Progress is always halting, as Chicago would be the first to mention. But she has, it seems, never given up, from the time when, at thirty, she started a women’s art program, at the time unknown, at California State University at Fresno. A few years later, when she was teaching at CalArts, she and Miriam Shapiro with their students created Womanhouse, which will be displayed this spring at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. Unfortunately, the museum is retitling it Women House, which raises a host of questions.
We women very rarely own our houses due to the generations-long economic injustices we suffer. Women still earn, countrywide, seventy-one cents versus the dollar men earn at the same jobs. Banks have been historically reluctant to make down payment loans to women seeking to buy a house without a cosigner, expected to be a wage-earning man. Santa Fe is a sterling exception since a larger proportion of women here own their own houses outright than in any other town or city in this country.
Chicago and Shapiro’s original title, Womanhouse, seemed to acknowledge this fact: a house owned by a woman is a rarity in reality but as a symbol, it has great potency. Can a woman “own” a house she doesn’t in fact own? Can she freely create the mixed-media installations, hang the radical art, and offer the performances which in the original occupied bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and bathrooms in an abandoned house in Hollywood—even if she wanted to and could afford it?
It seems unlikely. The other name on the deed might deter her.
But then how many of us would have the sheer gumption to describe ourselves as “troublemakers,” as Chicago does in The Times interview, comfortably and without hesitation.
Change, it seems to me, at any level and in any place, only comes with troublemaking and troublemakers. Yet we, as women at this moment in time, are so often expected to help to make things work: soothe troubled waters and troubled psyches and get the job—whatever it is, from washing a floor to running a government—to work.
As a woman remarked after the recent election of a mayor here in Santa Fe, “He knows how to work with everybody, he doesn’t make trouble.”
Yet whether we dare, or do not dare, with our work and our voices and our actions to make trouble, we are living in the midst of trouble, nationally and globally, trouble that no amount of soothing the waters is going to solve.
Anne Sexton, an unjustly forgotten poet of the 1960’s, described the old way of women and houses—the way Chicago and Shapiro and many others have fought to change. Sexton’s poem “Housewife” goes
Some women marry houses.
It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down…
I plan to go to Washington to see Womanhouse before it closes on May 28th.