You are here

Changing Housework: Feminist Art and the Universal Housewife

To take on patriarchal culture and the conventional domains of men, as second-wave feminists made it their challenge, was to reject outright the default roles and labor of housewife and mother that capitalist values, market interests, and privatization pushed them into.

by Molly Hankwitz


The job of housework is not a glamorous past time, no matter how it is dressed up on TV or in a women's magazine. Housework is, however, a task performed and to some extent ritualized in every culture and found among animal and insect species, too. Above all the job of housework is a necessity for sanitary habitation of space. But in the overly commercial world of media and entertainment, the role that housework plays in the development of the spectacle of "society" has a double-edged meaning for many feminists. It is used to embody cultural ideals of womanhood and is a symbol and evidence of our oppression as labor within patriarchy. From the first ladies of English manors, managing budgets and business, to the Victorian daughter and mother embroidering lace surrounded by the moralistic universe of hearth, family, and God, to images of busy suburban American housewives in the 1950s buying appliances, soap powders and busing kids round, housework and the domestication of womens' lives has been glorified and largely defined by male players. The construction of women as housewives has been celebrated across multiple popular platforms overtime since the nineteenth century, from Godey's Ladies Books to glossy grocery store magazines, TV sit-coms and soap operas, and TV advertising.

The modernized, idealized housewife of 1950s America concerned emerging feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s. In the case of 'her', and frequently through this second-life in advertising, the idealized housewife took on a universal form through globalized TV and in magazine commercials where she is celebrated for scrubbing bathrooms until sparkling, consuming bleach, Kleenex, aerosols, and paper towels with a no-cost-too great mentality and endless sense of time. Her duties have been both to clean and, in the case of TV advertising, to encounter a variety of imaginary companions from Mr. Clean to the Tidy Bowl guy and little animated "scrubbing bubbles". The introduction of these imaginary friends and companions in the housework war sexualize and infantalize the housewife's universe. Even in the midst of scrubbing, an heroic male-gendered genie-like counterpart will actually be doing the task, or, in the case of moustached "bubbles" will be keeping her company and reassuring her. This modernized housewife's agenda is to kill trillions of unwanted germs while engaging in a intimate relationship with cleansers. What does this fiction of capitalist profit-making mean for women's lives?

On the other side of the national homemaking spectacle generated by Mad Men style 1950s TV advertising and the building of the American dream, is the reality of housework as a reasonably strenuous, laborious set of time-consuming chores, necessary to inhabitants. This labor, meted out in moments of spare time, or inclined to pile up and be done intensely in one go, has historically fallen on women servants sharing the burden. The single family unit of suburbia, however, and its representation in popular culture has instilled a set of specific divisions of labor according to gender. Until very recently the physical labor of housework was more likely to be done by women than by men. This division of labor diminished in popular culture after the 1960s women's movement. In many stratas of society there is both greater acceptance of working mothers and wives, as well as for men in household roles sharing duties. Historically the labor that fell on  or was demanded of wives, mothers, and daughters, as been shifted into a new paradigm; a household economy more regularly shared by men when it comes to housework. Those who can afford to hire someone to clean or care for children might still be caught up in forms of housework of a higher order in terms of how their womanhood was defined. Entertaining, for instance, would be the choicemaking duty of a wealthier woman in turn bringing about the spectre of class divisions among women in terms of the assignment of work. And there is another factor which must be described when it comes to the spaces and effects of housework labor upon womens' bodies. Risks to one's physical health from long-term proximity to detergents, molds, and toxic chemicals are frequently understated amidst observance of more psychologically deadening aspects of domestic labor. However, the physical effects must not be overlooked especially when housework is examined internationally and in third-world countries where women and girls regularly come into contact with polluted water and human waste whilst collecting water. In many parts of the world where water must be boiled, it is women who make contact with its polluted source. And while green products have emerged to make toxins less of a concern, it is probably necessary to consider health risks for women over 40 who grew up around and used harsh chemicals for housework at some point in their lives.

Class and Housework: Origins of Modern Ideas of Houswives

In feudal and later in Victorian societies, housework, like farm and field work, was conducted by an underclass of serfs and servants.  Living on the estate, in the manor or brownstone, this underclass performed a range of duties required for the upkeep a large home and wealthy family. This servant class would be mixed gender and jobs were relegated based on abilities. Men would take on outdoor work and heavier lifting, while women servants did meal preparation, washing up, ironing, maintenance of clothing, preparation of baths, nursing, child care, as well as related heavier work such as mopping floors and cleaning carpets and drapes. Strict hierarchies within this servant class kept household staff in line and assured a clock-work routine to chores. In return, serfs inhabited small cottages and land or later, the unseen back quarters in Victorian homes. Such proximity between classes brought about a variety of documented inter-class relationships such as affairs, prostitution, and rape. 

In 20th c. post-war America, suburban family life took precedence as the preferred social unit in the American Dream, and it must be recognized that this particular social order was as much a function of hierarchy and structure as it was deemed natural and normal. In the literature, popular culture, Hollywood film, medical, legal and political professions, ideal families were described in great and controlling detail. White-collar Dads were supposed to go to work and their wives, often highly educated themselves as Betty Friedan pointed out in her seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, were to perform homemaking duties from child rearing to arranging family social activities, shopping, and, of course, housework. These ideal suburban wives participated in suburban life as members of local organizations - an early form of volunteerism -- while their ideal husbands made a living in the city. Indeed, Mad Men depicts the 1950s split between home on Long Island and the commuter train dramas of husbands going to and from the city. Their wives, kept and keeping comfortable, in serene homes in the suburbs were required to embody that private serenity, one reason, which, when psychiatric issues developed for women, the answer was to calm and suppress them with drugs.  

Feminists, sometimes the daughters of stifled and oppressed mothers themselves, have long sought answers to their own lives in pursuit of their mothers' predicaments. We have widely criticized the unequal power relations and divisions of labor expected from women in a privatized household and nuclear family. In this idealizing 1950's paradigm, salary and career were had by a middle-class man providing for his family, while his wife managed that money and the household and children. Thus, to critique the oppression of women in patriarchal culture is first and foremost to understand that middle-class women had similar and different challenges than did women with families and partners in lower-income brackets. Economic freedom from dependency upon men providers is a commonality of these two groups however, despite relatively different circumstances. It is also to understand why 1960s feminists were bent upon organizing women across lines of privatizing patriarchy and why capitalist media and consumer market interests mostly defined by men about, not by, women (the time of Mad Men's Madison Avenue) continued to create idealizing roles reserved for women in the spectacle of everyday life. That is to say, why advertisements routinely portrayed women joyously engaged in household drudgery with the help of products and as purveyors of cars, appliances, and furniture. To challenge these roles prescribed by the post-war American economy was for feminists to consciously step out of them into an unknown space; a new space...the space of feminist art.

Pernicious culprit in the maddening devaluation of women's bodies, advertising, in its zealous association of 'her' with housework in order to sell, sell, sell, has long objectified women in grotesque and embarrassing images. TV advertising, in particular because of its reach and its power as electronic image, is particularly awful. The relentless positioning of womens' bodies within paradigms of housework and objectifying us in ads supporting popular TV shows to be watched at home with family, entrenched these sexist  perspectives in the very young and in the lives of men. Womens bodies are routinely embarrassed and degraded in adverstising where we are passive consumers. Yet, with or without these widely-spread and witnessed images, exactly who will do housework and how it will get done remains an ongoing dialogue in most homes. We learn from our own families who is supposed to do what and in turn teach our children. Or we spend years fighting the sense that we should be doing something else with our time, while our first response is to tidy up or wash the dishes. Housework has a labor history in which women have held central roles. Language of households contains the values of division of labor, domestic vocabularies, and methods. This domain where housework, has on the one hand oppressed women in terms of their time, while on the other hand given them a modicum of power due to the nature of the work, has a multiplicity of factors affecting womens' lives. We have shared the construction of "femininity", and its burdens; we have shared in resistance to its oppression.

