The Woman’s Building

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The Los Angeles Woman’s Building, founded in 1973, provided a central location for one set of ideas about the concept of women’s culture.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In an attempt to reclaim an art historical lineage for women artists, these activists argued that women’s distinctive historical consciousness derived from their communal status, which they described as a subculture.  The everyday experience of ordinary women were seen as political and used to read women’s aesthetic expression in the past (i.e. quilting, journals, letters) as art.

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4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As early as 1971 the idea of women’s culture existed. Suzanne Lacy explained in a 1971 article, After Consciousness-Raising, What?, that “feminine forms of culture” may exist and that “feminist culture” will lead to the “complete reconstruction of our society.”  Similarly, within the feminine sensibility debates, as women artists began identifying “a set of values that differ from the mainstream of culture,” the notion of  a ‘female culture’ emerged.[3] 14 womanspace 3 spring 1973 A few months later, in a taped conversation between the critic Lucy Lippard and Chicago, Chicago  pointed out the revolutionary implications of “the idea that women could shape culture, upset society.”  The nascent notion of women’s culture derived from history as Chicago emphasized “reading and studying for the past five years in women’s history and literature and art, I discovered a coherent body of information , a whole subcultural perception of the world that differs from men’s.”[4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This notion of  a “subculture” reflected the alternative roots of feminist art institutions.  The earliest descriptions of the Woman’s Building rested on notions of that outsiderness “an alternate structure”[5]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 From consciousness to community to culture

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Although histories, my own included, often highlight the description of the Woman’s Building by its members as “a public center for women’s culture” that description was only one of many used by its members to describe the Woman’s Building and it did not emerge until some time in late 1974.  From the beginning of plans for the Woman’s Building in 1973 until some time in 1974 discussion was about community as the larger context for women’s emerging consciousness.  Some time in 1974 talk of a women’s culture began and by 1975 the description, a public center for women’s culture” appeared.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In fact, as in the discussion of women in the New Left, when invoked prior to 1974, “culture” most frequently meant the “male-dominated culture.” In the summer/fall issue of Women and Art the artist Tomar Levine refered to “male-dominated culture.”[1] Arlene Raven, in “Women’s Art the development of a theoretical perspective” (Feb/March 1973) explained that “women are outside of the mainstream of cultural activity,” that woman ”has not participated in the mainstream of the culture, and the culture does not operative from her perspective.”[2]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This sense of outsiderness for artists lead to an intense desire for a community of women In a 1969 speech, Judy Chicago  recalled “I was alone with myself in my studio for five years … there are hardly any women artists … until one day it dawned on me, … we live in a male-oriented society, men are more important than women … well if I’m not important , and my feelings aren’t important, then how can the art that I make be important?”  Chicago decided that rather than “make art that looks like it was made by a man,” which would increase her chances for success in the “art world based on the white male ego,” she would dedicate herself to the creation of “a power structure of women who evaluate  each other’s perceptions , ideas, and revelations … but that means a fundamental change in the basis of society because women do not have power”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 By the time Chicago published her autobiography through the flower, “culture” replaced “society”:  “How could I make my voice heard? … I had  tried to deal with the issues that were crucial to me … “within” a male-oriented art community, a  group whose values reflected the patriarchal culture.  … I could see … to honor a woman on her own terms would mean a fundamental change in the culture … if my needs, values, and interests differed from male artsits’ who were invested in the values of the culture, then it was up to me to help develop a community  that was relevant to me and to other women”  This community began first through feminist art education at Fresno, and then moved to Cal Arts.  However, because of but ultimate because of “male culture” at these institutions, an “alternative” community became the only option.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The Feminist Studio Workshop, an experimental program in female education in the arts” began in the fall of 1972 with the purpose “to develop a new concept of art, a new kind of artist and a new art community built from the lives, feelings, and needs of women.”  This “new idea” of feminist artists based on knowledge “from” women, would create “an integrated female support community in which art making, art historical and critical analysis, public, design arts and feminist consciousness”  in which “women will be free to explore alternative ways of introducing their female perspective into society.”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 The founders of the F.S.W., incorporated as Women’s Community, Inc., sought an even larger community for their alternative program.  When they located a building site too large for their use alone, they created The Woman’s Building.  As part of their feminist art pedagogy, women began to explore the historical origins of women’s communities, creating a sense of historical consciousness, as Raven termed it, and a perception of similarities with women artist’s situations in the past.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the decision to name the Woman’s Building after the 1893 Woman’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair.  Past and present joined in this envisioned community.   

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 From a letter sent to prospective participants in the FSW c 1973

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Society is contemptuous of female experience and rejects, devalue or ignores it and its projection as the content of women’s creative activity.  Although women throughout history have expressed their femaleness in their work, that work has not been perceived on its own terms.  It is now time to change the perspectives through which their work and outs is seen.  Only in a an alternative context can new work be make and an appropriate perspective on women’s work, past and present, be developed.”

