Mothers and Daughters, Sluts and Goddesses

Annie Sprinkle, Maria Elena Buszek, and Mary Beth Edelson

From It's Time For Action (There's No Option): About Feminism JRP Ringier,2007

The Migros Museum’s exhibition It’s Time for Action (There’s No Option): About Feminism does a great service to both historical and contemporary feminist art, by drawing attention to the work of artists whose highly individuated approaches to feminism challenge stereotypes of the women’s movement held by many within, beyond, and against it. According to these stereotypes, a feminist artist must be perpetually serious, single-minded in her politics and personal life alike (and it’s always a “her” – no male feminists allowed!), and reject sexuality and popular culture as areas irretrievably corrupted by the patriarchy. The work by Mary Beth Edelson and Annie Sprinkle on show in this exhibition exemplifies the notion of a playful, funny, multiplicitous and sexy feminism, completely at odds with this popular stereotype. Yet, unfortunately, the usual stereotype of feminism is often unwittingly perpetuated by many feminists themselves, as politics have led them to either marginalize or deny the presence of diverse voices, popular imagery, humor, and sexuality in a movement that has needed to form a unified front to battle a global culture in which there is not much funny or sexy about how women are treated by the status quo.

But while the Western feminist movement, since its very origins, has had to develop this tough “game face” to do battle with sexism, Edelson’s and Sprinkle’s work reminds us that feminism has always had a very different culture – one in which, inevitably, as a movement dedicated to the liberation of all women, its participants have also stressed the need for non¬conformity, respect for the individual and the personal, and as many voices (and choices!) as possible under the term’s umbrella. Remember, this is the movement that asserted “the personal is the political.” This culture gave us not a single feminism, but many feminisms. This fact is rarely taken into account by either its detractors, whose sexism leads them to caricature feminism’s advocates as radicals pushing a dangerous orthodoxy, or its more strident advocates, who wish to create a tidy, linear history to make the movement’s progress appear inevitable and logical.

But the fact is that feminism – like all activist movements in history – is and has always been messy, even paradoxical. Indeed, the paradoxical nature of the issue has forced feminist thinkers to approach feminism itself as a political paradox: not as a singular feminism but as multiple feminisms, which are simultaneously individual and (like the “communities” they produce), inevitably somehow common. As theorized by Donna Haraway, this organizational strategy for feminism does not deify movement-killing individualism above women’s mobilization. Indeed, art historian Katy Deepwell has appropriated Haraway’s use of the parasite mixotricha paradoxa as a creative metaphor for feminism’s growth through diversity.1 Deepwell argues, via Haraway’s research, that this creature, like feminism itself, “has paradoxical and unexpected habits of survival and reproduction… [I]t survives by attracting others to live on it [and] it reproduces by division.”2 In other words, each of these contemporary scholars promotes the logic found in both paradox and division in ways that feminist thinkers have been exploring, if perhaps not acknowledging, since its first wave.

This nebulous first wave of feminism perhaps best reflects the movement’s diverse approaches, even though for nearly 150 years its myriad participants were almost uniformly involved in the one battle that tended to connect them: enfranchisement in democratic societies, with women fighting for the right to vote. As such, feminism’s first wave encompasses individuals and movements separated by time and approach, including Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in the wake of the American and French revolutions to contrast women’s universal powerlessness with the self-congratulatory, democratic zeal of revolutionary philosophers, and Simone de Beauvoir, whose groundbreaking 1949 book The Second Sex was begun shortly after French women first gained the vote in 1945.

However, the first-wave period between roughly 1920 and 1960 is marked by feminist activity ebbing, as women in Europe and North America sorted out the limits of the enfranchisement that they had won and applied throughout these years. In this period feminism was also actively countered within these same cultures, a backlash against both women’s gains to date and the world-upside-down that they threatened to many – a period that Shulamith Firestone would, in 1970, call history’s “first counteroffensive” against the women’s movement. Firestone, however, would be counted among the firebrands of feminism’s second wave, born largely of the labor, civil rights, and student-protest movements of the post-WWII era, which in the 1960s sought to take inventory of and fight against the ongoing sexism that voting rights alone had clearly been incapable of undoing. Generally referred to, then as now, as the women’s liberation movement, feminism’s second wave used strategies of the progressive movements from which its leaders sprang, similarly initiating and passing equal-rights legislation concerning everything from reproductive rights to gender-specific classified ads, as well as producing feminist memoirs, theory, and collectives that raised consciousness concerning the more insidious examples of sexism ingrained and normalized in everyday life. While this era is often discussed as not just popularizing but institutionalizing feminism – both as an “institution” with certain common goals and practices, and within institutions ranging from national governments to organized religion – the fact is that the second wave was far more diverse and contentious than it is (or was) generally acknowledged to be, leading to visible fissures from the start of this era’s feminist resurgence. Feminists of color and working-class women called attention to the middle¬to-upper-class Eurocentrism of second wave leaders, straight and lesbian feminists debated the “proper” sexual positioning of the movement’s members, and sex-radical and anti-censorship feminists declared their right to sexual self-expression in the midst of anti-pornography activism.