Thus, while the need for housework persists across all classes, the idea of and idealization of housewifery, has shifted. The women's movement of the 1960s brought about radically new ideas about women and work. Our economy has also changed to accept more working women, greater need for mothers' to work, and greater acceptance of single professional women. In turn numerous industries have cropped up to support this diversifying landscape of womens' lives. The stay-at-home mom now gets attention in womens' magazines alongside products for working women and articles on professional pay gaps for women and men. Househusbands and stay at-home-dad are acceptable roles for men.  Service class workers conduct work as a business in which they live separately from clients. These changing roles within families and households and perceived changes in the production of housework as a capitalistic idea is seen in new roles assigned in ads as well as in a range of products targeting homemakers who have less time and therefore require ligher, more disposable tools such as the Swifter mop, a lightweight dusting tool, with disposable wipes. I argue this is an appeal to a new generation of homemakers who are perceived as not wanting to spend their time on housework even if they, usually women, are most likely to be doing the task. Ads for the Swifter show old-style bucket mops being tossed for this lithe, mobile-headed and slim, elegant highly-specialized gadget.

Art and Media: Presentation of Womanhood as Housewife and Homemaker

Fine art presents few scenarios in which the chores of housework and servants have been recorded. In some cases contemporary feminist artists have tried to move right into their own labor space making art about waitressing, child care, pregnancy, and so forth.

Fine art has historically been a mechanism of the upper classes and in a pre-photographic era, the wealthy recorded their own existence. Intimate interior spaces of embroidery making, child care, and light housework have been rendered as in the early works of Claude Monet, where arguably gentility is the theme and mood expressed by the painter. Interior After Dinner (1868), and The Luncheon (1868) both depict servants in the household. Vermeer's The Milkmaid (1660) is also a classic expression of dutiful silent service. This domestic servant is quietly isolated pouring the milk. There is a serenity and duty to her. In Le Dentelliere (The Lacemaker) by Pascal Laine, made into a film in 1977, the novel has as its central theme a voyeuristic sexualizing of a woman domestic worker, encountered as  "The Laundress, "The Water Girl", and "The Lacemaker", Domestic craft and housework in all of these works of art is performed and rendered as an act of sincere devotion while at the same time perspiring servitude -- the body engrossed in labor-- is also sexualized. And, as history will have it, women in the domestic sphere were frequently accosted sexually by their masters, or worked  outright as prostitutes among them. Affairs between upper class gentlemen and maids were not uncommon.

By the mid-nineteenth century and the arrival of photography, domestic scenes began to figure more frequently in the realms of art. A developing middle class also concentrated the necessity for detailed accounts and even obsessions with household craft, manners, and style. By the end of that same century, the promotion of idealized womanhood was deeply embedded in the Victorian psyche, along with the virtues of cleanliness and purity. Arguably, the Victorian era, in both England and the United States, contributed to the tendency for popular constructions of "homemakers" in the culture and since then, marriage and the obligations of child bearing have evolved as a central theme in the middle class. Prescribed social roles and the fashions and trends and expectations that went with them, until very recently, helped to shape our feelings and thoughts about our appearance, our attitudes towards other women, our expectations in conjugal and familial duties and the ingrained concept that our lives were not our own. Moreover, popular iconographies of women's oppression were intimately bound to conservative values: concepts of rightness in moral sexuality and nationalism.

Pervasive mass media from slick magazines to electronic media was not invented until after the turn of the nineteenth century into the 20th. These media forms were part of an American post-World War II nationalism which pushed family values and the American dream through a hyper-industry of new, even, futuristic goods. Multimedia and the World Wide Web, social media, and mobile communications which have all come much later than print, telephone, television play additional multiple, pervasive/invasive roles in advertising, information, and trade. The stereotypes which come with marketing persist despite appearing to be changed by both multiculturalism and feminism. Both popular culture and the commercialization of commodities continue produce the association of women and girls with housework and housekeeping. An industry of women's magazines is a multimillion dollar economy which redirects monocultural ideas into diversified markets where women and their post-womens' movement income will spend. The working career-woman-who-also-has-kids is a target audience and many products have been created to assist her. I would argue this is a popularizing of a new kind of housework which may or may not have fathers and partners involved, but which is located in multitasking and multi-occupational mindsets from driver to worker to mother to lover. In all our many guises, women are a great multiple-niche audience to which products are pitched and images of women include our privatization in traditionally balanced home as homemaker, or as members of households where there is shared work around family and we have both career and motherhood. So, have we moved away from a more mono-traditional image-making of women to recognize a diversity of roles we now may play for male-dominated capitalist/corporate fantasy?

TV families come in all colors and seeing men helping out with household chores is not uncommon in televised and You Tube ads. The sensitive man playing opposite liberated woman is one Madison Avenue response to the womens' movement, but in many commercials and print ads women are still overly associated with housework, paraded in commercials as the purveyors of household products, and our labor as homemakers is both celebrated widely and ameliorated as well through a range of diversifications in the domains of "craft", "easy quick dinners", and "family time." Housework in any of its glamorous or not so glamourous forms is trotted out and purveyed as attached to notions of achievement: personal satisfaction in marriage and motherhood, status at work, personal pleasure and in analogies to sophisticalted fields of human endeavor such as science, therapy, or art. Needless to say this is all within a spectacle of mainstreamed heterosexist behaviors in the post-modern and contemporary America aimed at those with disposable income and social aspiration. It's never far from Mad Men.

An Ever Changing Representation of the Modern Family

While ideas of creative housework and diversified home sciences occupy central positions in today's polymorphous imagination of womens' lives, we realize we are being sold a social order that tells us how "she" exists within it. This role prescription has been successfully flipped back upon itself by feminist art where the artist may identify with or critique the relations of assigned power.

From the late nineteenth century onward, American feminists re-negotiated domestic labor. Architectural historian Dolores Hayden in The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities (1981) documents rarely studied American feminist space, designed and visualized around collectivized labor relations for laundry, cooking, and child care. This radically political work of feminist activists, architects, homemakers, socialists and socialites decried the lack of autonomy for womein when individuated and privatized through an economy of single-family work. Instead, these pioneering, socialist thinking women claimed a new space in which radical political and social revisions to society would lead to womens' liberation.

America rapidly changed communications culture after World War II. The period after the war brought us greater long-distance telephony, the domestic television set, and a rising young professional class. Later, in the 1960s the Internet was born and with the Space Races,  new technologies such as computers and video enabled American women artists to empower themselves amidst the the dominant Other of patriarchy, sexism, and an entertainment-media culture dominated by men.

Particularly in media culture, as Nancy Fraser's work has pointed out, feminist thought helped us reinvent the public sphere. We were a new audience unaccepting of being lumped into a universalized audience envisioned through a mono-perspective by men.

In visual art, the arrival of the video camcorder and consumer video editing deck meant women artists had an electronic medium with which to combat television commercialization of our bodies. Lynn Hershman's very early work Lorna, an installation on a laser disk, speaks to the experimentation going on among women artists with electronic art in image making. In the growing context of commercial TV advertising, depictions of the homemaker and housewife and the idealization of housework as a real-time occupation for the creative and trendy woman, electronic media provided some parity. Not only could we network our thoughts about patriarchy quickly but the images that could be made and seen on monitors could critique aspects of slick TV images themselves. The little woman, trapped in a talking box, cliche puppet of commodity fetishism, was able to escape the frame. 

