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Herstory in Art: How Visual Journeys Empower Women

"Modern art? It’s just splashes of paint and weird shapes, right?" If this thought has crossed your mind, you are not alone. Many women find themselves daunted by the world of contemporary art, believing it requires a secret language to decode. But here’s the delightful twist: understanding art is less about intellectual gymnastics and more about experiencing it.

Couple in a museum looking at art

The world of art can seem like an exclusive club with its own secret language, but Feminist Art invites everyone in. Imagine walking into a gallery and instead of feeling lost, you feel seen, heard, and empowered. This is the transformative power of Feminist Art: a powerful tool for self-discovery and social change.

Shadi Ghadirian
Like Every Day by Shadi Ghadirian, 2001. Source: WikiArt. The photographic series features portraits of women whose faces are obscured by everyday household items like irons, brooms, and pans, symbolizing the domestic roles traditionally assigned to them. The artwork powerfully critiques the reduction of women's identities to their household duties, highlighting the invisibility and dehumanization that can result from such roles.

Feminist Art is not some distant, incomprehensible abstraction. It’s a vibrant, dynamic force that speaks directly to your experiences and aspirations, an extraordinary form of expression can enrich your life and empower you in ways you never imagined. It has been instrumental in reshaping women’s perspective on their social and political standing advocating for their rights and autonomy.

Feminist Art started to gain momentum with the emergence of Feminism in the 1960s thanks to its direct and strong calls to action. Before that time, although women had been involved in Art History as subjects, they lacked significant representation as creators. Although some representations of women were to become some of the world's most emblematic artworks, women’s accomplishments as creators were seriously overlooked.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1612. Source: Web Gallery of Art. Gentileschi's painting of a heroine taking charge of her destiny by beheading a tyrannical figure. Her portrayal of women’s strength and independence inspired generations of women to assert themselves.

This fixed reality created the need for a new, Feminist History of Art, a Herstory to be constructed. It was in 1971 that art historian Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) posed the question Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? as the title of an article which described how systems within institutions and society prevented women from reaching artistic success or excellence to the same extent as men, regardless of their talent or genius. This article was to become the cornerstone of Feminist Art History.

Feminist Art altered the long-established institutions and policies to increase the presence of women artists in the market. By establishing their own galleries, Feminists made opportunities to showcase works by women and established educational institutions for the feminist art movement to voice its objectives.

The front page of the exhibition catalog for "Womanhouse" (January 30 – February 28, 1972), Feminist Art exhibition organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, co-founders of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) Feminist Art Program. It was the first public exhibition of art centered upon female empowerment.Source: Creative Commons (

Feminist artists aimed to change the art history that had previously silenced women's voices through various and often unconventional media, such as video, performance and installations. They also incorporated materials traditionally associated with women, such as textiles.

Miriam Schapiro (1923-2015), a pioneer of feminist art, integrated elements of craft into her paintings connected to women and femininity. Focusing on domesticated craftwork and incorporating symbols associated with women, such as hearts, floral decorations, and the color pink, her works represent women's consciousness through imagery. In the 1970s, she elevated the hand fan—a typically small, feminine object—by painting it on a six-by-twelve-foot canvas. The fan-shaped canvas became a powerful icon, allowing Schapiro to experiment and develop a surface with textured, complex, and opulent colors, forming the basis of her new personal style. She frequently expressed her emotions and desires, anxieties, and hopes through forms like kimonos, fans, houses, and hearts.

Miriam Schapiro, Pleasure Dome
Pleasure Dome by Miriam Schapiro, 2003. Source: WikiArt

Feminist Art represented the female body as seen by women themselves. and portrayed, perhaps for the first time, women’s daily experiences. Tracey Emin's My Bed, created in 1998, is another seminal feminist artwork that challenges traditional notions of femininity and domesticity. By presenting her unmade bed, complete with personal items such as stained sheets, empty alcohol bottles, and used condoms, Emin confronts societal expectations of women's private spaces and behaviors. This raw and unfiltered glimpse into her personal life defies the sanitized depictions of women often seen in art and media, emphasizing the authenticity of female experience. My Bed serves as a powerful statement on vulnerability, mental health, and the complexity of women's lives, making it a cornerstone in contemporary feminist art.