This expanding discourse and the heated debates that it inspired resulted not only in a diverse but also in an increasingly individualistic feminism that, as the evolving movement both shaped and responded to postmodern theory, by the 1980s would give way to what many have begun to both recognize and theorize as a third wave of feminism in our present day. Third wave feminism can generally be identified in the feminist practices of “Generation X” (born in the 1960s and 1970s), who grew up in the midst of tremendous shifts in feminist practice, with an unprecedented sense of confidence born of their unprecedented privileges. This generation witnessed many different versions of what feminism itself could be, a fact addressed by literary scholars Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, who note that younger women today “grew up with equity feminism, [and] got gender feminism in college, along with poststructuralism.” And, as a result of the expanding feminist discourse they grew up taking it for granted, Heywood and Drake also note that the third wave subsequently took it upon themselves to “work on a feminism that strategically combines elements of these feminisms, along with black feminism, women-of¬color-feminism, working-class-feminism, pro-sex feminism, and so on.”3 And, because of such expansion and pluralism in feminist thought, it is unsurprising that today feminists tend to feel far less cause for immediate suspicion about what pop culture is “telling” them about women, and rather feel empowered to manipulate those messages to suit their purposes. As such, our current era in feminist history is defined less by a single-minded focus on organization and activism (which, it is frequently argued, excluded as much as served women who did not meet certain leaders’ “standards” for the same) than by the study of identity-formation, leading women to theorize and practice individual feminist politics expressed more subtly in everyday-life actions and popular media.

It is easy to appreciate the feminist “wave” model because, as literary scholar Judith Roof puts it, it allows one to address feminism’s evolution without resorting to the tempting mother/daughter framework in which age-based generations are pitted against one another, which privileges “a kind of family history that organizes generations where they don’t exist, ignores intragenerational differences and intergenerational commonalities, and thrives on a paradigm of oppositional change.”4 As such, literary scholar Astrid Henry argues in her book Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, “the metaphor of the wave seems to offer an alternative model for describing feminist generations.”5 The wave structure also allows for feminist scholarship to “flow,” as it were, toward individuals, movements, and practices that may not in their own day have been recognized by – indeed, may even have been fought by – the period’s dominant feminist culture, and recuperate them as preexisting models for subsequent generations.

However, it is also possible to see a crucial problem in applying this seemingly fluid structure in our present moment of feminist history, in that the binary construction of recent feminist history often lends itself to the polarization of women who identify by age or experience with one “wave” (read: side) or another. Moreover, it forces women who came to the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s to either choose one side or the other in this illusory divide – or worse. As articulated by Henry: “As they can be understood as neither ‘mothers’ nor ‘daughters’ within feminism’s imagined family structure, such feminists [find themselves] frequently absent from recent discourse on feminism’s (seemingly two) generations.”6 In other words, as literary scholar Diane Elam has put it, while most debates on the issue position “senior,” second-wave feminists against their “juniors” in the third wave, in reality “most feminists find themselves to be both a senior and a junior at the same time.”7

Comparing the work of Mary Beth Edelson and Annie Sprinkle forces us to confront this problem of defining a hard line between feminist generations, as well as a single way of “doing” feminist art. Born in 1933 and 1954, respectively, both these artists came of age in midst of the second wave, but their life trajectories could not be more different. Edelson, like many of her fellow pioneers in the women’s liberation movement, came to feminist art and activism at the start of the second wave, through her activism in the American civil rights movement, after first embracing a traditional role as a school-age beauty queen and suburban wife and mother in the Midwest. A generation later, Sprinkle was born Ellen Steinberg to an extremely liberal California family, but did not come to feminism until the third wave of the movement was well underway in the 1980s, after building a relatively high-profile career as a star of pornographic films and the burlesque stage. But, for all their differences, these artists also remind us of the resiliency of certain unexpected issues and strategies in feminist art history – in particular, the roles of sexuality, humor, and paradox in conveying a politicized message.