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16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 As they developed this “appropriate perspective” the notion of women’s culture began to emerge, based simultaneously on “women’s work, past and present.” This emerging notion of women’s culture rested on twin concepts, a contemporary community of women artists creating a new kind of culture based on feminist principles, and a historical subculture that existed in the past as both inspiration and model. Named for the 1893 Woman’s Building signaled the explorations into the past that would lead to women’s culture concept.  However, it was also the process of creating that space, the actual community of women artists that propelled them towards the concept of women’s culture. 

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18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In a nov 18 1974  letter inviting participants to a conference of women writers, Women’s Words and on poster for a conference on Women in Design, the Woman’s Building is described  “an alternative public institution whose purpose is serving the needs of women, honoring and making public their contributions to society.  It is the environment most favorable to the discovery of shared goals and to the examination of or work from the point of view of being women”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 By 1974, the members of the Woman’s Building began grasping their way towards a larger language and definition of women’s culture.  In 1974 Maria Karras, a student in the FSW began working on an artist’s book The Woman’s Building 1893 the Woman’s Building 1973.  She conducted interviews with participants in the contemporary version.  In her comments,  De Bretteville offered one of the first uses of “woman’s culture” : “the woman’s building was created to honor and share woman’s culture,” while Raven continued to evoke community “the place in time and space which defines our community” Krras reflected on the oppositional nature of the  “community,” as opposed to the “dominant culture” 18

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 However, it was the writer Deena Metzger, another refuge from Cal Arts who joined the FSW faculty in its second year to teach writing, who explored most fully the concept of women’s culture. [6] Metzger, who joined the Socialist Party at 21, became active in Latin American politics and traveled in Chile and Cuba during thearly 1970s.  during those years she began to formulate her ideas about the role of culture in politics.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Metzger took on the narrative of women’s oppressions that argues women must transcend the nature/culture divide.[7]

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 it is said, therefore, that women is nature and man is culture.  This is taken to mean that woman’s role is responsive to the vital forces while man’s role is to impose order and create institutions and systems of human experience, a distinction which reinforces the stereotype of active man and passive woman.  It is true that women for a variety of reasons Is more sensitive to natural forces (as role and biology) if this sensitivity is expressive in behaviors which are responsive rather than closed, it is mistaken to assume that response is negative or imposed. 

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 In other words if women choose to explore their connections with nature, to revalue their role as reproducers and keepers of the home, then this choice should not be viewed as “negative or imposed.” The same activities viewed from different perspectives could be seen as sources of strength rather than mechanisms of oppression.  This revaluation would not serve to keep women restricted, but rather provide “women who wish to participate in the public sphere  as women” the means to “examine our own forms and their sources in order to integrate these forms into public institutions and behaviors” (Heresies 2).  The notion then is that women’s art could function in “the public sphere” via “public institutions and behaviors”

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Matzger, working from  Roslado and Lmphere, explores the notion of women’s culture as oppositional to male or patriarchal culture.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 “one of the secrets of U.S. culture is the relationship and interdependence of one woman upon another.  The progress of bourgeois patriarchal culture has focused increasingly upon separating one woman from another.   … As poet Wanda Coleman notes, isolation is a condition of white women” 39B when made public, women’s culture becomes a springboard to feminist activism.  Metzger proclaims

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 “we are determined not to be subordinated or oppressed,  now when we commit to the world, it is in our own image – as Eve — the image of integration and relationship.  In that act woman challenges the dominant world culture” 41

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 She takes on the very issue that faced women coming out of the New Left, a milieu quite familiar to her:  “The anxiety of male culture towards the idea of women organizing … points to the real ontological conflict between a culture which is integrative and one which is divisive.  Within woman’s culture, because of its plurality and tolerance, man can exist; within man’s culture woman is destroy”

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 For Metzger, women’s culture is a choice, open to all women, but not necessarily encompassing all of them, and women’s culture is  a process not a singular entity:

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 “to define a woman’s culture is not to delimit or create orthodoxy, but rather to expand current cultural horizons and to provide the opportunity to explore experience in new areas through the validation of here to unrecognized and devalued expression.  Patriarchal culture operated to silence the sensibility of half of human beings.  The recognition of women’s culture corrects that balance, providing for cultural co-existence.  Woman’s culture is not a set of rules or restrictions, rather it is a direction, an eye, a broad intellectual framework for discovering for and meaning.  In its underground forms it is available to a few women and fewer men, named and public it is available to everyone “ 41

