As suggested with the comparison between Kelly’s and Chicago’s approaches, 1970s and 1980s feminist art discourse was overdetermined by debates about the body, debates often posed and/or perceived as polarized into “essentialist” and “anti-essentialist” camps. The so-called “essentialist” feminists (usually identified with the West Coast of the US and/or with figures such as Judy Chicago and Lucy Lippard) supposedly based their work and theories on a concept of an “essential” femininity linked to the anatomical female body; the “anti-essentialists” (linked to Griselda Pollock, Mary Kelly, and others working in London and New York) tended to argue in favor of the idea of a constructed and contingent femininity. Both “sides” of the debate often caricatured the other.14

However, those who argued in favor of representing or performing the female body as a means of reclaiming agency and those who prohibited the mobilization of the female body as necessarily fetishistic were not as diametrically opposed as they often perceived themselves as being. In retrospect it is clear that both the “essentialist” feminists such as Chicago and the “anti-essentialist” feminists such as Kelly shared certain assumptions. Both, for example, continued to work from oppositional models that ultimately devolved back to the concept of masculine power and a belief in the inexorability of structures of fetishism or, more broadly speaking, of objectification. Both tended to prioritize gender as a separable category of human experience–as one not necessarily conditioned or affected by other identifications such as race (although, it must be said, Kelly and Griselda Pollock were adamant about theorizing gender in relation to class–but until Pollock’s work in the 1990s, neither addressed race and ethnicity).

While these artists often supplied their own impassioned theories, such as Kelly’s important essays and interviews from the 1970s and 1980s or Chicago’s important essay “Female Imagery” (1972), co-authored with Miriam Schapiro,15 there was in fact a larger theoretical context for such work that explains the tendency to assume a binary logic of gender and to ignore the intersectionality of gender with other aspects of identification–a paradox given that the two most influential theories of identity in the immediate post WWII period both theorized racial difference (and one specifically in relation to gender difference): Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex, translated into English and widely disseminated in North America with its translation in the early 1950s, and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks of 1952. Both Beauvoir and Fanon drew on Hegelian theory–particularly the model of the Master/Slave relation–to explore similar issues of structural and conceptual discrimination. Beauvoir explicitly shifts Sartre’s neutral description of an “existentialist ethics” whereby the “subject” throws himself into being, transcending his immanence and accepting responsibility for his agency in the world, exploring the fundamental gender bias built into this system:

Every individual concerned to justify his existence feels that his existence involves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freely chosen projects…. Now, what peculiarly signalizes the situation of women is that she–a free and autonomous being like all human creatures–nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to stabilize her as object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed and forever transcended by another ego…which is essential and sovereign.16

Even as Beauvoir theorized the othering of woman through a master/slave logic that functioned to produce man as “sovereign,” so Fanon described the experience of living in France with a body perceived as racially other: “Sealed into that crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others…the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye…. I burst apart. Now the fragments have been put together again by another self.”17 The poignancy and power of these models lay in part in the brilliant way in which they took existing dominant philosophical ideas–the self/other structure initially defined in Hegel and refined and expanded within existentialism–and, with a passion and eloquence born of a sense of personal political urgency, noted that this dichotomy is never neutral but, in fact, highly charged in terms of perceived identifications linked to the body being othered. The primacy of visuality in these models of self and other indicates the importance of visual arts theories and practices to any conceptualization of how structures of identification function culturally.


  1. This tendency came to a head with the contentious summative article by Thalia Gouma Peterson and Patricia Matthews, “The Feminist Critique of Art and Art History,” Art Bulletin 69.3 (1987), pp. 326-57.
  2. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, “Female Imagery” (1972), reprinted in Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Jones, pp. 40-43.
  3. Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex (1949), translated by H.M. Parshley (NY: Knopf, 1952), xxviii.
  4. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (1952), translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 109.
Further Reading