The second half of the twentieth century has seen traditionally marginalized groups assert their own identities and narratives with increasing frequency and effectiveness. One of these marginalized groups is women. This is not to say that women had not been making progress previously, but changes that were happening in the world during this time accelerated the process. After WWI, we saw the “first wave” of feminism, which was primarily led by upper- and middle-class white women who focused on their right to vote, which they successfully achieved in 1920.
From there, things remained relatively stable until after the second world war. And as terrible as WWII was, there was at least one “upside” to it. With so many men participating in the war effort, the demand for workers was large and women were there to fill those positions. Additionally, the civil rights movement that was taking place helped the momentum with which women were able to bring awareness to their issues. As women were enjoying more financial independence as a result of employment while simultaneously existing at a time when there was an active civil rights movement taking place, the stage was set for women to make their push for equality.
In this new era, one of the first examples of “second wave” feminism comes from poet and author Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar, Plath’s only novel, published in 1963, is a critique of the constraints and double standards women faced. Although The Bell Jar is fiction, it is impossible not to read it as semi-autobiographical, since both the protagonist and Plath suffer from depression and ultimately commit suicide.
Plath’s poem Lady Lazarus is both harsh and empowering, with lines like “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real.” and “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air” (Plath). Thomas McClanahan, Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist, says of Plath, “At her brutal best—and Plath is a brutal poet—she taps a source of power that transforms her poetic voice into a raving avenger of womanhood and innocence” (qt in Sylvia). Indeed, she does, Mr. McClanahan.
Only a few short years after The Bell Jar was published, another poet, Anne Sexton, penned “Self in 1958” (1966). Sexton’s poem envisions herself as a doll, wearing “advertised clothes,” who “live(s) in a doll’s house with four chairs.” She quips, “someone plays with me, plants me in the all-electric kitchen” (qt in Fiero 467). The lines, “They think I am me! Their warmth? Their warmth is not a friend!” and “What is a reality to this synthetic doll who should smile…” (qt in Fiero 467) follow the same ideas that Plath’s character, Esther, endures in The Bell Jar. This life that Sexton is describing, the one that she feels forced to live, is not authentic. This sentiment, not living authentically and being forced into society’s ideals, is in large part what drives the feminist movement forward.
Authors and poets were not the only groups of women who were highlighting the differences between male and female experiences. Artists, who up until this point were nearly nonexistent in art history, finally started to have representation. One particularly interesting artist is Ana Mendieta. Mendieta explains, “My art is the way I establish the bonds that unite me to the universe” (qt in Fiero 468). She accomplishes this by using her own body in various artistic displays that she captures on camera or film. Probably the least shocking way she does this is by merging her own body with that of nature including covering herself with mud and grass and blending into a tree, lying naked in a creek, or covering her body with blood and feathers. One of the most shocking ways (though there are at least a few others) Mendieta uses her body as art is through a performance piece she produced in 1973 while at college which depicts a rape scene. Naked from the waist down, covered in blood, and bent over a table, Mendieta remained still for over an hour while invited observers entered in through the front door she left ajar to witness her live art. She explains that she created the scene “as a reaction against the idea of violence against women” (qt in Tate). Mendieta’s art is particularly important because she is using her own body for art in a way that she decides is meaningful for her, whether that is merging with nature or depicting the horrible treatment that some women have endured at the hands of men.
Mendieta was far from the only artist who was considered shocking at the time. Judy Chicago, who has created art in practically every conceivable medium, has also been involved with performance art that had a certain shock factor. Additionally, Chicago is arguably one of the most important “second wave” feminists in art. After feeling disenfranchised by her experiences while in art school, she started her art school, thus paving a way for additional female artists. In 1972, Chicago, along with Miriam Schapiro and the students of her first class, created an art experience in a renovated house which they named Womanhouse. Inside the home, the rooms are dedicated to different facets of women’s lives. Chicago designed a room called “Menstruation Bathroom” which contains a trash can overflowing with bloody tampons. Chicago also co-authored a skit that was performed in the living room of the home called “Cock and Cunt” play, which highlights the division of household chores based on the genitalia a person has. Chicago’s most well-known piece is The Dinner Party, a large installation piece that features a triangular-shaped table that honors 39 important women from history. Chicago explains that the purpose of The Dinner Party is, “to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record” (qt in Fiero 470). Judy Chicago’s influence on the feminist art movement cannot be overstated. Her efforts to fight for not only herself as a female artist, but to help other women artists, and create art that honors and acknowledges other important women from history have appropriately earned her the nickname “The Godmother.”
It is difficult to label Judy Chicago as a specific type of artist because she has worked in so many different mediums but at least we know who she is! The Guerrilla Girls are a whole different story. A group of female artists banded together in 1985, donned guerrilla masks and set out to draw attention to the lack of women artists represented in the arts. One way they accomplish this is by designing billboards and posters which are then put on display. A particularly well-known one is a large poster that shows the backside of a nude woman wearing one of the masks that reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Sections are women but 85% of the nudes are female” (Exhibitions). The women in the masks remain anonymous to ensure that as working artists themselves they do not suffer backlash for actively speaking out against the very institutions they are trying to gain recognition from. The Guerrilla Girls state, “We’d love to take those masks off, but would anyone listen to us without them? We discovered that the art world takes feminists more seriously when they use humor and wear a gorilla disguise. Pathetic! We think of it as our masculinity’ (The Guerrilla). The Guerrilla Girls are difficult to define, but as a group of unnamed artists, they are important because they are still actively working to get equal acknowledgment for the art women to create.
Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Ana Mendieta, Judy Chicago, and the Guerrilla Girls are only a fraction of women authors, poets, and artists that have made contributions to the women’s movement and the quest for equality. The examples included here make clear that their work covers many aspects of women’s lives and employs various mediums. The very well-known and influential art critic and curator, Lucy Lippard claim, “It is useless to try to pin down a specific formal contribution made by feminism because feminist and/or women’s art is neither a style nor a movement, much as this may distress those who would like to see it safely ensconced in the categories and chronology of the past. It consists of many styles and individual expressions and for the most part, succeeds in bypassing the star system. At its most provocative and constructive, feminism questions all the precepts of art as we know it” (Lippard 362). Feminist art and women’s issues finally became a full-fledged movement in the last half of the twentieth century, but the story is still being told. The movement will continue to grow, and authors and artists’ names will be added and counted among the great women of the movement, next to women like Plath, Sexton, Mendieta, Chicago, and the Guerrilla Girls, that have come before.