How Did the Los Angeles Woman's Building Keep Feminism Alive, 1970-1991?[1]


Women flock to the new Woman's Building, located on Grandview Street, November 1973. Photo by Maria Karras.

Documents selected and interpreted by
Michelle Moravec
Rosemont College
March 2008

   In the May 2001 issue of the Monthly Review, Barbara Epstein posed the question "What Happened to the Women's Movement?"[2] Epstein's article, although it was sympathetic to the movement, was only the latest in a long string of publications that probed the purported demise of organized feminism in the United States.[3] She concluded that feminism faltered as a movement and became just another liberal perspective in the 1980s, and was troubled by what she perceived as the silence of feminists about the causes of the decline of the movement. Responses to Epstein by Hester Eisenstein and Joan Acker, who, like Epstein, are both scholars of and participants in the movement of the 1970s, appeared in the same issue of the Monthly Review. Eisenstein and Acker disagreed with Epstein's assessment of the feminist movement. Both of them focused on the future of feminism and wrote extensively about possible directions a revived movement might take. Nevertheless, Acker wrote of "the daunting reality facing revolutionary visions, the strength of opposition to women's equality with men, and changes in economic and political relations that now seem to require new visions and ways of organizing."[4]

   While Eisenstein and Acker's focus on the future of feminism is understandable, I find myself pondering what lessons could be gleaned from the past as we seek to understand what happened to the women's movement. Two things struck me as I read Epstein's article: one, that there were organized feminists throughout the 1980s; and two, that we need to look at these groups if we are to fully understand the history of the women's movement. This document project explores organized feminism in the 1980s by looking at the Woman's Building in Los Angeles, California. The Woman's Building was a physical space that during its long history consisted of businesses, activists, and artists, all bound by a common commitment to feminism. The name itself, however, became synonymous with a group of feminist artists who emerged from the central group, the Feminist Studio Workshop. While art historians have done an admirable job of exploring the aesthetic works of artists associated with the Woman's Building, it was as much a product of feminist activism in the 1970s as it was of the art world,[5] and it must be understood within the historiography of the women's movement.[6] Although a few other radical feminist groups used art to explore feminist issues, most notably the Redstocking Artists and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union Graphics Collective, most histories of the women's movement have focused on feminists who used more conventional forms of activism.[7] The history of the Woman's Building offers an opportunity to investigate the response of feminists to the challenges of the 1980s.

   The origins of the Woman's Building lay in the first feminist art program in the United States, founded by artist Judy Chicago at California State University, Fresno, in 1970.[8] Although the Fresno Woman's Program proved very successful, Chicago was unhappy and moved to the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) the next year to share teaching responsibility with artist Miriam Schapiro. Despite the move, Chicago remained dissatisfied with the limits placed on her feminist pedagogy within an institution that she viewed as male dominated. Along with two other Cal Arts faculty members, Arlene Raven, an art historian, and Sheila de Bretteville, a graphic artist, Chicago created the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), an independent feminist art program. A letter of invitation to prospective students described the women's initial vision for the FSW and reflected the connection the founders felt to the larger women's movement (see Document 1). The FSW faculty joined with other members of Los Angeles feminist community in the fall of 1973 to found the Woman's Building.[9] The group (and the building) took its name from the Woman's Building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and was intended to signal a connection to that institution.[10] Like its nineteenth-century predecessor, the Woman's Building both showcased art by women and drew attention to women as professional artists, a role that is typically gendered male in Western society.

   In the early 1970s, feminist art activism blossomed across the United States, but the characteristics of the movement differed dramatically on the two coasts.[11] During the postwar era, New York became the center of the Western art world, and women artists there focused on gaining access to it. They founded parallel institutions to those of the contemporary art world such as cooperative galleries and feminist art journals and mounted countless protests against sexism within the art establishment. In contrast, their sisters in Los Angeles focused on creating a separate feminist art community.[12] This split in the feminist art movement mirrored a division in the larger women's movement.[13] The New York feminist artists assumed a stance similar to the "politicos" of the women's movement who remained involved with the traditional political arenas of the New Left even as they organized women's groups. The ideas expressed by the Los Angeles women artists fall closer to the sentiments of the radical feminists in the women's movement, who separated from their male political peers in an effort to explore the political dimensions of women's experience.

