On January 28, 1992, roughly 100 New York City women gathered to discuss a dizzying development in national affairs: Congress had just confirmed a man accused of sexual harassment to the Supreme Court. The women, none of whom individually possessed political clout or power, wanted to find a way to channel their horror and dismay into action. So, they came together to form the Women’s Action Coalition, a group that organized demonstrations in support of plaintiffs at sexual assault trials before (mostly) decentralizing in the following few years.
Why is this important? WAC’s existence in the history of feminist protest isn’t notable for its success, but for its obvious ancestry to groups organized in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation to the Supreme Court — and for its members’ meticulous record keeping of WAC activities. Thanks to careful preservation, membership rosters, protest signs and other materials from the group’s passionate arrival on the 1992 political scene remain in tact. Some of those items are now on display as part of “We Dissent… Design of the Women’s Movement in New York,” a deftly-organized retrospective at The Cooper Union focused on acts of feminist protest big and small. Here, viewers can find art from renowned artists (think Jenny Holzer and the Guerrilla Girls) next to work from anonymous women printmakers who likely thought they were creating one-off fliers, not historically significant documents.
According to co-curator Stéphanie Jeanjean, who teaches in The Cooper Union’s art history department, the idea for the show had been building for several years.
“One of the intentions we had with the exhibition was to try to give a sense of the quantity and the diversity of the material that exists,” said Jeanjean, who developed “We Dissent” with Alexander Tochilovsky, curator of the school’s center for design and typography. “And then, maybe not be too selective of the kind of theme they would incorporate but try to be as inclusive as possible.”
By including forgotten or little-known moments from the last century, the exhibition provides a window into the daily actions women took that may have eluded history books and news coverage. A flier dated February 1914 reveals that women and men co-organized a “What is Feminism?” panel at the school, while an entire section of the show is dedicated to early 20th-century women who learned printmaking in hopes of entering the workforce with a marketable skill. Other materials, like newsletters from the Lesbian Herstory Archives or Lesbian Avengers, from dates spanning the 1970s to early 1990s, demand inclusivity for trans and gender non-conforming women and allies — efforts typically associated with the so-called “third wave” of feminism.
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Collectively, what emerges from these materials is a refreshing and sometimes intimate look at the smaller ways women have fought for their own social and economic mobility, and that of their allies. The exhibition is most successful in its efforts to mine the connections between past and present and to highlight the common threads — namely, injustices — that have tied generations of women activists together.
“What is remarkable about seeing all these materials together is that many of the central issues in the women’s movement remain unchanged, and forms of resistance continue past what we typically call out as waves of feminism,” Jeanjean said. “Through the design of these artifacts, we see that intersectionality has been present in the women’s movement from some of the earliest pieces. Class, hunger, race — all have been important issues. For example, an early flyer for a Susan B. Anthony rally called for ‘bread.'”
Inadvertently, the exhibition also became a trenchent reminder of the hazards of relying on the internet as a dependable archive, Jeanjean said. While curating the books, pamphlets, posters and fliers that make up the heft of the show, Jeanjean noticed that some materials from the late 1990s and early 2000s suffered from link rot, a condition wherein old hyperlinks become inaccessible over time. In one instance, a 2001 poster for “Gynadome,” the online manifesto from Dyke Action Machine, could not be found at its listed address. Other such examples abound, and some of the most recent materials in the show ended up being the most difficult for curators to locate. The expediency of online organizing, then, raises questions about our ability to preserve materials against the planned obsolescence of technology.
“Today, in our digital worlds, information circulates very, very quickly, but it usually is not archived or kept,” Jeanjean said. “Something I have been thinking about and wondering about is, if we would be doing this exhibit in 50 years from now, would it even be possible? Because what is happening is not being collected, and we don’t know what is going to remain.”
She later noted that exhibitions such as “We Dissent” could instill upon viewers the importance of documenting, preserving and archiving. After all, what may seem like an unsuccessful political action from a group of 100 or so women can have unforeseen relevance to future generations of feminist activists.
“We Dissent” is free and open to the public until Dec. 2. A free closing reception will be held at 1 p.m. with members of WAC and feminist group Redstockings. For more details, check out the event page.
Top Image: "NO TO RACISM / NO TO RAPE" and "No Means NO," from Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) Blue Dot series, 1992, designed by Bethany Johns.