Taking Our Bodies Back from the Television Set and Male-dominated Art History

One of my favorite recent experimental animations is Deborah Kelly's Lying Women a short film in which dozens upon dozens of Manet's Olympias are cut-out and dance around the screen assisted by live action hands and an awesome incantatory drumbeat sound track. This film, I love, because it follows the lines of such an important and completely radical trajectory in feminist critique of art history which began, as it were, when women artists turned cameras upon themselves and gave up making art for an audience of male critics altogether. Conceptual art, what Lucy Lippard called "the dematerialization of the art object", to some extent pop art and certainly early video art all challenged the dominance of sculpture and painting. For feminists, these were fields in which women models were passive and objectified, men dominated the literature, and the art market made money further entrenching these ideas these ideas. In comes the womens' movement pushing women's bodies and our lives to the forefront and artists had to work and bend the rules.

Conceptual, pop, and video art while creating new publics for the reception of artwork, also collapsed familiar high art boundaries of the surface of the frame and admitted new surfaces and spaces to the work of art. From these seminal movements we get artists books, happenings and performance art, as well as the admittance of non-traditional art forms such as installation and multiples into the picture. In all of this, arguably, the rise of commercial television and its ads had growing effect upon artists and critique of television as  mind-control, opium for the masses, poison to children's brains emerged. Artists, having obtained camcorders, however, and dabbling in electronic forms resisted the narrative aspect of TV and the banality of the commercial. At the same time an alluring light box filled with art was not undesirable. While mass media reinforced the system of oppression already aimed at the exploitation and objectification of our bodies, the ability to distribute art and ideas found in electronic media was profoundly valuable. Media arts culture would become a complex mirror, a reality into which we could insert ourselves. In this climate of critique, feminists took to video and in some cases, such as the Ariadne Project by Suzanne Lacey and Leslie Labowitz, these women artists used the practicality of inexpensive, easily reproducible video to notify their neighborhoods and successfully combat rape in East LA. A project such as MWI: Many Women Involved directed by Carla Kirkwood might follow in the footsteps of Lacy and Labowitz's expanded vision of artmaking into public space through use of video, performance, and billboards. Early video also allowed women artists easy access to view their own performance. Someone like Miranda July, among others, has investigated this first-person surveillance in her long career acting out stories of womens' lives. Moreover, this medium allowed women artists and feminist thinkers the critical space to record and playback television such that it could be easily written about and not lost to the eternal ether. Much early experimentation was a date with the portrayal of women; to find a language with which to speak ourselves.

No Longer on Her Own: Thrust into a Universe of Ideological Oppression

After World War II, American women who had been defenders of the homeland on their own with the USO, pistol-lessons, letter writing, communications and manufacturing jobs, dealt with post-war nation-building demands. Marriage, childrearing, and home- making would occupy the lives of many American women for whom the care of husbands returning to jobs after the war would become a paramount duty and the 1950s and 1960s American commercial media culture pushed these roles. Suburban America would act as a breeding ground for family values which in turn could be the crux of ideas spewing forth from TV sets and soaked up by housewives, children and husbands. In the ideal world of this universal conception of "home" homemakers would experiment with new ways to make dinner more enjoyable and their families happy.

However, the 1950s were so controlled in terms of social hierarchies that women were understandably oppressed by the partriarchal values of the American family. Unequal pay, lack of opportunities for higher education, the culture of rape, and demand for reproductive freedom started to take hold in the 1960s. Women wanted...out. Books like Our Bodies, Ourselves (1972) produced in the Boston Women's Health Collective (and costing 35 cents a copy) were widely distributed through ad hoc networks coast to coast. I believe this one book can be credited alone with raising feminist consciousness nationally when it comes to our body parts, erogenous zones, favored birth control methods; the importance of self-examination of our genitals and breasts. Later, feminist artists such as Lynne Sachs, in her film House of Science and Annie Sprinkle's shocking perforamances projecting images of her cervix, or Carolee Schneeman pulling a film out of her vagina would tow the line of reason when it came to new and comprehensively non-oppressive views of womens' bodies. Feminist desire depicted in books such as these initially and growing in purposeful rejection of patriarchy lit the minds' of women across America, who starated linking with groups of women outside their own suburbs and into international domains. If art were to be feminist, it would not be made by, for, and about men's bodies or ideas. Women's art would generate spaces and voices for women everywhere within society. It would be a powerful political tool.

In rejection of roles reserved for women in the society of the spectacle, much feminist art started out questioning exactly how we were intellectually and politically colonized within conventions of male-dominated art history, Hollywood film, and the widespread popular media culture. Using techniques such as appropriation, performance, and performance along with new media such as video, feminist artists broke a kind of ideological bondage from which womens' bodies--nude, silent, reclining, passive, silent--could distinguish itself from the demands of the male spectatorship engaged in male-dominated media culture. The critique was biting, intelligent, witty, and oddly familiar as a personal account of domestic space. In 'Hey! Chicky!!', Nina Sobel's 1978 video of herself playing with a dead chicken, the kitchen is the setting. Thus, ideas of womens' space were teased away from TV and Hollywood cliche. They travelled by ether, mail, short story and zine. They were taught and expanded the universe of all women. Through conscious efforts to address ordinary women though, in their own habitats and through their own stories of their oppression, feminist artists also built valuable new and non-traditional audiences for the art and broke many political as well as cultural boundaries. 

The Waitresses a performance created by LA performer and professor, Jerry Allyn (with Cheri Gaulke) and art group the Sisters of Survival (c. 1977) from the Los Angeles Women's Building used their performances about their lives as waitresses to connect with non-art educated women about the value and conditions of their own lives. Not only did this type of performance work give voice to many women who would elsewise be silenced, but they drew attention to the lives of women and the difference between our portrayal on film or in TV and the portrayal of ourselves, by ourselves. In film studies, Laura Mulvey's seminal Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1978) among other writings, contributed an identifiable theory for this quest.

Art historians Lucy Lippard, Bay Area based performance historian Moira Roth and others, were deeply concerned with womens' bodies and feminist art. Their scholarship helped build a foundation for women's studies in higher-level institutions and publishing. On the West Coast, the L.A. Women's Building fostered a community of women art makers and influenced men professors to create the first-ever feminist art programs in the University of California system. WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition (Constance Butler of MOCA/L.A., curator, 2007) traced these connections between art making, feminist politics and the intellectual development of feminist art history from 1965 to 1980, a seminal period of growth for women even at the international scale. The exhibition "includes the work of 120 artists from the United States, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Comprising work in a broad range of media including painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, and performance art".

From this emerging embodiment of place within art, women artists analyzed and tried to articulate what they could about the gender roles into which they were put as well as the fact of being born female: bodies, body parts (On a Couch of Her Own Design, 1966, Yayoi Kusama, Japanese; Cancer Series, Jo Spence, 1982, British), birthing, girlhood, child rearing, labor, marriage, medical health, memories, motherhood, mothers, (Post-partum Document, Mary Kelly, 1973-79, British), psychoanalysis, sex, power, space, and time. These women were connecting to a feminist space based in the culture of women's work and bodies; to what women thought of and wanted our culture to be  as a viable vision of social change. These artists wrote and made art about everything from personal to cultural expectations of "beauty", moreover, about the paucity of gender as defined by male-dominated culture.

In her 2009 article "Iconographic and Iconologic Art Practices with the Hoover: Feminist Artistic Subversion and the Female Body and the Household", (2009) feminist curator Evelin Stermitz articulates feminist art as having identified and examined its place within prevailing social discourse. That is to say feminist art gained considerable ground, starting in the mid to late 1960s and, rolling into the seventies and beyond by staying with women; by examining our historic roles in the male-dominated canon, but also by building our own unique women-centered spaces outside of that canon.