Tracey Emin, My Bed
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998. Source: WikiArt

By incorporating women’s perspective in their artworks, Feminist artists established a new conversation between the observer and the artwork, which went beyond the aesthetic value of the artwork in terms of beauty: it ignited discussions about sociopolitical issues impacting women worldwide, such as equal pay, reproductive rights, and domestic abuse.

One example of such an artist is Jenny Holzer. Holzer's work frequently addresses themes of feminism and sexism, tackling serious issues like sexual assault against women. She has mentioned that her focus on these topics stems from her own experiences with family dysfunction, and she believes that art doesn't need to center on joy. Holzer’s use of text and public installations has been central to her impact on Feminist Art, employing language to provoke thought and challenge social norms, particularly concerning gender roles and the experiences of women. One of Jenny Holzer's notable pieces is her Lustmord (literary, Sex Murder) series, created in 1993 in response to the widespread rape and murder of women during the Bosnian War.

Jenny Holzer
Lustmord series by Jenny Holzer, 1993-1994. Source:

It showcased thirty images of human skin, each marked with disturbing handwritten statements. Resembling tattoos, these statements included quotes related to the Bosnian atrocities, presented from three perspectives: the victim's, the perpetrator's, and the observer's. The blend of these viewpoints and the harrowing accounts of sexual violence created a profoundly unsettling impact.

How Feminist Art Empowers Women

Creating a Different Cultural Narrative

Feminist artists challenge conventional gender roles and stereotypes by producing art that mirrors their experiences through strong imagery and symbolism.

One notable artwork that exemplifies this function of feminist art is The Dinner Party, an iconic installation by Judy Chicago. Chicago taught the first women's art class in Fresno in the fall of 1970 and founded Womanhouse, a collaborative feminist art exhibition that blossomed into a feminist studio space emphasizing collaborative women's art.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Part
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1979. Source: WikiArt

Created between 1974 and 1979 with the help of a large group of volunteers, The Dinner Party travelled globally as an exhibit, even though it did not receive a warm welcome by the artworld. The piece serves as a lasting tribute to women, solidifying their place in history. It features a ceremonial banquet arranged on a triangular table with 39 place settings, each celebrating a significant woman from history. Each setting featured a hand-painted china plate (resembling a vagina-like shape), ceramic utensils, and a napkin with gold embroidery. Beneath the table are inscribed the names of 998 more women, recognizing their contributions.

Another influential feminist artist that tried to create a different cultural narrative is Cindy Sherman. Known for her Untitled Film Stills series – comprising 70 black and white photographs - Sherman critiques the representation of women in the media by portraying stereotypical female roles, among them the lonely housewife, the working girl, and the ingenue. Designed to look like scenes from 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films, the printed images replicate the format, scale, and quality of the promotional "stills" often used to advertise films.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Still #3
Untitled Film Still #3 by Cindy Sherman, 1977. Source: WikiArt

Sherman's use of costumes, make-up, and settings parodies the male gaze, highlighting how women are often depicted as passive and sexualized. By both modeling and creating these photographs, Sherman challenges viewers to question the objectification of women in popular culture and the media.

Carolee Schneemann's (1939-2019) Interior Scroll (1975) challenges societal taboos and empowers women through its bold performance art. Standing nude, Schneemann painted her body and slowly extracted a paper scroll from her vagina, reading its contents aloud. This act defiantly confronts discomfort with the female body and sexuality, reclaiming it as a potent symbol of creativity and knowledge.

By making the internal external, Schneemann critiques traditional artistic norms dominated by male perspectives and asserts the validity of women's experiences. Interior Scroll remains a powerful feminist statement, encouraging women to assert their narratives and bodies within art and society, and sparking ongoing discussions about gender, embodiment, and agency in contemporary art.

