Doing Art “Work”: A Socialist History of Women’s History Month

This article was originally published on curina.co in March 2021.

Contested Origins

International Women’s Day proved particularly important in communist Russia because the march of women demanding bread on March 8th, 1917 sparked the February Revolution that established the new communist regime. And as Russia became the purveyor of communism, Eastern European countries, China, and Cuba also adopted the holiday. Some European countries still recognize its socialist origins like “Frauenkampftag” in German or “Kvindenes international kampdag” in Danish.

Eventually, the United Nations officially recognized the holiday in 1975. By recommending that member nations choose any day of the year to celebrate women, and by assigning particular themes like “Empower Rural Women — End Hunger and Poverty” (2012), the UN divorced International Women’s Day from the history of feminist demonstrations and made it more politically neutral.

Has Socialism been good to women?

This awareness was most obvious in the propaganda posters where women, depicted in groups hand in hand or as a giant figure towering over the landscape, are encouraged to escape “domestic slavery” and participate in the workforce. Although their headscarves were meant to symbolize peasanthood, women are no longer depicted with soft features or passive position — instead, they look robust and ready to spring into action.

As producers of art also, women artists thrived in the early years of Russian Communism when artists in general enjoyed more freedom and defined the major trends of the European Avant-Garde at the time.

Sculptor Vera Mukhina created the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman that represented the Soviet Union at the Paris Expo. It was the world’s first welded sculpture true to the Constructivist spirit of erasing the line between “fine” art and industry, and was extolled by the likes of Pablo Picasso.

Natalia Goncharova, Pillars of Salt (1908)

Natalia Goncharova was a painter and costume designer who influenced movements from Cubism to Futurism by deconstructing objects into geometric looking parts. Her partner was Mikhail Larionov, another key player in the Russian Avant-Garde who founded the experimental group Jack of Diamonds. Their partnership was very unconventional for the time in that they lived together unmarried for over a decade and experimented together new forms of art like painting or tattooing on their friends’ bodies.

Outside Russia, film director Wang Ping in China broke with the more passive roles women played in cinema as costume designers or actresses, creating films with female characters with dynamic emotional lives. Her films like “The Story of Liu Bao Village” (1957) or “The Eternal Signal” (1958) depart from “feminist” films from male directors like Xie Jin that idealized the trope of emancipated women.

The pitfall of the characterization of women under socialist countries of the past is that it recognized women only so far as their adoption of traditionally “masculine” qualities, and so long as they complied with the increasingly dictatorial agendas of the government. The liberation that they promised was less liberation and a more re-channeling of women’s labors towards a different state vision.

But Feminism certainly can be socialist.

Socialist Feminists see a parallel between class inequality where capitalists hold land and other material conditions for production and gender inequality where men organize subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination upon women based on threat of physical domination. In other words, we shouldn’t focus on the illusory opposition between genders per se but patterns of alienation and objectification that inform it and many other social divisions.

As Barbara Ehrenreich states in her essay “What Is Socialist Feminism?”:

“Class struggle occurs in every arena where the interests of classes conflict, and that includes education, health, art, music, etc. We aim to transform not only the ownership of the means of production, but the totality of social existence.”

What does that mean for practicing artists?

Martha Rosler, a self-proclaimed Democratic-socialist artist, became known for her photo collages juxtaposing women doing household tasks — a scene you would see in a lifestyle magazine — with war and violence. Not only is domesticity as female virtue in itself a policing of women’s bodies, it also conceals the physical violence caused by toxic masculinity.

Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes from “Bringing Home the War: House Beautiful,” 1967–72.

It means that art can be praxis.

Since the 70’s, certain ways of presenting art have become synonymous to protest.

In 1968, the Whitney neglected to include any black artists in its period survey show. Mobilized by the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the same year, several artist groups protested the erasure.

Barbara Chase Riboud with her Malcom X sculptures.

Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL), led by Faith Ringgold, made it possible for black women artists Barbara Chase Riboud and Bettye Saar to be included in the next Whitney Biennial.

Activist group the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) staged a counter-exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, under the title Invisible Americans: Black Art of the ’30s.

It means art can bring attention to domestic and emotional labor.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles put on a performance accompanying her “Maintenance Art Manifesto” at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of scrubbing the floors to highlight the invisible labors often designated to women in contrast to the highly visible and reified labor of creating art.

Sources and further readings

https://daily.jstor.org/the-socialist-origins-of-international-womens-day/

https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/history-behind-international-womens-day

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/international-womens-day-socialist-feminism-history-805213/

https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-15-spring-2009/short-life-equal-women

https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2019/04/10/women-as-creators-and-subjects-in-soviet-art/

http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html

https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/ehrenreich-barbara/socialist-feminism.htm

http://www.historyisaweapon.org/defcon1/chisocfem.html

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