With much new discourse and identification around womens' oppression, new goals for the women's art quickly emerged. Art was used to attack, critique, ridicule, and reject the confines of patriarchal culture. But it was also about reshaping practice to include non-object oriented collaborations, the sharing of resources such as space and mailing lists, and the reaching out to silent women in the work. Eleanor Antin told me on a studio visit in the nineties that she had shared her mailing list for 100 Boots, a conceptual mail artwork she made in the 1960s, with her women artist friends who at that time were looking to get their work shown and, of course, Lynn Hershman has written extensively about the difficulties she had in early on to get her work shown in galleries, thus, how she broke the mold and made her own events and exhibits.

Not only were feminists determined to break the meanings and syntax of signs used for stereotyping us, but, these women wanted to break the chains which held them and all women captive in oppressive belief systems about themselves. Central to feminist visual art was the critique of popular media, percieved rightly as a kind of commercially-induced plague upon humankind.


Pioneering self-analysis and critique of history, labor and self representation, feminist visual art effort has created a formidable autobiographical history of women as well as arenas for the advancement of womens' opinions on culture. It has also possibly brought about the trope in culture of "telling one's own story" and helped all art to deal with identity politics. Telling one's own story has mean to valorization of personal experience, personal language-making, family history and social history as part of the artistic communiyt. Art material for women coujld now be blood, boys, clothes, food, diaries, dolls, doll houses, family, games, girls, hysterics, love, menstruation, money, mothers, neuroses, obsessions, ovaries, playing, psychoanalysis, sewing, sex, tears, technology, toys, TV, voyeurism, and writing. This content, told honestly, might take down the master's house.

Consciousness of who and what women modeled themselves after, including the household as a starting point and racial and class analysis of one group to another, thus began to gain currency against the limitations imposed on women by the mainstream culture. Feminists transformed art and media; documented their own and the stories and lives of unknown women, reached out and created a women's art history. In the process, both role models of greatness (The Dinner Party, 1974-79, Judy Chicago, American) and the lives of anonymous women (to whom Suzanne Lacey dedicated her life's work) were commemorated. In The Dinner Party ceramics, embroidery, installation and textile craft merged with an ongoing performance and sculptural installation of high intellectual presence. In the piece, Chicago elevates the social and spiritual "feminine" at a grand "dinner table" and the work still stands today as one of the most important of feminist art. Other pieces are almost all of Lacey's extraordinarily ambitious performances, the works of Martha Rosler, Jo Spence, Hannah Wilke 3 For extensive discussion of Hannah Wilke, see Stermitz's article mentioned previously. She gives a long account and discussion and includes photographs with the essay.

Along with Martha Wilson, these women, video artists, photographers and performers, based in England and New York, used much "domestic" and body imagery in their early work, diving into female identity and offering left-wing critique of the politics of idealized images. Subject matter covered a range of topics from aging to beauty culture to the kitchen and personal illness as an "historic" space.

In experimental filmmaking, twin concerns of access to history and the construction of subjectivity in women's lives lead to an articulate, explicitly feminist movement in experimental film where male creativity and its moves had dominated and women film directors in mainstream cinema were few or non existent. Experimental film attracted women as makers of their own right. Lynne Sachs, in an interview with her (Otherzine #20, Spring 2011, ) clearly recollects women filmmakers being influenced by European theorists Helene Cixous, Luce Iriguay, and Julia Kristeva. These women were read and discussed by women filmmakers. About her short work, Drawn and Quartered (1987, 4mins. color, 16mm) Sachs describes the film's exploration of "form and content issues in the film medium" (Sachs 2012a), using a divided frame and optical printing, and the dual camerawork between herself and a male friend. It was concerned with both the spectator's role and the realm of physical privacy, thus the fragmenting of a man and a woman into the split screen. Her 1986 film intrigues for title alone: Still Life with Woman and Four Objects. It is "somewhere between a painting and a prose poem" exploring both female identity through "...her as a 'character'". This film belongs with a group of feminist works excavating women's history from art history and gives tribute to Emma Goldman (2012b). Sachs premiered The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts in 1991, a piece examining "women's representation in arts and science" through an admixture of "home movies, personal remembrances, staged scenes, and found footage" (2012c). The House of Science helped to establish a new form of experimental film in which the politics of the image archive was a focus. Borrowing images and rearranging truth, The House of Science undermined notions of narrative within documentary, and the sexist mythologies establishing dominant narratives of fact and medical science. It is a tender, funny, and elegant subversion of myths, contrasting official history with subjective "personhood" from diaries and home movies.

Performing the Revolution: Dismantling a Culture of Stereotypes

For many feminists, the dismantling of stereotypes starts with the female body and its imprisonment for centuries in prescriptive patriarchal thought: the gazes defining and limiting women. Feminist visual artists undertook the emancipation of the body and its image from this parochial bondage.

British socialist artist, photographer Jo Spence (1934-1992) produced explicit work on the sex appeal of breasts and their role in child nourishment. During her lifetime, Spence, who died of breast cancer, made extraordinary photography emphasizing the female nude and expressing her social and political concerns. She concentrated her work on the exclusion of women from male-dominated art history culminating in a series of autobiographical photos about her own affliction.

Martha Wilson, founder and former director of Franklin Furnace and a performance artist/photographer, in the early 1970s, criticized social expectations placed upon women when performing themselves. Using video, performance and photography, Wilson created a body of self referential works entitled "the housewife," "the goddess", and so on, appearing in the series "Portfolio of Models". These "documentary" images were presented as a feminist cultural study about roles women are forced to play in the dominant culture. In these works, the artist articulates what she called "the staging of self" or the posturing and presentation of female identity.

In 1975 Martha Rosler, feminist professor, activist, videographer, writer, and performer, released a seminal work of video performance: "Semiotics of the Kitchen" (6 minutes, b/w, 1975) This video had huge influence on young feminist artists. The piece is set in an "ordinary" kitchen in the form of a "show and tell" or cooking show referencing elementary school-type learning and television. Through use of typical kitchen tools, first an apron, which Rosler ties around her waist, then others: a wooden spoon, paring knife, and so forth, Rosler talks over each with a lexicon of words descriptive of the culinary art and poured over meticulously on camera, yet "in gestures which depart from the usual use of the tool." (Electronic Arts Intermix 2012a) Throughout the video, the artist navigates the space between culinary signs and domestic space, as a critique of women's oppression (Electronic Arts Intermix, 2012b). Her later artist's book, Service: A Trilogy on Colonization (1978) is a published collection of postcards mailed to herself while traveling, representing three short novels: "A Budding Gourmet", "McTowers Maid," and "Tijuana Maid"...[the novels] address the social uses of food (the third told in both Spanish and English)" (Half Letter Press, 2012). Rosler's video work reflects a her lifelong interest in presenting art as a social phenomenon and non-commodified set of personal and political practices. She has, for instance, often set herself up as a marginalized commentator and was an early creator of Paper Tiger Television.

