Toward a History of Feminism, Art, and Social Movements in the United States

Article excerpt

Enemies of women's liberation in the art world must be met with a more coherent front. A group that is locally effective can be doubly powerful if it synchronizes its actions with those of other groups across the country. We can gain from each other's experiences and make more headway together if we are aware of each other's activities in time to echo or support them.

WEB, no.1

With that call to arms West East Bag (WEB), an International Liaison Network for Women Artists, began in September of 1971. (1) One contemporaneous description of the women's liberation movement in the United States described it as "linked only by the numerous journals, newsletters and cross country travelers." (2) WEB, a "bicoastal national organizing tool and newsletter that networked women artists nationally, encouraging the creation of registries and protests in other cities," created those connections for feminist artists outside the art world centers of New York and Los Angeles. (3) In recent years, while there has been a sharp increase in scholarly interest in feminist art, WEB seldom garners more than a brief mention. (4) However, as Mary Garrard notes, in the single most important study thus far of feminist art as a social movement, "the story of feminist networks and organizations in the visual artists is ... a chapter in the larger women movement." (5) Garrard's essay briefly traces a number of themes over the course of the 197os from a personal perspective, but she notes the need, which I hope to address in this essay, for "a case study of the complicated dynamic of political movements and social progress" that resulted in a feminist art movement that existed well beyond New York and Los Angeles." (6)

In exploring feminist art as a social movement, I draw on a framework recently proposed by Rebecca Kolins Givan, Kenneth M. Roberts, and Sarah A. Soule, who suggest that "the mechanisms of diffusion are best understood by examining the activist networks, organizational brokers, and communication channels that facilitate the spread" of a movement. (7) Diffusion, the way that aspects of a social movement spread, is a complex process involving several key areas of inquiry, including content, processes, and impact. (8) The content of diffusion involves not only the ideology of a social movement but also strategies for activism. Diffusion occurs in several ways. Relational mechanisms are interpersonal, while nonrelational mechanisms connect activists without relying on personal contact. Finally, mediated mechanisms involve a third party that connects activists. Determining the impact of diffusion involves questions about not only the spread of social movements but also the changes and consequences of that process.

Using a diffusion framework to explore the role of WEB reveals that the feminist art movement was as much a social movement as it was an aesthetic movement. Diffusion theory clarifies the ways the feminist art movement drew on the women's liberation movement to shape its message and organizational forms. Exploring the impact of diffusion on the feminist art movement makes clear, following Benita Roth's work on intersectionality, both the context of the choices made by feminist art activists and their long-term consequences.

While diffusion theory is one of the most valuable ways of approaching the study of social movements, applying it to the feminist art movement is difficult at times. (9) Pinpointing the origins of WEB illustrates how difficult it can be to track diffusion in a nascent social movement. WEB began with eight representatives in three cities (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) and three countries (England, Canada and Germany). (10) How various women came to be involved is not as clear. One account claims that Lucy Lippard, a New York art critic and member of several New York women's art groups, and Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago,

artists and founders of feminist art education programs in Los Angeles, hatched the plan for WEB in April of 1971 after a visit to 26 Women Artists, an exhibition curated by Lippard. …