Representation and Visibility

Feminist art plays a crucial role in ensuring that women's diverse experiences are depicted and recognized, allowing their stories to be heard. This visibility is essential for empowerment, as it validates women's presence and contributions. Artworks that showcase strong, confident women have the power to significantly influence society's perception of femininity. When artists depict women as self-assured, courageous, and resilient, they inspire others to embrace their own strength and face challenges head-on.

Kara Walker's installation piece A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) featured a massive sugar-coated sphinx-like figure of a Black woman, along with several smaller figures made of molasses. The artwork was displayed in the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York, and it confronted themes of exploitation, oppression, and the history of slavery. Walker’s art encourages viewers to confront difficult historical and contemporary issues, and her representations of Black women as strong, resilient figures resonate with themes of self-assurance and courage.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety
A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker, 2014. Source: WikiArt

Feminist Art can profoundly address women's visibility, serving as a powerful tool to challenge stereotypes and celebrate female identity. This is exemplified in Jenna Gribbon's paintings which explore the themes of the female gaze, visibility, and identity. Her work is characterized by intimate, domestic scenes featuring female figures illuminated by natural light, which highlights themes of vulnerability and introspection.

Jenny Gribbon, Unwanted Opinions
Unwanted Opinions by Jenna Gribbon, 2021. Source:

Gribbon challenges traditional representations of women in art by emphasizing their agency and presence, inviting viewers to engage with the subjects' inner worlds. Her use of vibrant palettes and expressive brushstrokes captures the emotional depth and nuanced experiences of women, promoting empowerment and challenging societal perceptions of female identity.

Addressing Gender Inequalities

Feminist art highlights issues of gender inequalities and discrimination. Feminist artists use their art as a platform to promote change, urging society to move toward gender equality and justice.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) occurred at the same time that Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex was released. This powerful performance addresses gender inequalities by confronting the viewer with the vulnerabilities imposed on women. In the performance, Ono invites audience members to approach her and cut away pieces of her clothing, laying bare the dynamics of power, objectification, and consent. This act symbolically represents how society often encroaches upon women's autonomy and bodies, stripping away their dignity and agency.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece
Cut Piece by Yoko Ono, 1964. Source: WikiArt

By placing herself in a position of both control and vulnerability, Ono challenges the audience to reflect on their complicity in these societal structures and to consider the profound impact of gendered power imbalances. The performance serves as a stark, visual critique of how women are often reduced to mere objects for consumption and exploitation, thereby fostering a deeper understanding and conversation around gender inequality.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, know a the “maintenance artist”, has worked with various communities and public institutions, where she served as an artist-in-residence. Her projects often involve collaboration with sanitation workers and other maintenance staff, further emphasizing the significance of their work and the need for societal recognition and appreciation of maintenance labor. Ukeles made a profound statement on the undervalued and often overlooked labor of women through her art. She addressed gendered division of labor by cleaning an art gallery, a literal and symbolic cleaning, drawing attention to the labor often carried out by women and its importance in sustaining daily life and societal structures.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Washing/ Tracks/ Maintenance: Outside by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 1973. Source: WikiArt

This performance did not only challenge the conventional distinctions between art and everyday life and between creative and maintenance work. By performing maintenance tasks within the traditionally revered space of an art gallery, Ukeles elevated routine tasks traditionally associated with women to the status of art.

Creating Safe Spaces

Seeing their experiences depicted in art makes women feel acknowledged and more connected. This sense of belonging contributes to their empowerment. Art galleries, exhibitions, and online platforms provide secure environments that facilitate dialogue and community building.

For example, the Black Quantum Futurism platform offers such a space, fostering a supportive community for women by providing educational resources, including workshops and materials on quantum physics, Afrofuturism, and temporalities. By highlighting female role models in science and art, BQF increases visibility and representation, while addressing the unique challenges faced by women of color through an intersectional approach. These efforts collectively enable women to achieve personal development, professional success, and drive social change.