Professor, performer, and feminist media pioneer, Suzanne Lacy took feminist visual art to new heights by combining life practices with public television and non-traditional roles for artists and non-artists. "Monster Series" (1974) Construction of the Novel Frankenstein, "Inevitable Associations"(1976), "Evalina and I: Crime, Art and Quilts" (1975-1977 ) a collaboration with Evalina Newman, and "The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron" (1978) with Linda Palumbo and Kathleen Chang, were each prolonged performance works, typical of Lacy, who has consistently melded women's issues through documentary and storytelling into elaborately staged works. These works have emphasized commonly held beliefs about women's lives, expressed femininity simply through words and friendships, and have deconstructed gender stereotypes within conventional art world presentations. Lacy's extraordinary practice has examined aging, the body, and relationships of love and friendship between women, blurring life and art in works which valorize informal chatting, listening and recording, taking on full-scale public staging and audience involvement with the participants. Lacy's explicit use of media culture has included using video, billboards and social networks. Early media work, in the Ariadne Project, mapped and publicized occurrences of rape in East Los Angeles, prefiguring later art such as Carla Kirkwood's performance and public art piece, MWI: Many Women Involved (1992), as part of San Diego public art project, NHI: No Humans Involved. But, it was Suzanne Lacy's insistent commitment to ordinary female consciousness and storytelling as a revolutionary act that contributed to "The Crystal Quilt," a three year project often attributed to her as a major work, performed in 1987 to Minnesota audiences via public TV. In "The Crystal Quilt," 430 older women sat at tables made into a colorful "quilt" by painter Miriam Shapiro. 3,000 people listened as seventy-five women as they recounted stories about aging, and engaged in amplified chat about their own lives.

Pleasure and Pain: Melodramatic Domestic Narratives

No discussion of feminist visual art, especially one concerned primarily with media culture and domestic space, would be complete without mention of Cindy Sherman's film stills series created between 1977 and 1980. This art is one of most distributed and influential in recent decades. Sherman seems to employ the 70s feminist "personal is political" critique in one, singularly creative move: self-performance and self-portrait photography. Pathetic isolation and torture experienced at the hands of Hollywood marginalization is essentially the "topic" of this particular series as Sherman places herself into various harried characters and scenarios emphasizing familiar female vulnerability. She is photographs herself, for instance, alone on a dark road, and in another, eyes tearing surrealistically, towering skyscrapers looming behind her, and in yet another, crouching, as if unexpectedly frustrated by something amiss before an ordinary kitchen stove. Her photos both make the viewer a sympathetic friend and posit a critique of the hidden violence and theatricality in familiar scenes of "women." She makes the viewer feel that s/he has seen these females before. Sherman's focus upon romance and vicarious "stardom" is particularly strong. She puts both art and trauma at the heart of symptoms rent upon generations of females, much as plastic surgery forever betrays its artifice by leaving scars, or how lingerie advertising renders generic and nameless the "any woman". The result is voyeurism and spectatorship which exposes an ongoing interplay of femininity with insanity, monstrosity, promiscuity, and perversion.

Single family Households as the Hearth of Female Consciousness

Post war America witnessed significant cultural and technological change. America had made her mark as a courageous global power; proved herself a mighty ally in victory over the Third Reich alongside England and France. After a decade of independence, home fires were burning, and multitudes of patient, but lonely American women faced their new challenge: to welcome home soldiers, settle down, and raise families as wives and mothers. A significant revolution took place after the war, but not one fought on women's terms. Indeed, World War II had brought about new industrial developments: the production of aluminum, nylon, and plastics; the development of air travel, long distance telephony, long-wave radio and global television. War time production had created massive infrastructure for postwar industries and enabled the victorious nation to envision its future. A gleaming new consumer society, driven by posh automobiles and an unprecedented abundance of middle class wealth and expanding tracts of suburbia emerged. Under the Eisenhower administration, was a defensive infrastructure against invasion and threat of "the bomb" (Varnelis/Sumrell, 2007).

Domestic television sets quickly established a presence in households throughout the decade of the fifties. Captive home viewers watched as the medium paraded dozens of new televisual identities transforming a wartime era into bliss. Images of the 1950's housewife epitomized this effort. Blithely, fashionably clad in sensible flats, a light cotton dress, hair scarf and large purse, this woman was speed, nation, and know-how rolled into one. Everywhere screens and magazines carried pictures of this peace time embodiment of a cultural ideal: modest aspirations, simple pleasures, huge abundance and supermarkets, thrifty intelligence, and devotion to family and country. She was the happy representation of an era yet to come, pumped up and promoted by myths of progress, capable of anything, dedicated to home, and busily birthing the correct number of white American babies.

Children of the early 1960s learned to read with "Dick and Jane and Baby Sally", the inhabitants of just such a home, time-saving economy, backyard barbecue, modern convenience, and wholesome white life. This 1950s "housewife"--the one with the Chevy and the carport--not only loved her husband but the profit motives of corporate America. She promised goods (vacuum cleaners, double slotted toasters, blenders and front loaded washers) as they chugged out of the factory. Indeed, the 1950s housewife was the quintessential consumer and purveyor of convenience.

What's Cooking

The classic TV dinner (as found in the frozen food aisle) was invented by Swanson and Sons, c. 1953. A remarkable product both for its physical characteristics, featuring an aluminum compartmented platter,to the "airplane" style food was an imitation of "home cooking" in one ready-made, heat n serve, frozen portion. The TV dinner was designed for busy families to coordinate in front of the television. Arguably, it demonstrates transitioning roles for housewives from solid homemaker and good cook, like Betty Crocker, to supreme agent of mass production. This transformation is clear in the TV dinner which made cooking easy, but it also took place with respect to housework an arena where abundant electricity, visible in the brightly lit roadside restaurants, gas stations, and neon of the 1950s, along with push button automation, were expected to eradicate household drudgery. In some cases the happiness of the "universal housewife" revolved around them. Every home needed "technological" advances. The convenience model of the "universal housewife's" modernity replaced elbow grease as the governing ethos of housework, something female domestic icon, wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter embodied and Hoovers, the world over, symbolized a sophisticated global expertise in war on dirt.5 The globalization of the Hoover takes the form of factories in both the UK and Australia and their popularity overseas.

But, looking at pictures of idealized housewives from any era and one can only marvel at the extreme two dimensionality of her commercialization in which nearly supernatural powers in connection with cleaning products are expressed. Mid sixties TV sit com heroines, Elizabeth Montgomery's "Samantha," the witch wife and mother of ABC's Bewitched, (1964 - 1972) and Barbara Eden's orientalist portrayal of "Jeannie" (a genie) in Screen Gems/NBCs, I Dream of Jeannie (1965 to 1970), perhaps owe something of their magical characterizations to this persistent hysteria over housekeeping. The 1950s housewife, "universalized" on TV could get what she wanted in the blink of an eye, by virtue of cleaning fluids, spells, winking, and "charm", connecting her to the magical qualities of the commodities in advertising.

By the 1960s and 70s books, film classics, and melodramas: The Graduate (1965), The Stepford Wives (1972), Shampoo (1975), and many other examples, betrayed the dark-side of suburban single family culture. In a literal valley of the dolls type of denouement, modern values of the 1950 housewife came crashing down. It was the crisis of the counterculture.

Voila: The Home Computer

In 1969, giant of manufacturing Ford Philco released the corporate industrial film 1999, in which a pretty housewife donning light dress, big mod earrings and a French twist, is seen gently interacting with computer-operated appliances and menu-driven programmable devices while planning her day. The voiceover tells us: 'she can choose her weekly groceries and prepare the family's dinner...all with pushbutton convenience and new age ease...' In corporate imaginary, numerous innovations, yet-to-be-produced are set forth as an outcome of engineering and expertise. The home of the future according to Ford Philco would be managed by a networked of computers and computer driven appliances so efficient and customizable to the desires of the typical middle class family, that their usefulness would enable more leisure time for all. The actress is shown operating a home entertainment music center, playing with her kid, and taking up ceramics while the computer cooks dinner.

From the end of World War II the"universal housewife", in whom, second wave feminist artists saw a problematic, nationalistic zeal for male approval, patriarchy, exclusion of women from their own lives, and the crass commercialization of female bodies into ciphers for profit, was a televisual evangelist for the American dream. The power of her ether, her presence on billboards and on TV, made homemakers emulate and imitate her consumption. Automation, instant food and entertainment, paper goods, whitest laundry; plastic and aluminum everything and a love affair with bleach, Jello and Mr. Clean constituted some kind of home and personal reality for many women.6 "Wessonality" was a term invented by Wesson Oil in the 1970s to describe personality changes associated with using their product.

