"Discrimination," by the Guerilla Girls

It was the fall of 1852 and school was in session for a lucky group of women who were invited to attend a new graphic design program at the Cooper Union—run for women, by women. Dressed in the high-necked lace blouses and long, woolen skirts of the time, students learned how to set type, make etchings, and lay them out on posters and in books. These women were now equipped to not only to tell their own stories, but to publish them, too.  

The work produced by these early alumns is hardly revolutionary. (To be fair, it was started as a trade school, not a training ground for up-and-coming activists.) But many historians insist it was a critical first step, if not the outright birthplace, of the feminist movements that would follow. There may well have been women’s rights activists before this moment, but we’ll never know because we don’t have the printed matter to prove it. Turns out making posters really does make a difference, particularly when it comes to archiving. Posters, flyers, leaflets, books, badges, and other ephemera give movements (feminist or otherwise) something to be remembered by—and something with which to inspire the next generation.

Engraving by Charlotte B. Cogswell, from a 1862 scrapbook given to Peter Cooper by the students of the School of Design for Women. Courtesy of The Cooper Archives and Special Collections at The Cooper Union.

Still, it took a while for women’s printmaking to go beyond mild-mannered engravings. Over 60 years after New York City women were trained to set type and pull prints, the Suffragettes took the stage; and while they certainly caused a stir and inspired a flurry of newspaper articles, compared to later feminists groups, there are hardly any relics from their early 20th-century efforts. Aside from photographs, many of which include images of the posters they famously marched with, not much written material—designed or otherwise—remains. Who knows how many early 20th-century feminist publications might have been created and later discarded? 

Flash forward 150+ years, and women are not just adept at creating, designing, and distributing their messages, but they are masters at growing communities and organizing movements that affect real change. And yet, proper documentation is still an issue—especially when so much of what we make today is digital and, therefore, even more ephemeral. That protest invite you RSVP’d to on Facebook, and the Instagram Story you made during it, have a shelf life of about 24 hours. At a time when we obsessively document our every waking moment, what do we have to show for activist efforts that are tangible—if not physical, then at least archivable in some way? Have we learned anything from our foremothers?

And also—because it really begs the question: Did all our boot-stomping, pussy hat-wearing, and #MeToo-ing really take root in those polite engravings from the 1850s? I mean, really?

“It’s a bit of stretch,” says Stéphanie Jeanjean, an art historian with a specialty in feminist work who co-curated We Dissent: Design of the Women’s Movement in New York with Alexander Tochilovsky, curator of Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. “It’s a stretch conceptually and physically—we just don’t have much from that period. But in another way it’s directly connected, because it’s the first bit of documentation we have. Mostly, it’s a reminder that this generation of feminists needs to collect what they have done, and when they see something interesting, to stop and record it.”

One surprising early feminist publication that Jeanjean discovered in her research for the exhibition is The Birth Control Review, a magazine from 1917 that’s become a rarity. “All this stuff is in private collections,” she says. The fact that this discovery is so surprising is exactly why it’s so important to our understanding of the women at that time. “You tend think about first-generation feminism in a very simplistic way: that it’s all about women’s votes. But there are many other dimensions.”

The lack of documentation makes it hard for Jeanjean to get behind the convenient chronological narrative of feminism—from early women printmakers, to the first wave Suffragettes, to the second wave feminists of the ’60s, to the third wave of the ’90s, up to the fourth wave of today. First off, Jeanjean insists that we have to stop thinking about feminism as if it comes in waves. Rather, it’s a huge body of water that is always swirling around. It’s the public attention that comes in waves, when the crashing water gets too loud too ignore.

Furthermore, women activists aren’t necessarily a direct product of the women who came directly before them. The ’60s feminists were more informed by the successful communication and organizing efforts of the Civil Rights movement, which was happening at the same time; take woodblock prints, like the example above by Lucia Vernarelli, which is reminiscent of Emory Douglas’ designs for the Blank Panther Party. And like the Civil Rights movement, the ’60s feminists also started to splinter off into politicized groups, like Redstockings, The Red Women’s Workshop, New York Radical Women, and other leftist groups that identified with Communists, or Marxists, or Maoists.

We have to stop thinking about feminism as if it comes in waves.

Just as Susan B. Anthony’s rally flyers look like other Civil War-era wood typeset prints, all art and visual communication reflect the time they’re made in, and so the graphic art of women’s movements, as a whole, is as broad as history itself. One of the most notable pieces on view in the We Dissent exhibition is from video artist Jane Dickson, whose “Message to the Public” is not available on YouTube, so forgive the gif we cobbled together here from the available screenshots. At the time she made it, Dickson was working a job programming the billboard advertisements in Time Square. She asked her boss if she could show some of her own animations. Amazingly, he said yes, and she was able to show “Message to the Public” to a captivated audience on New Year’s Eve in 1983.

Stills from Jane Dickson’s “Message to the Public” animation

Even if we still have a lot to learn when it comes to documenting our efforts and securing their place in the annals of political history, one thing the exhibition makes abundantly clear is just how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. One of the most engaging parts of the exhibition is the diverse array of reading materials. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (the English translation came out in 1951), The Feminine Mystique, by Betsy Friedan (1963), Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race & Class, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and Gloria Steinhem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions may be old hat to older generations, but here, in this context, they are made new and exciting to the fresh young crop of women activists. There are some fun finds, too, like the Dykes to Watch Out For series, and the offbeat S.C.U.M (Society for Cutting up Men) Manifesto.

“This generation of feminists needs to collect what they have done, and when they see something interesting, to stop and record it.”

Women today are clearly borrowing from their foremothers when it comes to how we organize. It’s no coincidence that women’s-only spaces like The Wing feel like a throwback to the sisterhood meet-ups of the ’60s and ’70s. And as long as these groups take advantage of all that community energy and channel the sisterly vibes into civic change, we’ll have done our foremothers one better. 

Even if it feels like we’re inundated with feminist messaging today, almost none of it is being documented (with proper accreditation and source information) or examined in a meaningful way, which makes pulling off exhibitions like We Dissent such a challenge. And it shouldn’t be. This isn’t ancient history, after all. Movements can fire up quickly, but real change takes time—let’s track it. If we didn’t, how else would we have gems like this late ’60s fight song?

Our foremothers’ visions wouldn’t let them rest.
They fought for their freedom from the east to the west.
They won some heard battles; we must win the rest
So fight on sisters, fight on.

Telling the truth about sex, love, and men
We examined our lives again and again
It was male supremacy we found we must end
So fight on sisters, fight on.

The bosses claim women just aren’t qualified
To work at the good jobs for which we applied,
But we talked to each other and found out they lied.
Fight on sisters, fight on.

The Miss America Pageant we did protest
The curlers, the girdles, high heels, and the rest
That torture a woman—our real self is best.
Fight on sisters, fight on.

We disrupted a hearing on abortion reform
Telling the panel—14 men and a nun
That WE are the experts; our bodies, our own.
We fight on sisters, fight on.

We know as we knew we must do it alone
The war for our freedom can never be won
Unless we grasp hold and make it our own.
Fight on sisters, fight on.

We’ve made some mistakes now and don’t get it wrong
The forces against us are wily and strong
But we’re gettin’ smarter as we go along
And fight on sisters, fight on.

Now some say the problem is all in our head
While others proclaim that our movement is dead
But we’ll rise up again, our anger still red
And we’ll fight on sisters, fight on.

—“Fight on Sisters,” from the Redstockings Women’s Liberation Movement