Challenging Beauty Standards

Several feminist artworks redefine beauty by embrace imperfection and questioning unrealistic ideals. Through this, feminist art motivates women to accept their individuality and resist damaging societal expectations.

Martha Rosler's photomontage Cleaning the Drapes, part of her late 60s-early 70s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home series, challenges female beauty standards by juxtaposing an impeccably dressed housewife vacuuming the drapes with images of the Vietnam War visible through the windows.

Martha Rosler
Cleaning the Drapes (from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home) by Martha Rosler, 1967-1972. Source: WikiArt

This stark contrast critiques the societal expectation that women's primary role is to maintain beauty and order at home, highlighting the artificiality of such standards. The work uses irony to reveal the absurdity of these norms and encourages viewers to reconsider and challenge traditional gender roles, advocating for a broader understanding of women's identities and contributions. Rosler's work highlights the irony of a woman's contentment in her domestic role while surrounded by celebrated male-dominated art, thus questioning women's roles in both the domestic and art worlds.

Your body is yours alone. Embrace it, celebrate it, and never let anyone diminish its value. -- Simone de Beauvoir

Barbara Kruger is another significant feminist artist who challenges female beauty standards through her impactful work. One of her most iconic posters, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), features a woman's face split into positive and negative halves, overlaid with the bold text: "Your body is a battleground."

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (Your body is a battleground) by Barbara Kruger, 1989. Source: WikiArt

This artwork addresses the political and social struggles over women's bodies, critiques media representations, and employs confrontational text to engage viewers in feminist discourse. Created in the context of the 1989 Women's March on Washington for Reproductive Rights, it highlights issues of body autonomy and rights. Kruger's work remains powerful and relevant, encouraging resistance against oppressive societal norms.

Encouraging Activism and Promoting Social Change

Certain feminist artworks engage directly in activism, using posters, performances, and installations to raise awareness of urgent issues and encourage public involvement.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Guerrilla Girls, a group of activists known for wearing gorilla masks and using humor to address sexism in the art world, became prominent. They adopted names of deceased female artists and used various media to highlight gender disparities. One notable work, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? from 1989, features a modified image of Ingres's La Grande Odalisque with a gorilla mask, critiquing the underrepresentation of women artists and the prevalence of nude female subjects in major museums. Initially rejected as a billboard, it was displayed on city buses, reaching a broad audience and sparking widespread discussion.

Guerilla Girls
Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? by Guerrilla Girls, 1989. Source: (

Carolee Scheemann's Interior Scroll (1975) challenges societal taboos and empowers women through its bold performance art. Standing nude, Schneemann painted her body and slowly extracted a paper scroll from her vagina, reading its contents aloud. This act defiantly confronts discomfort with the female body and sexuality, reclaiming it as a potent symbol of creativity and knowledge. By making the internal external, Schneemann critiques traditional artistic norms dominated by male perspectives and asserts the validity of women's experiences. Interior Scroll remains a powerful feminist statement, encouraging women to assert their narratives and bodies within art and society, and sparking ongoing discussions about gender, embodiment, and agency in contemporary art.

From the 1990’s onwards, feminist artists’ creative output motivates young women artists and advocates for women's rights, providing them with a hopeful perspective on a brighter future that hopefully won't require as much struggle.

Today Feminist Art unites female perspectives across the globe as women persist in their strives for equal rights and representation in various cultural backgrounds, without any geographical or other biases. Many feminist artists have adopted an "intersectional" perspective: various aspects of their identity such as race, sexuality, disability, and more, alongside their gender identity in their artwork.