Arguably, housework's meaning in culture has both remained the same, as a necessary imposition of sanitizing rituals, and has changed profoundly. With the development of industrialization and working classes in the nineteenth century, medical knowledge, public health and sanitation systems intersected as municipal strategies for cities to deal with the grimy, huddled mass that were their inhabitants. Disease and its prevention, particularly, meant getting a move on to create access to clean water, bathing and sewage disposal. The promotion of modern plumbing, building code and interior cleanliness of the household would save cities from cholera, pneumonia, and small pox.

Some aspects of nineteenth century cities were so qualitatively different from the present that it is difficult to imagine how they even worked. Without electricity, cities functioned, for example, primarily during the day and only with coal, gas, and oil. The scourge of soot accumulated in homes, on clothing, hair and skin. Personal hygiene could be counted upon only by the upper classes who were more likely to enjoy running water and an occasional flush toilet and to employ a staff of domestic workers and servants. Outhouses and shared pit toilets, bucketed water supplies, and communal bathhouses took care of the working poor. Attitudes towards hygiene rapidly changed and social reform through public information attempted to control filth and disease among the working poor.

Moral regard for cleanliness, purity of purpose, and the sexuality of the suburban housewife has roots in Victorian era America, for while modern appliances may have liberated American housewives from the dirty work of cleaning, brands reflected olden days of domestic service, i.e. 'Rubbermaid, the name brand of a major household goods manufacturer--they never liberated her from 'homemaking' as a career. It is precisely the promotion of this timeless occupation as a woman's proper place that intersects with Victorian era subjugation--"The Household General" promoted in Harriet Beeton's Book of Household Management--for instance as a popular ideology. At the same time, the postwar housewife's "new" identity embodied another transition. She possessed a latent desire for new ideas and was a zeitgeist. Her image suggests pervasive new mobility and freedom. It helped shed many problems, processes, and negative associations from the pre-war and wartime past. General Motors' epic advertisement 'Design for Dreaming' (1956) with Thea Tadlock dancing through yards of gleaming cars and taking her position in the "Kitchen of the Future" and '1999', with its nerdy proclamation that computers would give housewives leisure, both utilize the woman of the future to pave the way.

Mechanization and Speed

Sigfried Gideon tracked his fascination with myths of progress in Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (1948). In this book, Gideon hails the progress tied up with American innovation and production. He looks at drawings of machines,and varieties of inventions and tool-making, to explain humanity, profoundly awed by the speed with which certain accomplishments in mechanics in America emerged over decades as a result of need, comparing them with similar histories in Europe, which may have taken centuries.

Gideon's perception of innovation as a platform, from which historical change emerges, sets the stage as a theoretical proposition from which transformations in American households can be viewed. Post-war America was concretized in production of household goods and appliances. Their consumption relieved housewives while promoting a culture of efficiency and speed. From from pre-war to modern, manless to married, the ethos of idealized womanhood in dominant media was to be satisfied through them. This rapid transition is reflected in a media culture replete with domestic workers, where housewives and nuclear families abound. Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy, after The Adventures of 'Ozzie and Harriet' (1952-1966) popularized plights of the stay-at-home housewife and her hysteria. Ball's women-oriented comedy played up the homemaker's day to day dilemmas, poking fun at the newly wed. Lucy repeatedly humiliates herself. Her inherent lack of marital knowledge, inability to cook or organize a home, ineptitude at housework, over worked conscience when it came to spending, and shrill, mixed messages with respect to marriage were central themes of the show. An excess of soap suds billowing from early modern dishwasher capped Lucy's lack of order in the social order, further underscoring the way women should behave, while other endlessly frustrating issues for Lucy touched audiences' underlying fears of disapproval, especially from men.

Maids by the Minute

Fifty years ago, 'Rosie the Robot', the bossy, space-age 'personal maid' of television's most futuristic family, The Jetsons, was an old she-robot, modeled on real life sit com heroines like 'Hazel.' 6 As well as the Hazel cartoon strip by Ted Key run in The Saturday Evening Post of the same era.

Having robots clean the house intersects with fantasies of a computer culture which would inevitably bring Americans leisure, and, even ultra-clean, streamlined interiors such as those in science fiction movie sets. Smooth, clean lines, precision, and the appearance and machine-like aesthetics of these interiors make them superior to others. The Jetsons typified the aspirations of America's post war middle class that lived for futurology and for whom clean and sparkle were important.

Maids and the housekeepers in art and media culture have much to offer a study of transformed households and feminist representation. Apart from the sexualized "French maid", the all-cleaned up-for TV housekeeper/maids of sit coms, such as Rosie, have several character and narrative traits in common. Maids from the 1950s through 1980s (Frasier's cheeky younger cockney maid of the nineties being a departure but still obsessed with her biological clock) are frequently middle-aged, possessing stereotyped age-related characteristics such as a certain matronly dowdiness, rapidly greying hair, old style, and sensible shoes. They are also usually single and frequently concerned, when they do talk, with seeking a husband. They owe something to an earlier popular maid, "The Old Maid" from the family card game.8 In this game, the player stuck with the last card or Old Maid loses.

For this stereotype, being "too old" means a) being undesirable to men because of age and b) not able to bear children. Being "too old" has connotations of inadequacy and, above all, having failed to catch a man, implying that something is wrong.

Rosie the Robot exudes this stereotype because she is firstly an older model machine. Her rivets show and she is a rental, not owned, making her impermanent - an itinerant. Hazel from 'Hazel' and Alice from The Brady Bunch (1965 to 1974) are both middle aged characters. They are women without life partners. They became housekeepers and maids because they were skilled enough to do the job, but missed the boat in having a marriage or man of their own. Hence, these characters are portrayed as without roots, aspiring to the fulfillment that their female employer has, but living it vicariously. 'Hazel', 'Rosie' and 'Alice' are semi-dykish, mannish in appearance and character, a significant contrast to the feminine Mrs. Jetson and Mrs. Brady, ever appealing to George and Mike. These too-big-footed maids, like those step sisters of Cinderella, are infinitely unappealing. Alice, for instance, was overly practical. She wore front zippered smocks, ready for spills and housework; nylon and plain; no ornament and sometimes "checked." Her voice was masculine. She cracked jokes and had a man's physical bearing. Her tall hairdo, short on the sides, made her face rectangular.

Uncle Charlie of My Three Sons would sometimes cross-dress in a frilly apron as a comic gag. The missing mother figure of the program was somehow more obviously absent through this joke, but more importantly was working class Uncle Charlie, a male housemaid, Other; a landlocked sailor, itinerant, not even a "real" uncle. This male maid, too, was inadequate.

Maids in the media have humiliating self-consciousness about their single "old maid' status. Script writers make this lack central and a painful part of the comedy. Brady Bunch's Alice is self deprecatory and factual, implying she's a little boring--from a man's point of view. There is the spectator, again defining the female character through lack and inability to be a real woman. Carol Burnett's washerwoman, alone on stage in a hairnet singing "So long..." as the end of the show arrives and credits roll is yet another maid existing in exaggerated, midlife isolation and pathetic, vicarious stardom. Mrs. Danvers' (Hitchcock's Rebecca) is also an aging, aspirational, desolate housekeeper. She wanders mad amidst memories and her uninhabitable Mandolay. Covered to the chin line in black, Danvers battles being alive as an asexual, manless, and mistress-less human being, the cinematic equivalent of a slightly more deranged Hazel, Alice or Rosie.