   The emphasis on women's experience manifested itself at the Woman's Building through an interest in women's culture.[14] "Culture" is a complicated word because it commonly refers to both the aesthetic products of a group of people and the shared beliefs and values that bind people together. Members of the Woman's Building drew upon both definitions of the word when they described their organization as "a public center for women's culture." In addition to the more obvious goal of providing a supportive community for women who made art, the Woman's Building was dedicated to exploring commonalities among women. Members of the Woman's Building believed that women, as a group, shared a culture. This concept was highly controversial within the women's movement. If some sort of common experience existed among all women, what were its origins? Members of the Woman's Building disagreed about the answer to this question. Some members espoused what is commonly described as an essentialist point of view.[15] That is to say, they believed that female biology gave rise to shared experiences. Other members came down on the side of socialization, believing that patriarchy created a society in which women learned to behave in certain ways. No matter where they located the origins of a common female experience, members of the Woman's Building agreed on its value. They saw women's culture as a necessary corrective to male-dominated culture. This emphasis was reflected in Arlene Raven's oft-quoted definition of feminist art as art that raises consciousness, invites dialogue, and transforms culture (see Document 26). By educating people about feminist issues and involving them in the artistic process, members of the Woman's Building hoped to transform patriarchal culture.

   The emphasis on women's culture meant that the process of art-making taught at the Woman's Building differed significantly from that of traditional art schools.[16] At the heart of the Woman's Building lay the Feminist Studio Workshop, where techniques and strategies from the women's movement were used to help women become artists. Members of the Woman's Building liked to say that they built Virginia Woolf's much-desired room of one's own. They meant this literally; the construction work at the Woman's Building was performed by the students of the FSW and members of the Woman's Building. While necessity drove this decision—funds to pay workers were nonexistent—the labor yielded an additional benefit. Learning to use construction tools and to perform hard physical labor proved an invaluable way to counter the internalized belief that women were weak and incapable.[17] An image of an eyebolt necklace celebrated the women's appreciation of these newfound capabilities (see Document 2).

   In addition to combating negative gender stereotypes, students in the FSW explored the impact of patriarchy and sexism on their lives. As in other groups in the women's movement, this process occurred through consciousness-raising, which brought small groups of women together to discuss and analyze their lives so that they could see that their problems were not just personal but part of the systematic oppression of women as a group. Women who wished to become artists had to confront the idea that women had no experiences from which to create great art.[18] Consciousness-raising thus had an additional function at the Woman's Building as the insights derived from it were translated into content for artwork. Sheila de Bretteville's broadsheet Pink is an excellent example of a feminist reinterpretation of one of the traditional aspects of femininity, the color pink (see Documents 3A-C).

   An innovative approach to art-making gave rise to an exhilarating fusion of feminism and art at the Woman's Building. By the mid-1970s, the Woman's Building was firmly established with one foot in the women's movement and the other in the art world, which remained fascinated with, if not always impressed by, the Woman's Building. The range of activities that occurred during this time period reflected these two worlds. In many respects, the calendar of the Woman's Building was filled with the same types of events that occurred in women's movement organizations across the country. Luminaries of the women's movement, including Jill Johnston, Charlotte Bunch, Rita Mae Brown, Kate Millett, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde, spoke at the Building. Feminist musicians Meg Christian, Holly Near, Margi Adam, and Cris Williamson appeared in concert. Women socialized in the coffee house, shopped in the thrift store, and attended dances on the weekends. At the same time, the Woman's Building provided a community for women who identified as artists, and it became a prominent exhibition site for nationally known feminist artists. Women studied feminist art-making full-time at the FSW, through a summer art program, in year-round extension courses, and with a roster of visiting artists that read like a who's who of 1970s feminist artists. The energy and enthusiasm of these days is exemplified by five conferences about women in the arts that occurred at the Woman's Building in the short span of ten days during March 1975 (see Document 4).[19] By the mid-1970s, the Woman's Building enjoyed an unparalleled position within the feminist art movement and stood as that movement's most visible symbol.[20]

