By Our Own Hands, by Faith Wilding / by Suzy Spence

By Our Own Hands by Faith Wilding, Copyright, 1977, by Faith Wilding and
DoubleXUsed with permission of the author

In the fall of 1971, the relocated Feminist Art Program started at California Institute of the Arts with 25 students.  Since the school was still under construction, the Program met in the private residences of the students to plan its first project, Womanhouse, which had been conceived by Paula Harper, an art historian who had joined the Program’s staff.  In planning a large beginning project, the Program faculty hoped to accomplish several things:  first, to let students confront their problems as women while grappling with the demands of a project rather than undergoing initial extended consciousness-raising; second, to give students the chance to learn many skills and work collaboratively; and last but most important, to force the students to begin pushing their role limitations as women and to test themselves as artists.  As it turned out, all of these hopes were realized, and Womanhouse has become an example to feminist art classes everywhere of the great potential of an initial collaborative project.

Womanhouse began in an old deserted mansion on a residential street in Hollywood and became an environment in which:  “The age-old female activity of homemaking was taken to fantasy proportions.  Womanhouse became the repository of the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean and iron their lives away.  Before actually creating the art environments and pieces, the students had to do extensive reconstruction on the house which had been empty for many years, and in which vandals had broken most windows, fixtures and furnishings.  Soon the women skillfully wielded electric saws, drills and sanders, they learned to drywall, paint and glaze windows.  The work was done under taxing conditions, for it was winter and Womahouse had no heat, hot water, or plumbing.  Struggling with these obstacles, the unfamiliar techniques and tools and the stringent deadlines, aroused tremendous anger in the women.  Group meetings were held to deal with these feelings and other problems, and those women were working collaboratively also met in small group consciousness-raising sessions.  The women invited three professional artists from the community, Wanda Westcoast, Sherry Brody and Carol Edson Mitchell to collaborate with them and exhibit their work.   Several times a week some of the students met to prepare a program of performance pieces about housework, women’s role conditioning, nurturing and body experiences.  Judy Chicago has described these performances and the various rooms of Womanhouse fully in her book.

Womanhouse was to open to the public from January 30 to February 28, 1972.  It had taken two full months to complete and had attracted nation-wide attention in the media (footnote 3).  During the month it was on view thousands of people of all ages came to see it.  Womanhouse was an historic event, a happening to which audiences came with different expectations than those they usually bring to art.  Womanhouse was in fact the first public exhibition of “feminist art,”

and as such was received with mixed reactions, as characterized by William Wilson’s review in the Los Angles Times:

Lair of Female Creativity:  An art-environment project called “Womanhouse” is as cheerful and disarming as a pack of laughing schoolgirls under a porcelain sky…Womanhouse is pervaded with the spirit of comfort and magic that women bring to living, their endless inventiveness, bottomless energy and gentle persuasive humor.  Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom is the heaviest project on view.  It ought to bring any many to an awed and somber sense of respect…We are made to understand that women, simply in their being, are creative.  Their houses, meals and children represent art out of masculine reach.  Womanhouse reminds us that the female is our only direct link with the forces of nature and that man’s greatest creative acts may be but envious shadowings of her fecundity.

This review with its mixture of real perception and platitudinal mumbling misses much, and reflects clearly the male attitude of “worship, withdraw and forget” which women have been trying to change.  The review omits some very important points:  Womanhouse with its sickly pink kitchen, its woman trapped in the sheetcloset, its bride crashing into the wall, and its endless homage to costume, make-up, and domesticity could also be understood as a sharp critique of the confinement of female creativity to a limited sphere.   Womanhouse was a new kind of art-making which took private and collective female experiences as its subject matter.  Nor does the review say anything of this art as social and political realism which is to be taken seriously, and which was the impetus for much of the autobiographical, personal art-making in vogue among both male and female artists today.

Working collaboratively on Womanhouse enriched each participant’s ideas and taught her new skills.  During this time, the women had many discussions together and enlarged their views of personal and human experience and women’s lives.  Meeting the public in Womanhouse was also a valuable education for the students, who learned how to give tours to articulate what they were doing, and to maintain their own vision in the face of criticism.

Although Womanhouse gave all the participants a feeling of great satisfaction and group solidarity, some of them had difficulty deriving a sense of personal accomplishment from it, and many longed to get back to their individual work.  Cal Arts was now ready for its students, and had provided a large, fully equipped studio for the Feminist Program as well as a complete set of tools and generous course support money.