Creating a Room of One’s Own – The Feminine Placemaking of “Womanhouse” (Shelby Maiden)

The visual and performing arts are inherently bonded to the art of literature; all additionally lend themselves to the narratives of women and their specific hardships. Examination of the relationship between each art form and its history is vital, but perhaps even more essential is the relationship that contemporary art shares with historical activist literature.

Texts like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own directly parallel pieces of second wave feminist art. While Virginia Woolf’s frame of reference regarding feminism is more narrow than current conceptions, given that when she penned A Room of One’s Own women had only earned the right to vote one year prior she still crafts statements that clearly align with the principles of feminist artwork, particularly the installation of “Womanhouse” (1972) by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro.

Both works focus on the blatant disregard that society has for the female and the necessity for women to have a “room of their own”.

In the first chapter of Woolf’s essay, she examines the notion of revisions and their relationship to the viewer/observer, “To think of Milton changing the words in a poem seemed a sort of sacrilege,” (2). For women to possess the audacity to alter the disproportionately male fields of both art and literature was sacrilege to the sanctity of the phallic “holy church”.

Chicago and Schapiro created Womanhouse for the sole purpose of worshipping the feminine mystique and the female ability to contribute to the furthering of art and literature. The female artists were a congregation, living and worshipping the idea of the female in the hallowed sanctum of Womanhouse.

They had paid their tithes to society by being institutionally marginalized and seen as lesser the almighty male and yet, were still not permitted into the inner room of validity as contributors to their fields; “I had no wish to enter had I the right, and this time the verger might have stopped me, demanding perhaps my baptismal certificate, or a letter of introduction from the Dean…”(4).

Women have been forced into specific roles by society and their male counterparts, as Woolf notes in A Room of One’s Own. She discusses common histories, writing that, “when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come, still the same flow of gold and silver went on…” (5) and it is the underlying truth that while women are now “equal” under the law, equality will still elude those who are not male. Society will continue its disregard for the female and refuse to acknowledge the significance of women and their point of view, despite the fact that we are theoretically in the “age of reason”.

Similarly, in the early 1970s feminist art existed, but a majority of work produced by women was still fit into the mold that men had placed upon the art world. There was the unspoken truth that though women were legally equal, the female entity was still inferior and their points of view were not as significant as those belonging to men.

Judy Chicago’s essay, “Thoughts on Returning to Teaching After 25 Years,” (1999) offers direct references to A Room of One’s Own in the opening paragraph where Chicago introduces her “radical” teaching methods which treat women as equals in the artistic world. She immediately sought out individual studio spaces for her female students as she, “took the students off campus to a space of their own,” and she later notes that “my gender became a challenging barrier to my goals as an artist.”

Chicago and Woolf use parallel language and symbolism to convey the same critical idea.  Though women are equal, there is no equality. Woolf’s influence echoes throughout Chicago’s essay, highlighting the fundamental issues that are unchanged in regards to women and their space in society as Woolf reiterates, “women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems,” (5).

The installation of Womanhouse offered a palpable object to align with feminist ideologies and desires. Chicago and Schapiro created a never-before seen dialogue between the artist/performer and the viewer that so clearly demonstrated the roots of the female and the struggle of feminism. The notion of a dialogue, a direct line, between the artist and the viewer aligns with the core belief of feminism: that all must be on the same plane. The central feminist ideology and Womanhouse offer complete equality that is unbiased and permits unabashed conversation.

The forwardness that Schapiro and Chicago display with Womanhouse is mirrored in Woolf’s forwardness with A Room of One’s Own. With that boldness comes a brutal honesty about the actualities of gender disparities and the need for accurate representation of the female form. From the initial choice of making Womanhouse just that, a house, shows a marked dedication to full, actual representations of the female. Woolf wrote that, “Fiction must stick to fact, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” (9) and as a vessel, the house demanded attention because of its inherent and tangible connotations with the feminine.

The house, emblematic of good women sequestered by a phallocentric society, fittingly, becomes the site of a sacred moment in early feminist art. It is part of the feminist notion that Hélène Cixous outlines in Laugh of the Medusa that one must reclaim their lost body and by filling the house, a classic symbol of the feminine, with the harsh realities of being a female and an artist, Schapiro and Chicago are rescuing part of the collective lost body of the female.

As Betty Friedan notes in The Feminine Mystique, “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor,” (64) and as Womanhouse explores the societal expectations of females, the house stands erect as a symbol of the new woman who is undaunted.

There is an inherent duality that exists within the female between the irrevocably feminine idea and the phallocentric reality. Women possess the ability to travel between worlds – the dull reality of men and the world of the feminine mystique.  But there is a choice that must be made. One must become irrevocably feminine or exist only in the realm of the male and regardless of the scenario, the woman is mere decoration, forced into the mold that man has created for her as women must understand that both realms are designed around the passivity of women.

Then came Womanhouse, a sacred cathedral for the female to coalesce and represent all facets and dualities of the feminine experience in order to cast a glow of respect and realization upon the (female) viewer. Judy Chicago remarks in her essay that she, “had been made to feel ashamed of her own aesthetic impulses as a woman, pushed to make art that looked as if it had been made by a man,” and therein lies the crux of the discrimination of women within the arts. For women to be forbidden from their own personal experiences, to be denied their own body, undermines the basis of the function of art.