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31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Meztger’s writing encapsulated all the thinking about women’s culture that emerged around the woman’s building by 1975, the notion that the public could be joined with the private in a “women’s culture” that was process oriented not static, that sought to redefine and revalue women’s role and all that had been associated with it (sensibility) and that viewed women’s culture as a means of challenging and transforming the dominant culture.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 This notion of women’s culturein public began to inform the mission of the Woman’s Building by 1975.  In a document dated june 15 1975 the WB mission described as “a support community for women in arts-related fields  by creating a public space where women’s art could be shown”  and circa june 1975 (date 8months from October of 1974) writings from the summer art program described students desire to “to work and change within a women’s community, and because we wanted to help build a growing women’s culture.” Similarly, a contemporaneous statement by the students in the FSW pointed to the need “to build new forms and structures to house our new culture.”

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 By the time the second location of the Woman’s Building opened in the fall of 1975, the entry hall signage proclaimed Welcome to the Woman’s Building,  a public center for women’s culture.”[8]  The postcard invitation to the grand opening elaborated “women’s culture is our common ground.  The Woman’s Building is the public house  … through which women’s culture becomes public and known.”

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 A lengthy article “A Women’s Place” from this period in based on interview with deBRetteville and Raven explained the meaning of “a public center for women’s culture.  De Bretteville argued for the existence of a women’s culture that was historically situated ‘past, present, and future.’[9] She positioned women’s culture as both oppositional and empowering “the evolution of feminist art movement has had its roots in the explication of oppression and oppression has to do with a ‘pushing against’ things, a rebellion, that we do when we are oppressed”

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Arelene Raven specifically connected the idea of a public center for women’s culture to the larger women’s liberation movement.   We are  “a community with different ways of being, of acting, and of creating which are made possible by a very specifically structured environment …  going forwards, not backwards into isolated leveling, or commonality, which the women’s movement in general has been involved with for some time.  That has partly come out of the experience of consciousness-raising activities in which there has been the comfort of equality, of egalitarianism, of loss of those aspects of responsibility and authority, which come with expressing one’s individuality.”

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 This concept of women’s culture was very different from the ambivalent one embraced by women’s liberation activists who emerged from the New Left.  Gone was the need to frame causality in economic terms and to justify women’s liberation as necessary.  What remained was a focus on power, who had it and who didn’t.  Artists proved less interested that activists coming out of the new left in harnessing mass or popular culture forms.  They were not afraid of the elitest connotations of high art and proved willing to embrace historical connections to women artists.  Most importantly, they focused on the notion of reclaiming femininity “past and present” for a women’s culture that would transform “male-dominated culture.”  The historical origins of that women’s culture, however, got caught up in academic historians’ conception of “women’s culture.”

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 [2] Womanspace feb/march 1973 17

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 [3] In their hugely controversial “female imagery” article Chicago and Schapiro locate in some women’s art 14 womanspace 3 spring 1973, phrase “female culture” from Mainardi FAJ vol 1, no 2 p 22

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41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 [4] Lippard, Lucy R. “Judy Chicago: Talking to Lucy R. Lippard,” Artforum, vol. 13, September, 1974. pp. 60-5. 1974  from a conversation between lippard and Chicago in September 1973

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43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 [5] May/June 1974 Lippard  in MS?

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 2 [6] Deena’s thesis uses singular as well “in her image” woman’s culture, as does lerner in her piece in FS, 19th century phrasing[6], 1975 New Woman’s Survival Sourcebook uses singular, ED uses plural 20 time and singular once “In woman’s culture, women developed group solidarity and some degree of psychic autonomy from men. Women’s culture itself did not constitute an open and radical break with dominant sexual ideology any more than slave culture openly challenged slavery.” (30) but uses women’s culture

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46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 [7] Metzger’s Thesis In Her Own Image was submitted in 1975 and later published in part by Heresies in 1977.

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48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 [8] first usage on a document seems to be Statement of purpose by the faculty of the fsw july 1975

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [9] Neworld 1975 (fall, volume 22, pp 33-36)

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Although histories, my own included, often highlight the description of the Woman’s Building by its members as “a public center for women’s culture” that phrase did not emerge until some time in late 1974. By 1975 their notion of women’s culture rested on three ideas.  The belief that women’s lived experiences were important content for art, a commitment to uncovering and documenting the artistic history of women, and a belief that women could transform the dominant culture by doing these two things.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 As these activists became tangled up in the women’s culture wars, I want to trace carefully how  Los Angeles artists in the women’s liberation movement moved from consciousness to community to women’s  culture using their primary source documents, as opposed to later histories which relied on mass published works by authors not primarily associated with any grassroots women’s liberation group.


Source: https://politicsofwomensculture.michellemoravec.com/about-2/book-pre-fall-2016/consciousness/consciousness-art-world-style/the-womans-building/