At first glance, these artists’ work – like their biographies – would seem to have little in common. Edelson is perhaps most famous for the work she created at the start of her career, when she pioneered the feminist research and appropriation of historical “goddess” imagery that has unfortunately (and, as Edelson herself would later point out, incorrectly) been stereotyped as the primary iconography of second-wave artwork. Sprinkle is infamous for her explicit sexual imagery and performances, in which she promotes the liberating experience of women’s construction of diverse sexual personae derived from popular culture. But, when one scratches the surface of these two women’s long and varied oeuvres, it is surprisingly easy to find similarities that not only bind them, but by extension the several generations of feminist thinkers that we find living, working, and pushing forward together in our current, third wave of the women’s movement.

The most direct similarity between Edelson and Sprinkle – interestingly and surprisingly – is the fact that both their work has been considered “pornographic” and censored by the American government. Edelson fought her battles with the United States’ Post Office, which returned her Woman Rising postcards because of the nude self-portrait promoting the exhibition; the US Senate used Sprinkle’s provocative body art (along with that of Holly Hughes and Karen Finley) to establish the practice of denying individual artists grants through the National Endowment for the Arts.8 Clearly, neither Edelson’s mytho-natural approach to female sexuality in her performative recreations of ancient goddesses and cult figures, nor Sprinkle’s playfully educational approach to the same in works like her Public Cervix Announcement – in which Sprinkle invited audience members to discover this hidden part of women’s bodies by peering at her own with a speculum and flashlight – were considered anything more than “patently offensive” to these governmental bodies.9 However, the manner in which these women’s very different approaches to the female body were so easily rounded up and labeled as sexualized and pornographic is not simply a symptom of cultural discomfort with the aggressively sexual woman, but is also the result of another commonality of Edelson’s and Sprinkle’s work: the complex and paradoxical image of womanhood that it presents. While it is tempting to label each woman’s work as reflecting the broader feminist strategies of the eras from which they first sprang as artists – Edelson as a second-wave “essentialist” whose work reveals essential truths about the female body, and Sprinkle as a third-wave “constructionist” whose work deconstructs efforts to claim any irreducible physical essence that defines women – the fact is that the complexities of womanhood presented in the work of each illustrate the foolishness of this approach.10

Edelson herself has written passionately against this tendency in the analysis of her own and other feminists’ artwork, as exemplified by her oft-cited and reproduced “Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley,” first published in 1989 in response to the critic’s lecture on Currents and Crosscurrents in Feminist Art. Using the “nature/culture” binary to break down feminist artists into either essentialists or constructionists, McEvilley proceeded to slot feminist artists from Carolee Schneemann to Barbara Kruger into one category or the other. Edelson – in the audience for one of these lectures, and appalled at the breezy manner with which McEvilley broke down the diverse work of some twenty-five-odd-years’ worth of feminist art – used her letter to object to McEvilley’s approach as “an interpretation of events that I dare say anyone who has been directly involved with the movement over the years would have found disturbing, if not manipulative.” Besides pointing out the oversimplification of McEvilley’s categories – in which she noted that he claimed, for example, “that virtually all body artists were ‘Goddess Artists’” – Edelson compellingly pointed out the ways in which he presented “nature and culture groupings as if they were locked in some ongoing war...[and advanced] the idea that women artists working with nature have accepted their bodies and intuition at the expense of their cognitive minds, and that deconstructionist artists have accepted their intellects at the expense of their sensual bodies.”11 McEvilley’s approach, it should be said, was hardly original. Indeed, Edelson had pointed out the occurrence of this either/or categorization nearly twenty years earlier in the context of another male critic’s problematic look at feminist art, when she responded to Lawrence Alloway’s 1976 Art in America article on women’s art of the period: “Alloway’s cool and light touch may be easy to read, but it is misleading. The forms taken by feminist art are amorphous and defy clear-cut, black-and-white analysis.”12