   The vitality of the Woman's Building during the mid-1970s also gave rise to some of its best-known artistic productions, the most prominent of which were collaborative performance art groups.[21] The Feminist Art Workers, formed in the fall of 1976, were a group of former FSW students who created art based on FSW pedagogy to share with the women's movement (see Documents 10, 12, and 13). Between 1977 and 1978, Suzanne Labowitz and Leslie Labowitz developed a feminist media and a feminist organizational strategy in a series of art pieces that addressed the issue of violence against women (see Documents 5, 8, and 10). The Waitresses used humor and irony to highlight the value of women's work through performance pieces that took place in various public venues (see Documents 11A-D). The variety of topics these groups covered illustrated the wide-ranging feminist interests of the Woman's Building members during this period, while their collaborative strategies illustrated their indebtedness to the women's movement.

   Although the artistic and feminist community flourished at the Woman's Building, its members faced many organizational challenges. Internal and external criticisms emerged about the way the Woman's Building addressed differences among women, particularly those of sexual orientation and race.[22] In 1977, Arlene Raven organized the Lesbian Art Project to enable lesbians to raise consciousness about lesbian issues within the Woman's Building and to explore the relationship of sexual orientation to feminist art (see Document 7). As an outgrowth of this project, the Woman's Building organization mounted the Great American Lesbian Art Show in 1980 (see Document 16). It was through criticisms of this exhibition by women of color that issues of race and racism arose at the Woman's Building. A compilation of the fragmentary evidence available about the number of women of color involved in the Woman's Building helps contextualize these discussions (see Documents 9A-C). In response to charges of racism within the Woman's Building, a white women's anti-racism group was founded in 1980 (see Documents 16 and 17).[23] A special issue of Spinning Off, a newsletter published by the Woman's Building, explored racism in the women's movement in May 1980. Finally, in the fall of 1980, an African American woman, Suzanne Shelton, was hired as the executive director in the hope that she might help bring more women of color into the organization (see Document 15). However, like other women who attempted to assume leadership positions within the Woman's Building, she faced great resistance and resigned within a year.[24]

   While some of the most important artwork of the Woman's Building was produced during the late 1970s, that period also saw the origins of the crises that would plague the organization for the next decade. By 1981, the future of the Woman's Building was in question. Close on the heels of Shelton's resignation and the resignation of most of the Board of Directors came the closure of the FSW.[25] By 1981, the future of the Woman's Building was in question. Low enrollment led to the closure of the FSW that year.[26] Because FSW tuition provided the bulk of the Woman's Building budget, the closure precipitated a financial crisis. Many members of the board, daunted by the fiscal situation and the increasingly hostile climate to feminism, also resigned.

    Gradually, however, a second generation of leaders brought the organization back to life.[27] To the outside world, the Woman's Building appeared quite successful by the mid-1980s, but this success came at a high price. In order to replace the income lost from the closure of the FSW, the Woman's Building sought outside funding. To successfully compete in the mainstream arts world, it distanced itself from its feminist roots and recast itself as an arts organization for women.[28] The cost of this transition can be seen in the artwork that emerged from the Woman's Building during this period. During the 1980s, the innovative design program, which had launched some of the most successful artists at the Woman's Building, was transformed into a for-profit print shop called the Women's Graphic Center, abbreviated as "WGC" to conceal its connection to the Woman's Building. An organization that began as a supportive community for women artists now found itself engaging in capitalism![29] However, the presses of the WGC were also used by participants in the Postcard Project (see Documents 22A-C), an excellent example of the way Woman's Building members sometimes camouflaged their feminist intent under the more benign-sounding label "women" during the 1980s.

