orgel, featured a mannequin built into a linen closet, stepping out with one foot towards the viewer. And so every aspect of the house was curated portraying the “the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean and iron their lives away.”

In the original exhibition essay, written by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, they explain how the approach of female art students to art making was often conditioned by the boxes women were put into and grew up with such as unfamiliarity with art making processes or the resistance against pushing themselves beyond their limits.

A feminist art program of which the ‘Womanhouse’ was a part, was to help women reconstruct their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their art making out of their experiences as women”.

Nancy Youdelman is now approaching 70 and is standing in her Fresno studio, surrounded by her artworks, hung up on the walls and spread over the floor and tables. Her voice gives away her excitement when she speaks about the year she took part in what some praise as one of the most important art installations ever curated.

It all started with Judy Chicago. In 1970 the artist founded the feminist art program, a class that was only for women, and the only one of its kind at the time, taught by her at California Arts. At the time the new California Arts University still lacked a proper space, forcing the class to meet in different homes, until in 1971 art historian Paula Harper came up with the idea of finding a house for the girls to work and show in. Connecting women, domesticity and homes seemed natural after that.

Renovations on the 17-room house at 533 N. Mariposa street in LA, started on the 8th of November. “It was really a mess, all the windows were broken, there was no plumbing, no electricity”, says Youdelman. Before the fun could start, the house needed to be fixed up, and so the young women rolled up their sleeves to scrub floors and replace windows, and so they started breaking the stereotypes they were planning to investigate and expose at the house.

A woman wrapped in an apron standing in the kitchen of a suburban home, cooking up macaroni and cheese for her children and husband. This is not a shocking picture, not in the 1970s, and not today. On the contrary, it is the picture history, society and culture have created of women.

Zippers & Pins, 2009. Mixed media with encaustic 54 x 37 x 4 inches [Image: Michael Karibian]

Creating arts, in the past, was not part of that picture. The sole art that has consistently been associated with womanhood is the art of dressmaking. Weaving, knitting and similar activities have unlike painting been seen as a ‘natural’ activity for women to do. For this, there is countless historical proof. For instance, Penelope’s garment weaving in Odyssey’s Homer, or Policarpa Salavarrieta’s work as a seamstress during the Spanish Reconquista.

The curation of ‘Womanhouse’ ironically started out on a kitchen floor. “I remember all of us in the kitchen, sitting on the floor. Talking about kitchens and what kitchens meant, and nurturing and then the dangers of kitchens, cause there were knives and boiling water.“

During this discussion, another student, Vicky Hotchin got the idea of turning sunny-side-up eggs into breasts. Because the kitchen held the food, which was nurturing, Nancy Youdelman speaks of the creative process with fascination, for every artist in the ‘Womanhouse’ but also for herself. It is almost like she cannot quite believe that she was a part of it.

Lea’s room was created by Nancy Youdelman and Kieran Mcocke. Lea is a character from a Colette Novel, an old courtesan who lives in a beautiful room, which the two young artists strived to recreate. “I got the wallpaper, it was old, old wallpaper, like rose wallpaper, but I got it really cheap,” Youdelman remembers going down to Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles with Kieran convincing antique dealers to lend them furniture.

“We had this beautiful bed with a partial canapé and an antique vanity, and then I had an antique rug and a Victorian fainting couch.”, The plush room got its finishing touch from a performance specially created for it. Kieran would merely sit at the makeup table in front of a Victorian mirror and by applying layer after layer of makeup on her face, she was ageing in front of the audience.

Women have always been integral to the institution of art, as artists, curators, critics etc. still, since antiquity only a small number of females over the last centuries have found their way to great success and many of the ones who did were over time forgot about. The fact is that women have always been painters, writers, sculptors until reasonably recently they just were not credited for it.

The art world, as is known, has long been like many other worlds a men’s one. Virginia Treanor the Associate Curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts says that “women are by far the majority of MFA [Master of Fine Arts] students today, yet their male peers are more than twice as likely to get gallery representation upon graduation.”

For every dollar made by male visual artists, women make 81cents, according to the American Community Survey 2005-2009, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages 2010. However, enormous progress has been made: the list of the 100 most influential people in the contemporary art world, published by ArtReview, saw Hito Steyerl, a female artist and filmmaker, at the top in 2017.

Roller Skate, 2016. Mixed media sculpture with encaustic 9.5 x 10 x 6.5 inches

Judy Chicago was on a mission of change. In an interview, she once exclaimed: “It was like taking the lid off a boiling pot”. Teaching women art meant giving women freedom. “Judy really gave us the permission to do what we wanted to do”, Youdelman’s artwork developed out of this time she says, it deals with women, clothing, women lives, memorabilia, death and all the things women leave behind. “We were away from the school, there were no men around, it was a 5,000 square feet space, we rented for hardly any money at all, and so yeah, it was provocative.”