Lorenza Böttner (1959-1994), a transgender artist who became armless due to a childhood accident, is an excellent example of how feminist art can transcend traditional boundaries and embrace a broader spectrum of identities and experiences. Her work not only challenges gender norms but also addresses the intersection of disability and gender, making her a powerful figure in intersectional feminist art. Lorenza used her mouth and feet to create art. Her works, including dancing on canvases for impressionistic brushstrokes and morphing her body into classical art forms, pushed back against gender norms and disability perceptions. Through her use of mouth and feet to produce striking self-portraits and performances, Böttner overcame her disability's constraints and challenged traditional gender roles and the desexualisation of disabled bodies. Her art powerfully advocates for inclusive representation, motivating marginalized communities to proudly and resiliently accept their identities.

Wangenchi Muto’s intersectional approach integrates race, gender, and colonialism themes to challenge traditional representations of women, particularly Black women. Her artwork The New Ones, Will Free Us, featuring four bronze female figures on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's facade, combines African art, mythology, and futuristic aesthetics to symbolize strength and resilience. This work empowers women by providing visibility to marginalized identities, celebrating Black cultural heritage, and challenging stereotypes, promoting an inclusive vision of beauty and strength.

Active Viewing: Visual Journeys to Empowerment

Active viewing of an artwork can be an empowering journey by inviting a deep, personal connection with the piece that goes beyond mere observation. As we engage with the nuances of an artwork—its colors, textures, and symbolism—we embark on an introspective exploration that can reveal new insights about ourselves and our world. This mindful interaction fosters a sense of agency, as we interpret and find meaning within the art, validating our perspectives and emotions. Moreover, the act of active viewing can challenge preconceived notions and broaden our understanding, encouraging critical thinking and self-reflection. In this way, each artwork becomes a catalyst for personal growth and empowerment, enabling us to see and appreciate our unique voices and experiences.

Starting Point: The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo (1939)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo, 1939. Source: WikiArt

1. Cultural Pride and Identity

The painting presents two images of Kahlo's self: the one clad in Western-style clothes and the other in traditional Tehuana dress, reflecting Frida's pride in her indigenous Mexican heritage. This representation makes us ponder our own multifaceted identities and, by acknowledging each part of self, foster a sense of self awareness and resilience.

2. Celebrating Your Own Beauty

Celebrating our beauty involves appreciating ourselves fully, even the parts that are scarred or wounded. Frida Kahlo herself defied conventional beauty standards of her time, often highlighting her unibrow and mustache in her self-portraits. The Two Fridas continues this defiance by presenting her true self, scars and all. We can find empowerment in rejecting societal beauty norms and embracing their unique features, understanding that beauty is diverse and personal.

3. Building Resilience through Emotional Vulnerability

The painting was created during a difficult period in Kahlo's life, following her divorce from Diego Rivera. It represents her emotional struggle and resilience. We can draw inspiration from her ability to create profound art amidst pain, finding strength and creating beauty in our own lives, even during challenging times.

4. Asserting Autonomy and Agency

Kahlo's bold gaze and firm stance in The Two Fridas exude a sense of self-control and empowerment, despite her struggles. She remained defiantly autonomous and true to herself, providing us with a powerful example. Kahlo's resilience inspires us to embrace our independence and find empowerment in our own lives.

5. Using Art for Self-Expression and Advocacy

The Two Fridas demonstrates that art can be a potent tool for self-expression and advocacy. Kahlo used her self-portraits to explore her physical and emotional pain and solidify her identity as a female artist. We can harness the power of art in our own lives through creative expression, using it for catharsis, empowerment, and activism.

6. Nurturing Self-Love and Self-Compassion

Despite the visible pain and division, the two Fridas hold hands, symbolizing self-support and solidarity. This can inspire us to practice self-love and self-compassion, understanding that we can be our own source of strength and support.

Starting Point: Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero) by Barbara Kruger, 1986

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero) by Barbara Kruger, 1986. Source: WikiArt

Barbara Kruger's work We Don't Need Another Hero is a powerful example of feminist art that aims to challenge traditional notions of heroism and the patriarchal structures that uphold them. The piece features bold text overlaid on a black-and-white image, a hallmark of Kruger's style, which draws on the visual language of advertising and propaganda to convey critical messages.

