I had known of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party piece before I moved to Brooklyn, where the installation is now housed permanently at the Brooklyn Museum. But in a classic information age fashion, I had seen The Dinner Party at The Geffen Contemporary at The MOMA in Los Angeles during the WACK! exhibition in 2008 (an exhibition that in many ways influences this periodical regularly) and had read about how important The Dinner Party was, and had learned how flawed first wave feminists were college, so I decided Judy Chicago's work passé. I admit this is a bad habit, even if I can point to it being a combined result of too much information and progress within the feminist "movement."
For those who are unfamiliar, The Dinner Party is an homage to feminist pioneers in the form of a dinner table, shaped as an equilateral triangle to (symbolize equality). Each place setting has a motif that nods to the work of the female being honored with a placemat bearing their names. No two settings are alike, but each one is very intricate.
But the other night I found an installation by Judy Chicago that I had not seen before, and given that women are just starting to talk about their periods in everyday conversation, I thought I'd discuss Judy Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom.
Chicago (born Judith Cohen in 1939) created the first feminist art collective called Feminist Arts Program, or FAP, at Fresno State (CA) in 1971. A year later, they brought the program to the California Institute of Art outside of Los Angeles.
FAP's first piece was a collaborative installation, Womanhouse, was made by various female artists. The installation was a multi-media/performance art piece where each room in an abandoned mansion on Mariposa Street in Hollywood represented different living conditions of home-makers (which lest we forget, was still very much an occupation for women in 1971). Within Womanhouse, The dilapidated house was transformed by 23 women using construction tools for the first time in their lives. As the manifesto for the installation put it, Womanhouse became "the age-old female activity of homemaking... taken to fantasy proportions."
In Womanhouse Chicago created an otherwise sterile bathroom scene with the trashcan overflowing with bloody menstruation pads and a few bloody tampons, blood stains on the tile floor, blood-drenched pads neatly hanging from a clothesline, a heating pad hanging near the toilet, and the shelves covered with sanitary products for mensuration.
Considering how little we discuss periods today, in 1971 this was a subject that was not discussed in public whatsoever, so the shock value, as well as the statement made by this work was immense.
During the 1970s and through the 80s, women claimed blood as an artistic symbol of femininity and feminism but until this point no one had so overtly and visually discussed menstruation. And given the bloody nature of our cycles, I think a visual representation says a lot more than words can.
Today I can look on Instagram and see thousands of visual representations of menstrual blood, as well as nipples, pubic hair, vaginas, etc. But the timeliness and straightforwardness of Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom has a much greater impact. I'm trying to imagine what society's reaction might have been like in 1972 if photographs of this installation had the ability to be distributed at the rate in which photographs are today while maintaining the shock value of this being the first time something like this hit the public eye.
Now living in "fourth-wave feminism," (oh god, they say it's hashtag feminism) sometimes I look back at first wave feminists and think them silly, but it's because it's easy for a woman my age to forget how fucking oppressed my people were just 40 years ago. I think the use of blood as a symbol of femininity is still powerful because women are depicted as delicate and sweet, but it seemed so easy to me to use the female experience in one's work. I guess it feels naive, but that's because the first feminists were just working out the ideas that I now take for granted.
In the original essay that accompanied Womanhouse, I am struck by one key point:
[At the inception of Feminist Arts Program]...the women students had spent a lot of time talking about their problems as women before they began to do any work. We wondered if those same problems could be dealt with while working on a project.
Female art students often approach artmaking with a personality structure conditioned by an unwillingness to push themselves beyond their limits; a lack of familiarity with tools and artmaking processes; an inability to see themselves as working people; and a general lack of assertiveness and ambition. The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their artmaking out of their experiences as women. Womanhouse seemed to offer the perfect context for this educational process.
What this excerpt suggests is that in general, women in 1971 didn't see themselves in the work field, let alone the art world. I have the hindsight to know celebrated figures like Anni Albers Georgia O'Keeffe, and Eva Hesse, but beyond them, it's hard for me to name off female artists who worked before the 1960s, and yet I'm still shocked to learn this perspective of women in the 70s.
It doesn't take a scrutinizing genius to infer that Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom came out of frustration, (I just read that the average woman undergoes menstruation over 400 times in her lifetime, and while some females are somehow lucky and experience little issue in their cycles, not even a trans woman, when she experiences the ways in which women are treated as lesser or an object, can ever know the frustrations that female born women go through with their periods), but I can only imagine what kind of frustration women must have felt during this era where we were largely still asked to stay home. Rosy the Riveter got to work during WWII but she quietly went back to childrearing and homemaking "when the boys came home."
The early feminists commonly believed that a woman's body, specifically her vagina, was her source of greatness, which later feminists brushed off as erroneous biological or genetic essentialism. But I am seeing an uptick in modern gender essentialism with the hashtag feminists. Vagina cupcakes for international women's day! Free the nipple... (but then slut shame the shivering club girl in her tube dress, fake eyelashes and cheap stilettos). Today we are all about body positivity and the desexualization of the female body. In some ways, first wave feminists were trying to do the same things, but society hadn't been primed for the discussion. The first wavers hadn't cultivated the dialogue yet, so their ideas seem rudimentary. But out of all the "feminist" artwork I see out there on social media, I can't think of anyone who's rivaled the 'in-your-face-ness' of Judy Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom.
Also, PS Judy Chicago made a piece called Red Flag as a parody of the Red Scare (of which her father was a victim of) in 1971 that was even more in your face.
Courtney Cady, © 2018