Art provides context to culture, adding meaning and the personal, human experience to the time in which it was created drives society into modernity. Chicago’s blatant truths about women and their place in art is part of the struggle between the two worlds of the feminine and phallocentric society, as discussed by Woolf in slightly more delicate terms. To deny humanity the scope of all human experience in art is to deny forward thinking and progress, thus necessitating the advent of “a room of one’s own” crafted by Chicago and Schapiro in the form of Womanhouse to display the repressed feminine experience and to reclaim the lost body of the female.

Though Judy Chicago’s “feminist icon” status would become marred with her refusal to recognize her assistants, both male and female, for their work on her piece, “Dinner Party” (1974-79), Schapiro stands in her prestige as a feminist artist. Her work maintains the central values of feminism that were initially represented in Womanhouse, though her personal works take a subtler indictment of gender as she paints to deliberately blur lines.

She uses bold colors and shapes as her language, just as Woolf employed veiled metaphors and symbols to convey the feminine and the lack of equality. Works like “Keyhole” (1971) are calculatingly ambiguous as the colors and forms lend itself to both the feminine and the masculine, working from the feminist notion that gender is only a societal confine and has no ‘locked in’ foundation in intelligent reality.

Woolf points out that the majority of humanity is either locked in or locked out of equality as well as recognizing that women were not the only ones placed in preordained confines, “I [Woolf] thought of how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in,” (26).

The crux of feminism rests in equality.  Woman must have the same freedoms as man, and so too man must have the same freedoms as woman and not be locked into any particular frame. There is a space between the polarities and Miriam Schapiro’s work is the visual representation of the in between. She, like a majority of artists, was trained by men to create work like a man but with Womanhouse and other pieces, she created a room of her own and crafted a voice as she claimed her body for her own.

In her painting “Big Ox” (1967), Shapiro touched on the looming male presence, saying, “…the painting is a very strong image with a seemingly neutral subject –the letter O superimposed on the letter X. The O was a hexagon with a pink labial interior, whose geometry masked its sexual meaning. In painting this image, I behaved unconsciously, like all women artists mentored by men.”  She rejected the rule to “make art like a man” and instead allowed her experiences to guide her work, a craft that Womanhouse undoubtedly helped Schapiro hone.

Xochi Solis is a contemporary case of Womanhouse’s impact and the early feminist literary language that inspired it as Solis utilizes the feminine in both her installations and framed works. Using found images that glorify the sexualized female form, she thoughtfully places the imagery to obscure its importance in the overall form of the work, a nod to “Big Ox”. 

Womanhouse is directly responsible for part of the freedoms that Solis now enjoys as a working female artist, as she is unrestricted in her choice of materials and subject matter and unconcerned that her works will automatically be perceived as feminine just because she is a woman.  Schapiro and Chicago enabled a shift in both feminist and art culture by breaking the barrier between the two worlds and encouraging women to claim their experiences and their bodies to worship at the altar of the female.

While Womanhouse existed as a collective of countless female artists coalescing in the name of the female, it is the success of specific works that contribute most strongly to the overall success. “The Nurturant Kitchen” by Vicki Hodgetts, Susan Frazier, and Robin Weltsch highlighted the inherent femininity of the home and the need to give of themselves for the good of the home.

With the entire kitchen of Womanhouse painted vivid pink and the inside drawers featuring exotic collages of fantasy travel and escape, sunny-side up eggs were nailed to the ceiling that morphed into breasts as they inched their way down the wall, only becoming eggs again when approaching the stove.

The space is offensively feminine, working from the underlying idea that women must be over the top to even be detected. It forces the viewer to realize that the kitchen space was the woman’s room but not by choice. Womanhouse collectively chose to reject what Woolf called “the perceived “reprehensible poverty of the female sex,” rather they worshipped the female at the altar of womanhood.

The female body and its mystique, according to Friedan, was praised within the core feminist notion of equality for all genders and sexes while recognizing the history of prejudice and discrimination  that flourishes in contemporary culture. Chicago and Schapiro erected the holy sanctum of Womanhouse upon the ground of feminism laid by Woolf and countless others.  It was, as Woolf said, “to raise bar walls out of bare earth was the utmost one could do,” (29).

There is a rising hunger by contemporary female artists for the solidarity of something like Womanhouse. The craving is to again bask the feminine and to walk between the two worlds. It is about embracing one’s femininity while understanding the harsh history of prejudice. As Womanhouse offered one of the first true unifying experiences of female artists, it stands erect as a beacon to both inspire and aspire to. There have, and always will be, female artists producing work but to successfully do so, one must claim their body and experiences. 

Chicago and  Schapiro took the holy scripture from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and let it permeate throughout Womanhouse and its works to reclaim the collective body of the women. The parallel veins that revolve around the female and the feminine identity are striking, particularly so when exploring the connotations between second wave feminist visual art with early feminist literature.

Shelby Maiden is a graphic designer from Tennessee. She is currently finishing her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts. During her undergrad, she spent six months studying literature in London and working as a freelance writer. She’s looking towards graduate schools for art history in order to merge her love of writing with her adoration of art.

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