In fall of 1971, artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro co-founded the Feminist Art Program at CalArts. The program was the first of its kind, and they decided to start with with a project called Womanhouse. The professors and their 25 students transformed a run-down Hollywood mansion into an enormous and immersive feminist art exhibition.
The program then was brand new — so new, the studios for the feminist art students were still under construction.
Rather than wait, Chicago and Shapiro enlisted their students to find a space of their own, where they could work in what Chicago called an “exclusively female environment.”
A group of students found an empty, deteriorating mansion on a residential street in Hollywood. They sent a letter to the owner of the house, who made them an offer: they could use the house rent-free for three months, but once Womanhouse was over, it would be demolished.
The owner had a deal, and the students got to work.
For Chicago, one of the most important feminist artists of the 20th century, the renovations were just as important as the art projects that followed. In an essay about Womanhouse, she wrote, “One of the goals of the program is to teach women to use power equipment, tools and building techniques. The House provided a natural context for the women to learn these things.”
With just two months to revamp all 17 rooms of the neglected house, the group had their work cut out for them.
"So we worked really, really hard for a few months. We repaired the doors and painted and made the house, sort of... not habitable, but usable, with our sweat equity," says Christine Rush, a graduate of the program.
An essential part of the art-making process for Chicago and Shapiro was an exercise called “consciousness raising,” which was sort of like group therapy: participants sit in a circle, a topic is introduced and each person is given a chance to speak.
"When we did consciousness raising it was of course about women, and about us as women. It brought out a lot of stories and crying and memories," says Rush. "And a lot of that became our artwork."
These group sessions were often emotional and tense. Mira Schor, another graduate of the program, remembers a consciousness raising session where Chicago asked all of the women to join hands in a circle and chant the word “mommy.” Then she told them to imagine being at their mother’s funeral. Schor says it left her in tears.
Chicago was always eager to talk about sensitive subjects. And sometimes she got pushy about it.
"Judy was very dynamic and she just made everybody pissed off. I remember yelling at Judy once and just getting really mad at her and then she said, 'Well, let’s go have a fist fight, Chris.' So we went into the theater room and we started… I really tried to slug her," says Rush. "I’m sure she would have done me in if... but I was really angry with her."
When they weren’t working on raising their consciousness, the women devoted almost every hour of their time to making art in Womanhouse.
The pieces had names like “Menstruation Bathroom” and “Bridal Staircase,” and most of the work took up entire rooms. Robin Weltch painted every inch of the kitchen a bright, Pepto Bismol pink and then covered the walls in fake fried eggs that slowly transformed into breasts as they climbed up the wall. She called it “Nurturant Kitchen.”
"I remember watching them respond to Judy’s Kotex room, which for me was shocking anyway, because there was a Kotex hanging out with blood on it, and I found having a period gross. But I was so glad that she did it, it was so brave," says Rush. "And these men, they just would look at it and go, 'Oh gross,' or 'Awful, ugh, yuck.'”
There was performance art too, like Faith Wilding's "Waiting":
On January 30, 1972, Womanhouse opened to the public — allowing only female visitors on the first day.
Around 10,000 people came to see Womanhouse in the months that followed. Time magazine did an article titled “Bad-Dream House.” An LA Times article described it as a “lair of female creativity.” For many visitors, this was the first time they’d ever seen feminist art.
"It was just something that had never been done before, and we pulled it off. And it was really pretty exciting and wonderful," says Rush. "I’m very proud of it."