160 Years of Feminist (and Anti-Feminist) Art in One Book

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160 Years of Feminist (and Anti-Feminist) Art in One Book

Eleanor J. Bader

The Art of Feminism offers a fascinating look at the visuals of women's suffrage in the United States and Britain. But it skimps on how more contemporary feminists have used art to agitate.

Although there is much to recommend in The Art of Feminism: Images That Shaped the Fight for Equality, 1857-2017, the book is less about how art has been used to incite feminist activism than it is a look at how feminist agitation has influenced individual artists.

According to consulting editor and curator Helena Reckitt, the coffee-table book “is the first book to present feminist interventions in art and visual culture from the 19th century to the current era.”

Thanks to more than 350 full-color illustrations that accompany the text, 160 years of work by women—cis and trans—is documented. Paintings, drawings, installations, videos, films, posters, and performance art are referenced, showcasing a wide swath of creative expression, largely by American and British artists, but with a smattering of examples from other regions scattered throughout. Many of the artists, but likely not all, will be familiar to readers: Beyonce, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Guerrilla Girls, Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta, Shirin Neshat, and Pussy Riot, among them.

But it is not the work of these artists, impressive as much of it is, that I found most intriguing. In fact, the book’s most compelling contribution can be found in two more historical chapters, “Suffragist versus Anti-Suffragist: Visual Conflict”and “To War and to Work: On the Battlefield and in the Factory,” both of which vividly illustrate how visual representation can influence how we see one another and imagine what’s possible.

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For English artist John Hassall, this meant frightening folks about family deterioration should women become politically engaged. A different but equally sexist notion prevailed in Charles Dana Gibson’s work. In the American artist’s illustrations, women were seen as frivolous, too flighty to be bogged down with the heaviness that politics demands.

Let me make this more specific: One of Hassall’s most popular posters was created in 1910 for the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. In it, a hapless gent returns home to find his house in disarray, his children neglected.

“It is one of the strongest and simplest images produced in support of the anti-suffrage cause,” the authors write, because it depicted pro-suffrage activism as a threat to the domestic tranquility of white families. In the United States, Gibson drew what became known as the Gibson Girl, a jaunty, flirtatious, “modern” woman who could not be bothered with politics but was instead a full-time devotee of fashion, golfing, and lively soirees.

Juxtaposed with these representations were images of always-respectable-looking white women who stressed the opposite, arguing that votes for women would enhance human well-being and eliminate child labor and prostitution, then often called “white slavery.”

The latter argument obviously prevailed, with some British women winning the vote in 1918 and most, but not all, U.S. women getting the franchise in 1920. Before these victories were achieved, however, something interesting happened. After Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the U.K. campaign for women’s suffrage was temporarily suspended and many women got involved in the war effort. According to the book, “in addition to supporting the armed forces, they served as nurses and ambulance drivers, they ran canteens, worked the land, felled trees, and filled civil service roles. They became chauffeurs, window cleaners, and carried out essential work in the munitions factories that were multiplying across the country.”

As for art, as soon as the war began, cartoons and drawings ridiculing suffragists were replaced with positive portraits of women on the job. Black Cat Cigarettes, for one, created more than 50 postcards showing women hard at work in breweries, butcher shops, and newspaper offices. Some illustrations showed them as engineers, dentists, and drivers. And even though these models were uniformly white, thin, and well-dressed, they nonetheless represented a stark turn from the frivolous, giggly Gibson Gal whose pretty-little-head could not fathom the intricacies of complex political matters. What’s more, in spite of women’s long hours away from the hearth, there was no longer talk—or imagery—of husbands and children going unfed or of home falling into chaos because of mom’s absence. In short, men and children coped.

Even more remarkable, at the end of the war, many women in both the United States and Britain refused to slink back home. In fact, the book reports that among middle- and upper-class artists, “the interwar years witnessed women illustrators and designers finding popular and commercial success with work in the applied arts,” a field that included book illustrators, ceramics and textile designers, as well as costume and set makers for movies and theater. The hardships of the Great Depression notwithstanding, female advertising mavens also became relatively commonplace.

Then World War II began, and once more, the book notes, “magazines published a swelling tide of positive images in which women’s roles were taken seriously and traditional notions of femininity shifted.” Created by both male and female artists, the illustrations showed Rosie riveting, and female photographers became prominent as photojournalists, albeit for less pay than their male colleagues. Still, their photos, alongside images captured by artists like Doris Zinkeisen, who painted the horror of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, left a lasting record of the atrocities that took place there. Similarly, Mary Kessell’s charcoal drawings of postwar refugee camps offered proof of the war’s devastating impact on those who survived.

Unfortunately, The Art of Feminism pays far too little attention to the decade that followed World War II and the reactionary backlash to women’s advancement that Betty Friedan chronicled in The Feminine Mystique. That said, the feminist movements that began cropping up in the mid-to-late 1960s are intensely scrutinized; while most of the attention centers around the creative output of particular artists, it nonetheless speaks to the intellectual and creative spark that women’s liberation ignited throughout the world.

“Feminism has always been a plural and intersectional movement, even if this has not always been acknowledged or properly addressed,” Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate museums and galleries, writes in the book’s preface. Hundreds of illustrations bear this out, with a sweep that includes art opposing racism, colonialism, heterosexism, transphobia, sexism, ageism, ableism, and economic and environmental exploitation. Some of the most beautiful works are Elizabeth Catlett’s 1973 sculpture honoring Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), the first African-American women to have her poetry published, and Catherine Opie’s 2004 self-portrait, Nursing.

Other works are intentionally provocative: South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s photos of drag queens and the LGBTQ community are powerful declarations of existence.

[PHOTO: Black and white portrait of young black women wearing a dark head wrap, and with bare shoulders, on a dark ground.]

Photographer Zanele Muholi of South Africa has gained international acclaim for her portraits of LGBTQ South Africans, pictured. (Zanele Muholi)

Some works celebrate survival. Ghada Amer’s stunning 2015 Sindy in Pink-RFGA repeats the words, “We are the granddaughters of the witches that you could not burn” over a tangle of overlaid images.

Still others focus on the future. Zoe Leonard’s I Want a President, created in 1992, is a wish list: “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president. And I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance …”  The piece not only reminds us that another world is possible, but recognizes the economic and social obstacles that keep people from seeing themselves as “presidential material”—or even as valuable societal contributors. Leonard asks us to consider why this is so; implicit is our power to change these conditions and the prejudices that sustain them.

Indeed, changing the status quo is the raison d’etre of feminism. This is also true for the artists whose work is included in The Art of Feminism. Although I wanted more information on how activist groups have used visual art as an agitational tool—that is, I wanted to learn how some of the most important campaigns of the 20th century, from reproductive justice to pay equity, have used the graphic arts to promote their cause and increase public awareness of unfair policies and outright misogyny—the book offers an inspiring look at creativity and the ways visual media can be used to challenge authority, ask questions, and suggest alternative ways of being. The book is also a tribute to more than a few kick-ass feminists. Together, they prod us to consider how artists and activists can work together to envision—and then win—a more just social order.