Women House, an exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts inspired by the groundbreaking Womanhouse project of 1972, depicts women’s struggle to break free of the chains that bind them to the family home and gain the autonomy and independence they have craved since the dawn of homo sapiens.
Womanhouse, conceived by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro who co-founded the Feminist Art Program, was an abandoned home in Los Angeles that women artists renovated and filled with feminist art installations, sculptures and performances. One of the most famous is Eggs to Breasts, a pink kitchen in which the ceiling and walls are covered with fried egg sculptures. On the ceiling, the eggs look just like fried eggs, but gradually, as they make their way down to the floor, they turn into breasts.
These pioneers of feminism in the 1970s help put the first cracks in the façade that men were the stronger sex. Every time a woman succeeds on her own, without help from a man, another piece of the veneer comes off, uncovering more of the truth underneath.
In the ’70s, women’s years of frustration with being relegated to the kitchen, saddled with 100 percent of the child care and given an allowance with which to run the house reached a breaking point. They burned bras. They got abortions. They used birth control. They got divorced.
Today, women have more power. Women made up less than 45 percent of the labor force in the 1970s; by 2000, it was 60 percent.
Yet, the U.S. has never had a woman president while countries such as India, Israel and Argentina have. In a group of 41 developed nations, only the U.S. doesn’t have paid maternity leave. In many other developed nations, including Germany, Australia, Denmark and France, child care is subsidized by the government. Here in the U.S., where white women earn 81.9 percent of what white men earn, black women 67.7 percent and Hispanic women 62.2 percent, the burden of child care falls on women. They often make less money, so if one partner has to leave the workforce to take care of the children, it’s usually the woman.
Although more men do housework today than they did in the ’70s, women still do 33 percent more than men.
So like many oppressed groups, women are catching up, but they’re not there yet, and they’re still mad. Thus, Women House.
Among the exhibits are several that hark back to two groundbreaking artists: Louise Bourgeois, who created a series in the 1940s called Femmes Maisons that depicted the plight of women who were expected to make their homes nurturing places while simultaneously being devoured by them, and Niki de St. Phalle, whose 1960s Nana-maisons were giant sculptures of women you could physically enter.
One picture in Women House shows the white legs of what appear to be a mannequin in high heels with an entire house perched where you would expect the top half of her body to be. A sculpture of the torso of a woman — head, arms and legs removed but breasts intact, all covered in a sheepskin-like fabric — has a house perched on her abdomen.
A series of four black-and-white photos shows a woman ironing in three of them, and in the last one, she is dressed in black, face covered with a veil, laid out on the ironing board.
Several miniature houses depict different scenarios, each with the underlying message of the home being a man’s castle but a woman’s prison.
Some of the art elicits laughter, while other pieces bring tears.
If you have a free afternoon, see what the people who are holding up the other half of the sky are thinking.
Women House, National Museum of Women in the Arts, through May 28; 1250 New York Ave. NW; 202-783-5000; Hours:10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 12-5 p.m. Sunday; $10 adults, $8 students and seniors.