   Additional changes to the art of the Woman's Building during this period took one of two forms. Some artists at the Woman's Building began to broaden their artwork beyond issues that were strictly gender-related to address issues such as homelessness, immigrant rights, and AIDS. The group that best exemplifies the first trend is Sisters of Survival (1981-1985), which addressed the threat of nuclear war in Europe (see Documents 19A-B). However, some of the art at the Woman's Building became more mainstream and less feminist in order to attract a broader audience to exhibitions. The most telling example of this trend can be seen in the exhibition Gentleman's Choice, for which male curators, critics, and arts administrators were invited to select their favorite female artist for an exhibition at the Woman's Building. Although many members of the Woman's Building community expressed disappointment at such a blatant effort to curry the favor of the male arbiters of the art world (see Document 21A), other members felt that male support for the Woman's Building was vital to its survival (see Document 21B).

   By the late 1980s, the competing demands of achieving financial stability, addressing external criticisms, and ensuring institutional survival began to take their toll on the Woman's Building. Members feared that shifting priorities within the art world made feminist art seem passé and they began to emphasize "multiculturalism" instead of "feminism" in new grant proposals. Ideas for such projects abound in the meeting minutes from 1989-1990, and some excellent programs occurred in the final year, such as "El Dia de Los Muertos" (see Document 22C). Ironically, the last show slated for the Woman's Building, which never took place, was a one-woman show for Pat Ward Williams, an African American woman photographer whose work explored racism.

   By 1990, the Woman's Building was facing a severe financial crisis. The Women's Graphic Center had been forced into bankruptcy in September 1989.[30] Even more worrisome to members was the perception that the mission of the Woman's Building was increasingly anachronistic. As longtime member Cheri Gaulke reflected in her oral history interview (see Document 25), it became clear that other venues in Los Angeles were mounting shows with lesbian and feminist content and that young female artists preferred to exhibit in those places. The final blow to the Woman's Building came when the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Program declined to renew a grant that provided the bulk of the operating revenue (see Document 23). Having already conducted extensive feasibility studies about fund-raising with a view toward buying a permanent location for the organization, the Board of Directors was all too aware that sufficient support for the Woman's Building no longer existed. On 29 April 1991, the Board of Directors voted to close the Woman's Building, and the building was vacated on 15 July 1991 (see Document 24).

   What had been a glorious building was dismantled room by room. The presses of the Women's Graphic Center found a home at the Armory Center for the Arts, where they are still used today to train graphic artists. The slide library went to Otis Art Institute because longtime building member Sue Maberry worked there as a librarian. The Long Beach Art Museum took the video archive.[31] The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian created a Woman's Building collection for the papers of the organization. I was hired in 1992 to conduct an oral history project with participants of the Woman's Building. As its last official event, held when the Woman's Building existed in name only, the Woman's Building hosted a final Vesta Awards, an annual program that honored women in the arts. Ironically, as a fund-raiser, the Vesta Award ceremony proved quite successful, raising enough money to retire the entire debt of the Woman's Building with a surplus left to fund efforts to ensure that the history of this Woman's Building would not befall the same fate as its nineteenth-century predecessor—oblivion.

   What remains then are the lessons that can be learned from the nearly two-decade history of the Woman's Building. Many scholars of the woman's movement have probed its decline from a sympathetic perspective, often motivated by a desire to understand what went wrong in order to correct it in a reinvigorated movement. Assessments have ranged from blaming feminist themselves to pointing the finger at outside agents.[32] The most accurate explanation for the decline of the Woman's Building probably lies somewhere in between. Some of the choices made by members of the Woman's Building contributed to its demise. For example, efforts to ensure the survival of the organization moved away from its feminist origins.[33] Difficulties addressing issues such as racism within the organization did not help.[34] Equally fatal, however, was the lack of a new generation of feminists to take the reins when the second generation was ready to move on.[35] Clearly external circumstances such as the rise of conservatism and the concomitant decline in organized feminism played a role as well. Survival in the 1980s meant existence during a historical period when success was difficult to achieve for any type of progressive social movement organization.