Real Realpolitik: Maid to Survive

Barbara Ehrenreich's lengthy investigation of 1995 welfare reform upon underpaid, under the table, unfashionable service labor is a document cutting clean through the melodramatic hype and over-glamorization of housework as put forth in commercial media. Ehrenreich investigates what roles domestic workers actually play in American road and hospitality industries and exposes the dimensions of lives of marginalized workers, their day to day survival on a minimum wage as housemaids, waitresses and cleaners. Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America (2000) is a tragic tale and one of remarkable strength, and sadness. Domestic workers from motels and restaurants support families, sometimes as single parents and often having to travel great distances to find work, only to live as itinerants in their cars to avoid high rent. Ehrenreich went undercover, working as a hotel maid, to engage with these heroic workers. She offers a chilling account of the art that goes into this lifestyle and its perpetuation. In 2007 Ehrenreich also appeared as a waitress in Lewis H. Lapham and John Kirby's The American Ruling Class, a dramatic documentary film exploring taboos of class, power and prestige in the United States.

Not all representations of unpopular work are journalistic accounts as marvelously detailed as Nickel and Dimed or George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. "Down and out" characters of film and TV, historically have gained recognition through comedy. Chaplin's Modern Times celebrates the essentialist worker as creative poet, charlatan, goof ball, off-beat clown, and political activist. The Three Stooges were slackers, petite bourgeois numbskulls scheming ways out of boredom, jobs, prison or school. As the Puerto Rican immigrant in Scarface, Al Pacino rants: "First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women...." The aforementioned "washerwoman" of Burnett's is also a highly scripted, worker/clown and the list goes on. In Spielberg's A.I. an assemblage of "types" makes up the tragic/comic underclass. Irish maids are collaged digitally with broken, hacked and refurbished machines, and these, with hobbling hobos and clowns.

Jeanne Diehlman

At the height of emerging feminist art practice, Jeanne Diehlman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975) directed by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, was released to the critical public. This was a pivotal moment for feminist experimental film combining elements of feminist critique and a troubled heroine into an indictment of women's silence in the domestic sphere. Jeanne Diehlman's central character (by same name as the title) is a revolutionary depiction; a single mother of a single infant. She is shown by Ackerman, over and over, repeating in a three day duration, the routines of child and home care. No seeming plot, or narrative, the character engages in cleaning, cooking, and tending her baby with clockwork monotony, when suddenly, she prostitutes herself to a sole client to pay for food. Meticulous in its projection of menial, self denying labor, apathy and isolation, traditional female labor under capitalism and patriarchy, the film is shot through an aesthetic of static framing, long takes, intimately involving its audience in every excruciating detail. When she stabs her sex client to death, the tedium falters. Art and life become brutal and stupid, but the lengthy interconnection of audience with heroine, applauded by critics, reframed and reexamined roles reserved for women in cinematic history.

Lives in the Present

Arguably, feminist art has moved from rigorous analyses of unequal labor conditions and their inscription on the body to other kinds of investigations of domesticity, gender and social discourse. Feminist art, recuperating the history of womens' work, its beauty and patience, uses domestic processes in "artisan works" (Stermitz, 89) and as a metaphor for the consistent building of home, peace, social fabric, and weaving together of culture in which women participate. This politic has reclaimed home, house, housework--as a nurturing space--where the body, mind, personal and the political, coalesce.

Contemporary feminist art, using domestic images and space articulates the necessary de-privatization of an essential "woman" and expresses interiority as a repository of psychic memory or valorizes the daily operation and routine of household labor under local and global conditions. The houseWORK project (2003), a collective exhibition on housework, for instance, "reflects upon the function and impact of housework on everyday life, and draws attention to the people doing the work, including foreign domestic workers in Singapore" (Tan, 2011). Artist Annetta Kapon's "Photography Lesson" (1990), a video performance, observes the obsessive caring and cleaning of one's technology as a form of housework. She scrubs her camera with cloths and sprays. This work might also be construed as talking about how art has become labor. The woman in the kitchen (cleaning, scrubbing, boiling, food preparation) is confounded with the labor of photography. The video satirizes the obsessiveness with which photographers fetishize their tools. The darkroom is not so different from the kitchen; what is different is the gender (Kapon, 2011 website).

In Cornucopia (2009) Kapon, who lives in France, works sculpturally with baguettes, clothing, and a plastic panier to demonstrate process and communication. The piece literally "tumbles out" from a corner into the gallery as if to express some sudden joy or the act of sharing. Kapon's photographic, video based, and sculptural art about housework looks at flatness, horizontality, measurability, labor and language; in short, repetition. Laundry (2009) is a piece about 'home economics' in the global economic crisis presented as bath towels on which several major currencies have been screen printed. Daphna Lapidot's video installation and performance, Wall to Wall (2011) "explores the themes of motherhood/domesticity. It is a reflection on the issues that women encounter as new mothers inundated with the perpetual daily routine." (Mickie's Zoo, 2011)

Critique of domestic work is often post-colonial in its intent as well, an important outcome of feminist art practices after the Internet. Personal and global autobiography include critique of human rights and labor around the world, where, for instance, in Latin America, "81 percent of women without their own income do unpaid domestic work and experts believe that the financial crisis has aggravated the gap between paid work and unpaid care that women provide to children, the elderly, and other family members." (International Museum of Women, "Focusing on Latin America" 2011) Maria Ezcurra makes work about "stereotypical acts of femininity that parody gender intolerance". These works are presented through sculpture, performance and photographic tableaus utilizing sewing, fabric, food, and domestic interiors (2011). Ezcurra's work "encourages the expansion of human and civil rights for women today." (2011) Three projects: "The Perfect Housewife," "Waitress" and "Domestic Mythology" show the artist performing typical acts: ironing, serving food, and sitting with a husband. "Waitress" shows her as the typical female hostess, sometimes incorporated with a table and full table cloth as "dress."

Mesera/Waitress, 2010

Ezcurra "incorporates herself into the work, wearing clothes that conform to and are incorporated in the domestic act, symbolizing how women and domestic work are assumed to be irrevocably combined."(2011). This "costume" is not only a product of Latin American oppression, however, it was similarly used at the corporate dinner of the World Economic Forum in northeastern China where 'dress code for ladies extended to tablecloths...inserted into a hole in each table was a comely woman waring a strapless dress made of the same material as the tablecloth.' (Beech, 2011--see photo above) and symbolizes in this context, the global oppression of women bolstered by globalization. Ezcurra's last piece, 'Domestic Mythologies" is "a series of fabric pieces depicting mythological creatures performing domestic tasks." Its aim is to demythologize the "universal housewife" concept once again, this time by tying domesticity to fantastic elements of non-white cultural mythologies (IMW, 2011).

Further Feminism

Memories suggesting boredom, isolation, and violence are investigated within relentless paradigms of cultural alienation in filmmaker Yin-Ju Chen's short experimental works, Recycle System 1 and 2 (2002). In most of the earlier video performances, the gaze is turned on herself as a subject: the "Asian" woman living in the US. Usually framed within an interior setting, they both accentuate her marginalized position in Western society as well as reference her occupational condition: working from her home studio as a free-lance artist. Not unlike early feminist performance video of the ‘70s, autobiography, relation of self to others, and questions of visual representation play a central role in her work (Schedelbauer, 2008).