When Youdelman first went to college in 1966, she remembers that when there were boys in the class, the girls would be quiet and let the boys speak. She mentions a then prominent saying: ‘Women go to get MRes degrees’ meaning that women go to college to find a husband.

In the 1970s many men kept away from projects such as the ‘Womanhouse’. In the documentary about the installation, one can see mostly women. One part of it shows the male visitors commenting on what they are witnessing. “Oh, that woman must have had a horrible problem, cause there was so much blood”, says one about Judy’s menstruation bathroom decorated with red paint.

Those who came did not always appear sympathetic. One weekend, at the space the class had in Fresno, before ‘Womanhouse’, Judy Chicago had invited a variety of artists from Los Angeles to come and see what her students were doing. That weekend conceptual artist John Baldessari showed up. “A woman in the class had made this figure, it was a sculpture, it was the figure of a woman with her legs spread, and he had a cowboy boot and a few of the women saw him do it, he stuck his cowboy boot between the legs of the sculpture, which is really disgusting.”, remembers Youdelman.

Thirty years before, in 1943 ‘The Exhibition of 31 Women’, was one of Peggy Guggenheim’s first New York-based exhibitions. Doctors have Elisabeth Garret Anderson, aviators have Amelia Erhart, the show business has Oprah, and the art world has Peggy Guggenheim to look up to. Though from the wealthy New York City Guggenheim family, Peggy was a self-made person.

Born in 1898, “Peggy was a sort of model for the liberated women”, one of her acquaintances recalls in the 2015 documentary, ‘Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict’, portraying her life and career. Peggy, born Marguerite, whose father died on the Titanic, fell in love with the artistic community at 20 years old, while working at an avant-garde bookshop. Between Paris, New York, London and finally Venice she built an art collection that is today one of the most admired worldwide.

During Peggy’s lifetime in the 20th century a new, visible and influential women’s movement developed in Europe and the US, with an emphasis on the advocacy of equal rights. It is interesting to think that in the 1920s female liberation was growing in force as a movement. Of course, this did not focus on the art world, but organisations for women interests were starting to emerge, and the movement’s goals were before all else, the right to a career as well as the right to sexual freedom. With World War One and Two this social shift developed even further, putting women, like never before, at work, while men were in the armed services – but on the other hand it also put them back into their little boxes to be housewives.

[pullquote align=”right”]“There is no better time than now to raise awareness that the art world also disadvantages women’s opportunities and advancement, with women artists of colour experiencing a double disadvantage in an already challenging field.”[/pullquote]

In 1981 Wilhelmina Holladay and her husband Wallace founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., to this day the institution is the only significant museum dedicated solely to showcasing women’s work. The museum ‘advocates for better representation of women artists’ and ‘addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past while promoting great women artists working today’.

‘Women House’, is also one of the exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which ran until the 28th of May and explored traditional ideas about gender and domesticity through the work of 36 female artists. Inspired by the Womanhouse show of 1972 it featured work by 36 global artists and challenged conventional ideas about gender and the domestic space.

“In this watershed era when influential men are losing their jobs due to sexual abuse and harassment, and women are speaking out with powerful #MeToo stories, discussions about gender inequity have renewed significance,” stated the museum’s director Susan Fisher Sterling in the light of the museum’s social media campaign #5WomenArtists. “There is no better time than now to raise awareness that the art world also disadvantages women’s opportunities and advancement, with women artists of colour experiencing a double disadvantage in an already challenging field.”

Self-portrait As Ophelia, 1977 – 2017. 1977: Mount Saint Mary’s College of Art Gallery, Los Angeles, California. 2017: Fresno art Museum Mixed media installation 3 x 8 x 6 feet [Image: Michael Karibian]

On the 1st of March 2018, the National Museum of Women relaunched its 2016 award- winning social media campaign #5WomenArtists for the third year in succession. Throughout March the institution shared information of female artists accompanied by the hashtag.

The campaign challenged to think of five female artists, this year with an emphasis on women of colour, which they claim is for most a lot harder than naming five male artists. In 2017, the museum states that close to 11,000 individuals participated in the campaign as well as over 500 cultural institutions among them the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the British Museum in London.

Today, Virginia Treanor says that the steps to be taken to create a more neutral art world are the working against stereotypes; equal pay; recognising and valuing the labour of traditionally feminine roles, building an infrastructure that supports working parents and empowering girls and boys to champion one another. What Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro realised in 1972 makes them pioneers in this fight for equality in the art world.

In the ‘Womanhouse’ catalogue essay they write:

“We know that society fails women by not demanding excellence from them. We hung in there. We assured them that they could do it, that the House would be a success, that they were angry because they were being forced to work harder than they ever had before… that it was worth it.”


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