Visual arts and the Women's Liberation Movement

Feminist visual arts

The Women’s Liberation Movement used posters, slogans, film, painting and photography to propagate their ideas. But what is feminist art? Find out more about the artists, mediums and theory of 1970s feminism.

This 1982 film takes a creative look at the ways in which women can face harassment on an everyday level. This clip looks at stereotyped media images of women. © Leeds Animation Workshop

The visual arts are a highly sensitive and interesting field for feminists. Feminists have used posters, slogans, film, painting and photography to propagate their ideas. The question ‘what is feminist art?’ is one that has been continuously debated with relation to women’s liberation. Is it art produced by women? Should it only have women as its subject? Should it attempt to destabilise and recreate ideas of gender altogether? Though these questions are relevant to all the arts and humanities, the relation between women and representation in visual culture makes them especially powerful in relation to the visual arts.

The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths University of London provides an invaluable resource for exploring the many feminist visual artists of this period.

Michelle Ryan talks about Red Flannel Films

Challenging the male gaze

Laura Mulvey’s essay ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ (1975) has proved to be one of the most enduring and influential essays on film – it both initiated film studies in the UK and transformed the way in which several generations watch films, television and all the visual media. Her essay argued that the thrillers, romances and film noirs of classic Hollywood cinema, directed and edited almost entirely by men, presented women as the passive objects. She coined the expression ‘male gaze’ to describe the ways in female film stars including Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly played roles where they were configured as either a whore or a virgin, and the person looking at them – the camera or the audience – was conceptually a man: ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.’ This might seem obvious today but in 1975 this was radical and revolutionary. Laura Mulvey revisited this subject in 1988 when she argued that a degree of visual objectification, ‘the sexual gaze’, is a fact of life for women as well as for men.

Feminist cinema and feminist practice in all the visual arts subverted, exploded or challenged these stereotypes. Feminist artists wanted to destabilise conventional, accepted ideas of gender. Postmodern, conceptual art battled with more easily accessible social realism to find artistic forms and styles through which women could both express themselves fully and challenge the status quo. For this reason, Sue Crockford filmed the first WLM conference in Oxford and early WLM demonstrations. You can see extracts of this film here. Spare Rib put younger and older women, all of them beautiful, on their front covers; activists defaced wall posters and adverts up and down the escalators on the Tube; and the Leeds Animation Workshop made films subverting fairy stories. Today feminist perspectives in film flourish with events such as the London Feminist Film Festival and resources like the women’s film archive Cinenova.

This animated clip, created in 1989, takes a creative look at the way in which language can marginalise women. © Leeds Animation Workshop

Forgotten histories

At the same time as challenging the male-dominated art world through avant-garde practices, the women’s movement also delighted in the discovery of a forgotten history of women artists. Like women writers, female artists have existed throughout history, although until the late 19th century in Britain women were excluded from art schools, formal apprenticeships or professional institutions. In 1981 Griselda Pollock and Rozika Parker published Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. This book set out to ‘discover the relationships between women artists and the institutions of art and ideology throughout historical shifts and changes’. Around this time feminist art history began to flourish in art colleges and universities. Today women run some of Britain’s most well-known galleries in the UK: Dr Penelope Curtis is the director of Tate Britain; Caroline Collier is the director of Tate National; Seona Reid retires in 2013 after 14 years as Director of Glasgow School of Art; and Maria Balshaw is Director of Manchester City Galleries, to name but a few.

Grace Lau describes her photographic practice

What medium?

The 1970s saw great experimentation with different media. A combination of the discovery of an existing history of women’s art and new feminist practices emerging led to many women’s art collectives being formed. Banners, films, community murals, performance, photography, painting, drawing and sculpture are just some of the different media that feminist artists used in their work.

Various feminist photography collectives flourished in the 1970s and '80s, including the Hackney Flashers, of which Jo Spence was a member. Exposures, the Association of Women Photographers, was set up by Grace Lau. Photographer Jo Spence, who had previously worked as a high street photographer’s assistant, experimented with graffiti, collage and eventually ‘phototherapy’. Her work dealt with her own experience of breast cancer. Grace Lau, in contrast, learned photography through a college course and went on to explore the subcultures of fetishists and the possibilities for a non-exploitative erotica.

Mary Kelly talks about her work Post Partum Document

© Moderna Museet Stockholm

Access to training and exhibitions

Another aspect of the feminist art movement was to create more access for women to art colleges, galleries and the media. This involved challenging institutions such as the Arts Council or the Hayward Gallery to support more diverse representations – with some great successes, as Mary Kelly recounts. But many explored alternative outlets and modes, such as the private postcard-art correspondence between artist mothers on the Isle of Wight, and the colourful ‘webs’ around the military base at Greenham Common.

Ellen Malos talks about using humour and satire in Sistershow

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.