after wrestling with the chapter outline for my book for a few days, and hating it more and more, I went back to a “what the hell is it that I really want to say” approach. That always seems to work for me, and now I can re-translate it into academic-speak. SIGH
On December 13 1975, so many visitors flocked to the grand opening of the new location of the Woman’s Building, a public center for women’s culture in Los Angeles that the organizers fear the second floor might collapse. Having renovated the building themselves as part of their pedagogical approach to feminist art education; they know the bones of this place intimately. Assured by the architect-husband of one of the Building founders that the center would hold, they resumed their party.
At the center of the feminist art movement, debates over women’s culture, and the emerging field of public protest art, members of the Woman’s Building forged art and activism into a unique approach to raising consciousness about feminist issues, inviting public dialogue, and hopefully transforming patriarchal culture. That simultaneous image of celebration and instability is an apt metaphor for the eighteen-year history of the Woman’s Building, which faced frequent assaults on its foundational concept of women’s culture.
Interest in the concept of women’s culture linked members of the Woman’s Building, both linguistically and ideologically to the emerging field of women’s history. At the same time that activists at the woman’s building were doing women’s culture work, historians were finding the historical roots of women’s activism, which they also termed “women’s culture.” How these two uses of the term intertwined and diverged over two decades is the central story of my book.
The Politics of Women’s Culture resituates art activists where they belong, at the center of both feminist activism and the early years of women’s history as a discipline. Drawing on oral histories, archives, and published sources, I offer a new narrative of the women’s movement, one that transcends old divides, while reinserting a largely ignored group of activists, feminist artists. This story challenges notions about the development of women’s history as a discipline by stressing the field’s activist roots, not just as the impetus for investigations into women’s past, but in terms of the development of key concepts for early women’s historians. It also disputes the largely accepted narrative of feminist theory in which discredited essentialist theories were replaced by more sophisticated postmodernist ideas.
The Politics of Women’s Culture refers not only to the debates that occurred over the validity and value of the concept of women’s culture, but also the power relations imbedded in those conversations. While initially art activists and feminist historians jointly developed ideas about women’s culture, eventually schisms and conflicts in the late 1970s and early 1980s largely discredited the concept in academic circles. Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, as art activists continued to bring feminist issues to the public and to create historically based work, the idea of women’s culture was mistaken for, confused with, or transformed into “cultural feminism” by feminists in academia. As a result, art activists have largely been excluded from histories of the women’s liberation movement, even as they have been recognized for their contributions to social movement protest strategies and public art.
The Politics of Women’s Culture cannot be understood without a careful investigation of the women’s liberation movement, which provide crucial context for the debates in academia about the women’s culture concept. The first chapter focuses on the earliest writings of key women’s historians who were themselves members of the women’s movement (Dubois, Gordon, Buhle) or largely influenced by it (Cott). Combined with close reading of grassroots women’s liberation movement archival sources, this chapter reveals the myriad ways that the notion of culture functioned in early radical feminist writings, as well as the close ties between these movement publications and early women’s historians.
At the same time, feminist artists developed their own conception of women’s culture, which drew on emerging historical scholarship, but was produced by their own engagement with the past as well. In the second chapter, I utilize their unpublished academic writings, archival sources, and published materials to trace the evolution of their notion of women’s culture from ideas in the women’s liberation movement, their nascent feminist art history research, and their involvement in other social movements of the era.
For a while historians and art academics working side by side produced the scholarship on women’s culture, participated in the same conferences and published in the same journals, including Chrysalis, a journal of women’s culture, published with the participation of many Woman’s Building members, and for a time located in the Woman’s Building itself. The third chapter explores these fruitful collaborations to reveal the role of art activists in shaping academic ideas about women’s culture.
In the fourth chapter, I take on the various the schisms in the women’s liberation movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The intense debate fostered by the feminist anti-pornography movement, combined with the increasing vocal critiques of women’s culture as ethnocentric, and the emerging influence of postmodernism, particular as articulated in French feminist theory, resulted in the concept of women’s culture falling into almost complete disrepute in academic circles. Eventually it became confused with “cultural feminism” a pejorative label typically applied to some feminists, including many prominent activists, such as Robin Morgan, Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Susan Griffin. These feminists, while not members of the Woman’s Building, certainly appeared there over the years, and all sat on the editorial board of Chrysalis. Most importantly, their work drew on the concept of women’s culture, and it was precisely that which drew the ire of their critics.
As historians debated the value of the women’s culture concept during the late 1970s and well into the 1990s, art activists continued to apply their process of creating women’s culture in various public art works that both engaged in and made history. In the fifth chapter, I offer careful comparisons of these projects to overlapping work of academic historians, in the process exploring the ways that activists both reflected and diverged from their academic sisters during these years.
The fruitful collaborations of the past were lost, as efforts to bridge the academic-art activist divide faltered. Drawing on the archival records, unpublished proceedings, and press coverage of joint activist academic events in the 1980s, I explore the dismal consequences for the history of art activism. A comparison of the historical narratives produced by historians and by art activists reveals starkly different understandings of The Politics of Women’s Culture. I conclude by arguing that the narrative of the women’s movement and women’s history itself must be revised to include these crucial activists.