1. Challenging Patriarchal Heroism

The phrase "we don't need another hero" directly questions the societal need for male-dominated narratives of heroism. Traditionally, heroes in popular culture and history are often men who embody traits like physical strength and dominance. By rejecting the need for "another hero," Kruger critiques this male-centric ideal and suggests that heroism can be found in everyday acts and in people who do not fit the traditional mold.

2. Visual and Textual Subversion

Kruger's use of text as the primary element in her art subverts the typical male gaze in visual culture. By prioritizing words over images, she directs our focus to the message itself, encouraging a critical engagement with the content rather than a passive consumption of visual pleasure. The stark, declarative nature of her text mimics advertising slogans, which often dictate societal norms and expectations. By co-opting this style, Kruger exposes and critiques how media shapes perceptions of gender and power.

3. Empowerment Through Identification

The message "we don't need another hero" can be empowering for women as it encourages them to recognize their own value and potential outside of patriarchal definitions of success and heroism. It suggests that women do not need to aspire to male-defined standards but can instead find strength and inspiration within themselves and their communities.

This empowerment is furthered by the inclusive "we," fostering a sense of collective identity and solidarity among women, which is a key aspect of feminist movements

4. Rejecting Stereotypes

By rejecting the traditional hero archetype, Kruger’s work encourages women to break free from restrictive gender roles and stereotypes. This empowerment comes from redefining what it means to be strong and influential, allowing women to see value in their own experiences and perspectives.

5. Promoting Critical Thinking

Kruger's art invites us to question and critique the media and cultural narratives that shape our understanding of the world. This critical approach is empowering as it encourages us to become more aware of how societal structures influence our lives and to seek out and create alternative narratives that better represent our experiences and aspirations.

Take the Lead: Become Art-powered through Active Engagement

Actively engaging in Feminist Art is a powerful way for women to find empowerment, transcending the barriers of art literacy. By participating in the creation, discussion, and appreciation of women's art, we can express our identities, challenge societal norms, and connect with a supportive community. This engagement doesn't require a formal art education; rather, it thrives on personal experience and emotional resonance. Through active involvement, we can harness the transformative power of art to advocate for their rights, share our stories, and inspire change, ultimately becoming "artpowered" individuals who influence the world around us.

These are some of the ways we can become actively involved in women's art today:

Consider Galleries and Exhibitions Locally

Galleries and art venues in many cities and towns focus on feminist artists and themes. Take a relaxed walk through these spaces and let yourself become engrossed by the array of artworks. Engage with people in the art world who are excited to share their insights and expertise.

Engage in Workshops and Community Happenings

Keep an eye out for workshops, seminars, and community events centered around feminist art and activism. Attending these events offers opportunities to gain new skills, network with like-minded individuals, and join a community of artists and advocates. Whether it’s a screen-printing workshop, or a panel discussion on intersectional feminism, there’s something for everyone.

Create Your Own Art

You can learn to create art without formal requirements or significant expense. Explore and push beyond your limitations by experimenting with various art forms such as oil painting, collage making, photography, and digital design. Your unique voice and style can inspire others and provide the impetus to get through tough times.

Participate Online

Social media is a powerful tool for feminist activism and art appreciation. Connect with feminist artists, collectives, and organizations on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Learn something new, follow artworks, and join conversations. Engage in online art competitions, post your creations, and use specific feminist artist hashtags to connect with the global feminist art community.



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We all have our stories—those moments, challenges, and triumphs that shape who we are. Have you ever found yourself feeling empowered through art?

Maybe a particular artwork spoke to you, or perhaps creating something with your own hands gave you a new sense of strength and identity.

I’d love to hear your experiences and stories. How has art touched your life and empowered you as a woman?

Share your journey in the comments below, and let's create a vibrant community where we inspire and uplift each other through the power of art.

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