How women are presented through art has changed drastically over the last century.
The impact of feminist activism and political struggle shaped how the world viewed women at different points throughout history.
In the UK, the formation of the Artists' Suffrage League in 1907 marked a shift from using debate to change the law, to using propaganda in the form of posters, Christmas cards and banners to alter public opinion.
The artists of the feminist movement have charted a great change in attitudes to women. In 1912, even the sight of women wearing trousers was considered a bit risqué, so the leap from rejecting dresses to naked, chainsaw-wielding protesters in 2012 probably needs some investigation.
How have feminists used the visual arts to further the cause of women’s rights, and did empathy or shock tactics do more to encourage change?
"Votes for Women"
Credit: Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive.
Early suffrage images are awash with babies, angels and children; these probably aimed to idolise feminine purity, but through the eyes of a modern woman they look infantile.
"Let Women Vote"
Other images from the 1900s emphasised the role of women as wives and mothers, again playing on the sympathies of men to think of women’s suffrage in terms of their own families.
"We Can Do It!"
The advent of two world wars in the early 20th century led to a cultural shift in what work was thought suitable for women. When huge swaths of the male workforce went to fight on the front-line, it was women who took on much of the manual and munitions work. Rosie the Riveter is a cultural icon of post-war feminism and represents the dawn of women’s economic independence.
"A Woman Without a Man..."
Classic second-wave feminism promoted the role of women outside of the home, emphasising freedom and choice. One of the defining catchphrases of this era, “A woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle” was popularised by activist Gloria Steinem, who advocated the theory that women had to choose between a career and a family-life.
"Solidarity with Women's Struggles"
Credit: Red Women's Workshop (archive at Women's Library)
Feminism of the 70s and 80s became aligned with left-wing politics and anarchism. Images such as the above poster celebrating International Women's Day, regularly incorporated powerful slogans and colours that evoked communist and socialist politics.
"Your Body is a Battleground"
Credit: Barbara Kruger: Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989
Abortion, self-determination and a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body became a key cause of protest and discussion, as politicians and lobby groups have weighed into the debate.
"What Does it Take..."
Credit: Women’s Aid
The emergence of 'riot grrrl' culture shifted the medium of feminist protest towards music and photography, drawing attention to the physical as well as mental strength of women. In the last 20 years awareness of violence against women and domestic abuse increased and became central to feminist activism.
"Do Women Have to be Naked..."
Credit: Guerrilla Girls
Modern art activists Guerilla Girls are adept at making a statement. The organisation launched to fight discrimination in the arts, highlighting that despite supposed equality, women are still marginalised in many professions.
"This is What a Feminist Looks Like"
Credit: The Fawcett Society
Modern feminism encourages inclusiveness and most contemporary campaigns promote the involvement of men and women from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. The message is that feminism is not just good for women, it's good for everyone.
"Femen à Paris"
Pussy Riot, Slut Walks, Femen – one thing you can say for certain is this brand of contemporary feminism doesn't thrive on subtly. Women are reclaiming negative stereotypes and aggressively defending their politics and beliefs. Although there is much to criticise in the methods of some groups, you can't deny that they have caught our attention.
Although it’s clear that how feminists use visual arts to express themselves has changed over the years, the iconography of early feminist suffrage had a lasting impact, displayed most recently at a Feminsta rally where protesters dressed in suffragette costume.
For those interested in learning more about the art of feminism, I’d recommend a visit to the wonderful Women’s Library, who have amassed a huge collection of feminist posters and materials that offers a thorough record of women’s lives across the last century.
Main image credit: Woman Citizen