The History of Feminism

FEMINIST ART

Part One

 Voices of the Other

“…one is not born, but rather one becomes a woman…its is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…” Simone de Beauvoir

What is “feminism?” What is “Feminist Art History?” What is “Feminist Art?” 

From the perspective of the 21st Century, we can look back on three decades of revolution, rebellion, advancement, and misunderstanding on the topic of women and their “rights” in Western society.  Fueled by the Civil Rights Movement and by the movement against the Vietnam War—both critiques of the Establishment—the Women’s Movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  This movement was more than a demand for equal political and social rights, because the mass mobilization of millions of women—the majority of the population—had the potential of changing life as it was known in the Sixties.

At first, the Women’s Movement was largely an intellectual movement made up of mostly highly educated academic white women who were from the middle class.  Lower class women, women of color, non-Western women were not well represented at the early stages of the movement.  In addition, lesbians were actively marginalized in order to make the movement more mainstream and more “acceptable” to the average woman.  Over time, however, the movement has become more inclusive, realizing that there was no one “woman’s experience” but many experiences of many different women all over the world.  That being said, the one unifying factor that brings all women together is the universal experience of male domination and oppression.  In other words, there has never been an historical time or place in which women have not been considered in human, sub-human, or secondary—the Other to the male One.

Throughout history, the lives, stories and histories of women have not been told.  Given that most communities and societies practiced a more or less strict gender segregation the experiences, the morality and the psychology of women has always been different from the male.  As Carol Gilligan pointed out In a Different Voice the morality of women rests upon the realities of responsibilities and relationships rather than a “formal and abstract” set of rules, as preferred by males. Even though the Enlightenment philosophy appeared to have grudgingly granted humanity to women, equality was often denied due to the very very differences, such as the relativistic ethics of women, described by Gilligan.  But if one accepts the rather radical proposition that women are humans, certain consequences occur.

As a consequence of the Enlightenment, the answer to the first question: what is feminism? Is that feminism puts forward the belief that women are equal to men because they are human like men.  If women are equal to men, then they are entitled to the same basic rights, legally, politically, and economically, as other human beings.  And that is the short and simple definition of feminism, a little word that could change the world.

The History of Feminism.  The First Wave

Feminism has what historians have termed “two waves,” meaning that feminism happened twice.  The first feminism was in 1848 when a small group of women gathered together at Seneca Falls, New York for the purpose of obtaining the right to vote.  The result of this historical event would be a decades long struggle for “the vote” among women (and some men) who called themselves “suffragettes,” after the term “suffrage,” meaning the right to vote.  Note the ending of the word, “gettes,” which is a French way of ending a term when it is necessary to designate that the noun refers to something female.  To understand how radical the demand of the women at Seneca Falls was, it is necessary to remember that historically few men enjoyed suffrage.

In the eighteenth century,  Britain and America, only white men with property were allowed to vote.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, the right to vote was extended to all men, but women were repeatedly denied full citizenship.  During the First World War, women were called upon to serve their country in time of war and, yet, they were not allowed to determine their own fates.  America went to war with the British over the issue of taxation: “No taxation without representation,” but women were taxed and not allowed  to participated in their own governance.  By the early decades of the twentieth century, women had had enough.  Too much was asked of them and too little was given back.

Although many thought it was unpatriotic for Suffragettes to demand the vote while men were fighting and dying for their country, others, led by Alice Paul, thought that the war was an ideal time to make demands of their country to make them full citizens.   America, after all, was fighting a war against tyrants; it would not do to be a tyrant at home. As Paul said, “We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote.” The irony that America would fight a war for democracy while denying the majority of the population the rights of full citizenship would not be lost on the African-American veterans who would return home to discrimination.

However, those in power regarded the demonstrations by the women as illegal gatherings and arrested them and imprisoned them in a wholesale manner.  They were convicted of disturbing the peace and went to jail where their leader, Alice Paul, went on a hunger strike.  For weeks she was tortured by forced-feeding and became a martyr for the cause and an embarrassment for the administration of Woodrow Wilson. The President finally gave in and asked Congress to support the right to vote for women, or half the population of the nation. The result was the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and with that event, feminism as a political movement shifted its concerns elsewhere, such as the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.

The History of Feminism.  The Second Wave

When women finally won the right to vote, only one woman at the Seneca Falls conference was still alive.  The struggle to vote had taken seventy-two years, and, characteristically for women’s rights, a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern emerged.  Feminism lost its focus and the women who were concerned about making women’s lives better had to address numerous issues, from educational opportunities, to women’s situations in the labor market, to women’s control over their own finances, and women’s access to health care. In the 1920s women took great strides towards liberation: they cut their hair short, wore short dresses, smoked cigarettes, and drank liquor.  In other words, they now had the right to act like men…hardly what the suffragettes had suffered for.

There were other women who worked for social change and attempted to reform the moral landscape of America through the Prohibition Movement, which prohibited the legal sale of alcohol.  Prohibition was a round-about solution to a different problem: that women had no right to the income their husbands earned.  It was legal for a male to squander his salary on whiskey while his wife and children starved.  It seemed easier to stop visits to the local bar than to demand economic justice. In the best tradition of unintended consequences, Prohibition have rise to a booming business in bootleg whiskey and speak-easies and organized crime.  When the amendment was appealed in 1933, Prohibition was one of the most spectacular failures in American legislative history.

But women who wanted to make a difference for women turned their attention elsewhere—to birth control for women.  Sex education, birth control information and devices were illegal for women (not for men) and unwanted pregnancies were epidemic as were illegal abortions.  Tragically, desperate women died in the thousands every year in back alleys at the hands of abortionists.  The fight for birth control was led by Margaret Sanger who was jailed for opening a birth control clinic in 1916 and continued her campaign for women’s right to control their own bodies up to the eve of the Second World War.

In 1960, the Pill, so important that it is capitalized and became its own iconic word, was made available for controlling the birth of children.  In other words, thanks to a devoutly Catholic doctor, Dr. Gregory Pincus, a small pill, taken once a day, would allow a woman to decide when and/or if she had a child.  At the time, the significance of the invention was not understood, perhaps because of the ensuing years of struggle on the part of unmarried women to legally gain access to the Pill. It was not until 1965 that the 1879 law the preventing adult women for obtaining birth control devices was declared unconstitutional.

Thoughtful historians understand that this technology changed the lives of the majority of the world’s population, launching what was surely one of the most impactful revolutions of all time.  The importance of the Pill was so resounding that to this day, sixty years later, efforts continue to take the ability to control their own lives out of the hands of women.  In 1973 Roe v. Wade made abortions legal once again after being outlawed for one hundred years.  This is another legal right for women, along with equal pay and equal opportunity, that is still hotly contested. The right to purchase birth control and the right to abortion  changed the lives of women and their families, allowing  women and their daughters to dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, fashion designers, and artists.  Once a woman could control her body, she could control her life.

The Second Wave of Feminism began during these turbulent years in which women gained control over their destinies and of their bodies.  And it is reclaimation the female body that characterized the Second Wave. For the first time in the history of the human race, women were free of their anatomy, which was now no longer their destinies.  The consequences to the art world would be profound. The subsequent postings will discuss the second and third questions: what is feminist art history? what is feminist art?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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