A woman emerges from a door at the end of an unidentified corridor which appears to be part of a public institution. The sound track and motion "suggest that she is carefully vacuuming every corner of the hall. As she gets closer, the viewer realizes that she does not, in fact, have a vacuum cleaner, but is embodying it: the tube is affixed to her mouth and she is sucking in everything off the gray PVC floor." (2008a)"Nature is a circle––those who damage the environment will eventually be damaged themselves" Chen states of this work (2008b). "Chen employs stereotypes of the female "Oriental" worker: the cleaning lady, the copycat, the sexualized object of desire, and the speechless immigrant."(2008c) In more recent work, this interesting filmmaker continues to decode the "self-ghettoized psychological conditions" of her colonization, migrant state, and the condition of immigration, and gender and takes a more critical and"aggressive" stance in her "political confrontation".(2010d) Preoccupation with her "anxious psyche" (2010e) is expressed in this stunning visual diary, notably utilizing architectural space as metaphor and terrifying surrealism in its own right: winding stairs, unmade beds, ringing phones, empty rooms. The filmmaker hunts her topic without a script.

A Love Affair with Housework

BBC article, "Is the US Love Affair with Housework over? (September 2011) reports that "the country that gave the world the vacuum cleaner" has experienced dropping sales of household cleaning products since 2006 and wonders whether Americans have become "less keen on sparkling homes."(2011) Arguably, at least in television and women's homemaking magazines, desire for the sparkling home is still a prime motivator; and not only is the "love affair" hot, but its strangely liberated. These days just as many giddy women glide across screens, wiping and scrubbing, but their able "dance partners" and "dates" are no longer tired sloppy mops. The are a new breed of gadgets: lightweight, smoothly maneuverable and agile cleaning tools, each with a niche and specialty. If anything, cleaning has been made more "feminine" by design.

Tossing out old models like so many cast off husbands, dead lovers and boring boyfriends, today's post 90s homemakers are busily looking for something a little more reliable. The new womanhood of housework includes some reference to the freedom of sexuality, conflict over time, and tolerance for 'mess' that 1960s second wave feminism demanded. Today's middle class homemaker as-seen-on-TV is, above all, a juggler of time. Hot romance and vicarious rock n roll fame are but a few of the vicarious thrills this multicultural milieu of homemakers engage in while mopping and polishing. Lack of splitting the soundtrack from the voiceover in the commercial message manages to drive home a point that "universal she" is in total control. But, unfortunately, women are still doing most of the dirty work. Feminist performance artist, Annie Abraham's 2006 web piece, 'Domestic Dancing' turns around this particular phenomenon of seamless image and audio. Abraham juxtaposes two synchronous GIF animations and two kinds of noise: a) a women playing music on an accordion and b) and a tiny figure vacuuming repetitively. The message is about real pleasure.

A surprising number of new housework ads include hip music from hip bands the to better to demonstrate that the product will make the homemaker happy. Blondie, Simple Plan, and The Equals can all be heard. Musical approach courtesy Mike Mosher.

Dirt, Sex and 'Mr. Right'

All the maneuverable, lightweight new mops and sweepers feed a renaissance of interest in squeaky clean floors. They are happy replacements for messy technologies; buckets and mops. In one particular commercial, miniature females are even dolled up in cute, brown and grey outfits gynepomorphizing Mud and Dust and they are ecstatic or irritated about getting "picked up" or being neglected by a certain sweeper acting the role of 'Mr. Right.' Their entire future as a ball of dirt lies in the possible chance encounter with this mop/guy, whom they really want to "stick with", when they get him and, for whom, they will wait forever.

Curiously, in many commercials housework is no longer even done by the doer, but, is perceived to be done, supernaturally, through the design of the tools and products themselves. Heavy work--big, dirty jobs--are something all homemakers want to avoid, while the signs of the homemaker and her 'raison d'etre' have slightly changed. Today's TV homemaker, like the skinnier, light, more agile mops, contoured air fresheners, and soaps she is fond of, is all about diversification and niche marketing, rather than a one-way "does all" command economy universe. She is still "in love" with housework but it is done in the name of juggling home, family, and career. Liberation is about time management skills and how products can help her time management. Swirling her wood-floor swiffie, she is promised less difficulty in doing the labor and in the process, the chemicals smell great. Chores come in colors and have value-added appeal. New products are slick, more portable, with packs of disposable, pre moistened cleaning cloths instead of water and buckets, or they have fantastic, powerful scrubbing agents which bubble with chemical strengths and are easier to lift, swivel, use and discard. Adjust the entire mop for hard to reach places. Working homemakers can now relax, "the product" does the work and mess is an informality of post modernity. Occasionally, even, a guy enters in to help out. It is all about time-management, refillable bowl-side disinfectants working while you sleep, and solid aromatic air fresheners which homemakers can forget about and enjoy it.


The middle class American home that came blaring through the television some fifty years ago is a different animal from today's mixed crew. Market research has established both a multiculturalism and a feminism to the new American home and diversify it regularly. Moreover, "American willingness to be persuaded by [advertising] may have sparked a national obsession with cleanliness at the start of the 20th century" (Ashenberg in Goehegen, 2011, 2 ) but, that is changing, perhaps due to increased media literacy, changing attitudes towards women and girls, understanding the effects of toxins and even "hygiene hypotheses" which suggest that germs are actually good for the immune system (2011, 2).

The drama of housework, an intense source of womens' oppression in male dominated culture, as a form of oppression around the world, is a source of great interest to feminists. Perhaps first world countries are finally transitioning from a consumer society based in powerful commercial television, disposable plastics and the unpaid or flexible labor of women, to new models and networks of production; those founded upon environmentally conscious consumption, "making one's own cleaners and using cloth in stead of paper" (BBC, 2011).

Molly Hankwitz holds a Ph.D. in media and communications. She researches urban space, mobile technologies and culture and has published on architecture, feminist film, feminist art, net art, public art, public space, new technologies, new media and situationist architecture.


Electronic Arts Intermix, 2012. [accessed Jan 2012]]

Gideon, S. (1948) Mechanization Takes Command.

Goeghegan, T. (2011) Is the USLove Affair with Housework Over? BBC News Magazine, September 15, 2011. [accessed Jan 2011]

Hayden, D. (1987)The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lippard, L. (1973) Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object.

Mickie's Zoo blog (2011)

Sachs, L. (2012a) Lynne Sachs website, ________(2012b) ? fcat=18 ______(2012c)

Schedelbauer, S. (2010) 'Chen Chews: Musings on Cultural Indigestion' Otherzine, Issue #14, Spring 2008. ________(2010a - 2010d)

Stermitz, E. (2009) "Iconographics and Iconologic Art Practices with the Hoover: Feminist Artistic Subversion of the Female Body and the Household" in Monitor, Vol. IX, No 1-2, Art: Resistance, Subversion, Madness, pp. 85-104.

Stevens, M. (2008) 'How I Made It: Cindy Sherman on her Film Stills', April 7,New York Times, [accessed Jan 2012]

Vanderbilt T., Bookforum. Apr/May 2010, "Machine Dreams".

Varnelis, K. and Robert Sumrell (2007) Blue Monday.

Artists, Art and Filmworks Carla Kirkwood, performance artist __MWI: Many Women Involved, San Diego.

Suzanne Lacy, performance artist and public artist, all works.

Martha Rosler, video artist, documentary artist,

__Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. video

__Service: A Trilogy on Colonization, 1987. book

Lynne Sachs, filmmaker __Drawn and Quartered, 1987. __The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts, 1991. __Still Life with Woman and Four Objects, 1986

Cindy Sherman, photographer __Film stills, 1977-1980

Jo Spence, 1934-1992, photographer ___Cancer Series

Martha Wilson, performer, videographer __Portfolio of Models

A. Tan __houseWORK project

Annette Kapon __Photography Lesson __Cornocopia

Annie Abraham, 2006 __Domestic Dancing

Websites sourced for images


images for text, elsewhere: 1950s housewife from martha wilson, Goddess from Portfolio of Models, 1975 house of science still, Lynne Sachs 1991 hey!!chicky!! nina sobell, 1978 Max Dupain, who did the HOOVER photo

Copyright © Molly Hankwitz 2012. All rights reserved.