   What can the history of the Woman's Building offer in response to Epstein's query? Some time after I read Epstein's Monthly Review piece, I came across the proceedings of the conference "Agents of Social Change: Celebrating Women's Progressive Activism across the Twentieth Century," which was held at Smith College to coincide with the opening of the Sophia Smith Collection documenting women's activism in the twentieth century.[36] Barbara Epstein was among the historians invited to address the gathering. She spoke of "the success and failures of feminism," a way of phrasing the issue that I found more compelling, although the conclusions she reached were virtually identical to those in her earlier article.[37]

   Thinking in terms of "successes and failures" as I read the remarks by the other invited scholars, I realized that the history of the Woman's Building illustrated one of the many of the trends noted about the feminist movement of the 1970s. In her call for "more utopian mistakes," Linda Gordon pointed to the failure of the women's movement to develop feminist leadership strategies.[38] The Woman's Building suffered not only from difficulties in attracting a third generation of leaders but also from an increasingly myopic leadership style of a small group of women who were intent on preserving the Woman's Building just as it had been in the 1970s. This difficulty seems to have existed in other areas of the country and is a fruitful topic for future scholars of the movement.[39]

   In her remarks on the historical antecedents of the second wave, Linda Kerber called for a greater understanding of the international context of feminist activism.[40] Members of the Woman's Building participated in the growing globalization of the women's movement.[41] Most notable, of course, was Sisters of Survival, whose members saw the threat of nuclear war and U.S. foreign policy as part of their larger feminist agenda. While the standard narrative of the women's movement places great emphasis on the social movements from which the women's movement derived, feminists' expansion into other areas of activism bears further investigation.[42]

   Ideological issues also contributed to the closure of the Woman's Building. Eileen Boris points to the necessity for greater class-based alliances, a common assessment by socialist feminists, who argue that class rather than gender is the ultimate source of women's oppression.[43] At the Woman's Building, a lack of class analysis was accompanied by an inability to cross the racial divide, which resulted in increasing homogeneity over time. Clearly one of the greatest internal impediments to success at the Woman's Building was an inability, despite profound efforts, to find a way to integrate the complexities of race and class into a gendered analysis.[44] As the history of feminism across the United States is written, we have greater opportunities to evaluate the role that differences among women played in the decline of feminist organizations, not just differences of race or sexual orientation, which have been noted in the literature, but differences of class, age, and marital or parental status.[45]

   Equally relevant for an assessment of the Woman's Building are the scholars who focus on the larger historical issues behind the success and failure of the women's movement. Martha Ackelsberg has noted the importance of changing historical contexts in evaluations of social movements.[46] In the 1980s, the rise of conservatism among the young, the tightening of the economy, and the concerted attack on feminist gains, most notably abortion but also the failure to ratify the ERA, all took the wind out of the sails of portions of the women's movement. However, perhaps the most insightful comments are from scholars who remind us that the timeline for achieving feminist gains has always been long.[47] The relatively "simple" goal of achieving suffrage, after all, took more than seven decades and encompassed three generations of women's lives. The second wave of feminism broadened its focus to include equality in all areas of life for women, and "the longest revolution," to borrow Juliet Mitchell's phrase, may indeed take a very long time to achieve. In fact, perhaps what Epstein has noted is simply a periodic waning of activism in what really should be viewed as a continuous but fluctuating stream. While the "wave" metaphor has been debated to death by feminist scholars, some sort of activism by women that some call the "third wave" has undeniably emerged in recent years.[48]

   The impact of this recent activism becomes clear in light of recent exhibitions and conferences focusing on the feminist art movement. WACK!, an exhibition of feminist art from the 1970s organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, took place in March 2007. Across the nation, a variety of exhibitions, conferences, journals, and articles focused on the feminist art movement of the 1970s.[49] As I perused the various writings and Web sites produced in conjunction with WACK! I was pleased to see the centrality of the Woman's Building to so many other projects.[50] The participants of the 1970s movement may be expected to wax nostalgic in these various venues, but what surprised me was the many young women intrigued by these foremothers, about whom they have been taught nothing.[51] I can only hope that historians follow the art historians in their serious contemplation of the activism of this group of women. As scholars trace the trajectory of the second wave through groups like the Woman's Building across the country, we will no doubt be called upon to substantially revise our understanding of the women's movement.


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