In the January 1971 issue of ARTnews, Linda Nochlin rocked the art world by publishing an essay entitled, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” She wrote, “While the recent upsurge of feminist activity in this country has indeed been a liberating one, its force has been chiefly emotional—personal, psychological and subjective—centered, like the other radical movements to which it is related, on the present and its immediate needs, rather than on historical analysis....” This essay presaged a change of consciousness among women that fomented protests throughout the 1970s.
In 1985, a bunch of female artists, incensed by an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that included 165 artists but only seventeen women, founded the Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls remained anonymous in order to focus on the issues, rather than on the personalities of members of the collective, wearing gorilla masks in public. They reclaimed the term “girl” and recognized the power of humor, differentiating their work from the feminist strategies of the 1970s. (“How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? That’s not funny.”) The Guerrilla Girls also took the names of dead women artists to bring those who had fallen into obscurity into public awareness again. Between 1985 and 2000, nearly 100 women developed posters and other projects that changed art and feminist discourse worldwide.
Our first poster was “WHAT DO THESE ARTISTS HAVE IN COMMON?” It listed prominent male artists who allowed their work to be shown in galleries that showed no more than 10% women artists or none at all. We would go out on the streets in the dead of night with carts filled with posters, wheat paste, brushes. 420 West Broadway, where Castelli Gallery was located, was the center of the art universe, and the streets of Soho formed a neighborhood where we could efficaciously broadcast our ideas to the art public. Multiple times we were chased by security guards and police, and one night Rosalba Carriera almost broke her leg when she stepped in a hole in a loading dock. After that we hired crews of men to put up our posters for us.
Perhaps our most famous poster is “THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST” published in 1988. The collective process takes time; we met for nearly a year at Liubov Popova’s loft to come up with the right balance between humor and hopelessness.
Questions central to our purpose were constantly debated: Was the focus of the Guerrilla Girls social justice within the art world, or within the wider world? We ended up doing both. Were the events we presented at educational and art institutions performances or lectures? In the late ’80s we invited Claude Cahun to join; she was an internationally recognized performer who helped us develop choreography and scripts. Could the group admit men as members? Claude proposed that a man—a very gentle, feminist man—be invited to join the Guerrilla Girls. This caused an outburst of tears from “Aphra Behn,” who was a survivor of domestic violence and did not feel safe with men in the group; thus, the idea was dropped. Should the Guerrilla Girls speak with one voice or exhibit differences of opinion? We always sent at least two Guerrilla Girls on gigs and appearances in order to demonstrate that there was a range of feminist views within the group. Last but not least, should we consider discrimination against lesbians as one of our concerns? There was fear of being labeled a lesbian group, which in the social climate of the day might have caused us to be marginalized; consequently, there was constant debate and no resolution to this issue.
In the waning years of the 1990s, most of our public actions were organized by Aphra Behn, who created a sub-committee of Guerrilla Girls concerned with injustice in the world of live performance and theater. In 1998 we wore black silk capes produced by “Rosalind Franklin” for our Tony Awards action bearing the legend, “There’s a tragedy on Broadway, and it’s not Electra.” About six of us stood across the street from where the Tony awards were being given to protest the lack of women playwrights and directors being produced. (It was on this occasion that the cops told us that there is a law dating back to the days of the Ku Klux Klan that states you cannot protest in masks.) This action was documented by Mother Jones magazine. The “Theater Girls,” as this subset of the Guerrilla Girls became known, also produced some trenchant stickers that were posted in toilet stalls of theaters on Broadway. One said, “In this theatre the taking of photographs, the use of a recording device and the production of plays by women is strictly prohibited. - The management. During the current season this theatre will not produce any plays by women.”
At the turn of the millennium, responding to internal debates over how wide a net the group should cast, the Guerrilla Girls formed three wings: Guerrilla Girls) would continue to focus on the art world with occasional forays into Hollywood. Guerrilla Girls On Tour! would focus on injustice in the theater community. And Guerrilla Girls BroadBand would rove beyond the art world, tackling social justice issues like discrimination in the wired workplace, recruitment of youths for war, abortion access, and rape.
Now it’s thirty years since the Guerrilla Girls were founded. In celebration of this milestone, a bunch of retired Guerrilla Girls met during the last year to develop a new project, “THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING AN OLDER WOMAN ARTIST.” Enjoy! So, as you can see, even though Linda Nochlin and the Guerrilla Girls are older now, they have not given up on fighting for social justice through their own channels!
GERDA TARDO is one of the Guerrilla Girls, artists based in New York. www.guerillagirlsbroadband.com