And, as Edelson’s exasperated response to McEvilley demonstrated, his binary approach reflected a still-thriving tendency in the analysis of feminist art, to which the artist had reason to take exception. By the time of his lecture, after a career in which the artist herself admitted to being one of the few of her generation to actually use goddess imagery in her work, Edelson’s work had taken a proliferation of turns that found her “goddesses” now taking the form not of nature deities, but of movie stars and pin-up girls – sometimes, one in combination with the other. However, reviewing her revisionist collages of the 1970s, such as Some Living American Women Artists and the Death to the Patriarchy series (in which she substituted the faces of men from epic history paintings with those of contemporary women artists, to hilarious and poignant effect), and self-portraits such as Wonder Women, it is easy to see that the artist used iconic figures from art and pop-cultural history in ways that hardly fit the “goddess-art” label with which her work of this period was slapped. Even her performance-based self-portraiture from the period, in which she directly and indirectly acted out the mythic connections of goddess figures with nature, often built upon or even went against the dominant feminist meanings of such imagery. This is particularly clear in her 1973 work Seeing Double, where the nude Edelson engages the viewer with three pairs of eyes – one pair in her head, one in her breasts, and another springing forth from her body like tentacles – in such a way that the artist claimed she might be “taking command of the act of looking”13 in an era when many feminist thinkers, influenced by Laura Mulvey’s writing on the subject, believed such acts might be beyond the scope of women’s desires or capabilities. And the difficulty of characterizing her representations of women only grew in the 1980s.

At the start of that decade Edelson discovered film scholar E. Ann Kaplan’s groundbreaking feminist anthology on Women in Film Noir.14 In it, Kaplan brought together the work of scholars not only interested in challenging Mulvey’s influential but limited concept of the “male gaze,” but also in suggesting ways in which the very narrative, popular films that many feminist thinkers were quick to vilify might in fact offer representations of women that held tremendous feminist potential. As Kaplan argued in the book’s introduction: “The film noir world is one in which women are central to the intrigue of the films, and are furthermore usually not placed safely in any of the familiar roles [ – ] wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, mistresses, whores [who] simply provide the background for the ideological work of the film which is carried out through men.”15 As such, these characters provide what contributor Mary Ann Doane would later call “a problematic within which the image is manipulable, producible, and readable” by women.16 Inspired by the possibilities of these readings of pop-cultural icons, Edelson began appropriating new characters for her work, derived from popular film stills and pin-ups in which, as the artist herself wrote, women “are released from the original Hollywood script [and] they are free to stage and star in their own life/movie, in collaboration with the viewer.”17

Ranging from celebratory to elegiac, and myriad combinations in between, these works continue today and exemplify the paradoxical nature of Edelson’s feminist practice, as well as the humor that she uses to disarm her audiences’ expectations of the same. Positing these “screen goddesses” as modern deities, she reads into them a power that transcends popular stereotypes of either the actresses themselves or feminist politics. And, by pairing traditional spiritual and nature goddesses with these pop icons, she problematizes the nature/culture split that each group, respectively, traditionally represents. Moreover, inviting us to read these figures in this way, she often underscores these seeming contradictions with a sense of humor that is disruptive and sometimes bittersweet. In these collages, which range from small works on paper to monumental chiffon panels, Marilyn Monroe is given the opportunity to be Kali as well as a dressmaker and a radical feminist, in works where we first laugh at the silliness, but then lament the truth of the fact that Marilyn Monroe Never Got... the chance to do or be any of these things – or anything much at all. Gena Rowlands’ Gloria is not only this film’s eponymous gun-wielding avenger of terrorized women and children, but becomes Baubo showing off her face-like genitalia as equal parts comedy and threat; and the double meaning of pop singer Madonna’s name is pondered as she blows kisses at an ancient fertility figure. As art historian Laura Cottingham has written of this recent (and growing) body of work, Edelson’s strategies result in “images of female representation that seek to disrupt and transform the patriarchal pictorial codes that define and limit female identity.”18

This very process of disruption and transformation is what Annie Sprinkle’s work has become known for, since she herself – in a ritual overseen by no less a feminist pioneer than performance artist Linda Montano – was “transformed” from porn star to artist in 1988.19 Several years earlier, Sprinkle experienced another conversion, from porn star to feminist, when her “support group” called Club 90 (which included feminist pornographers Gloria Leonard and Candida Royalle) led the “Deep Inside Porn Stars” panel at the Franklin Furnace’s 1984 exhibition The Second Coming in New York City.20 The exhibition had been organized by the feminist pro-choice collective Carnival Knowledge to serve as “an erotic carnival providing a new definition of pornography, one not demeaning to women, men, and children.”21 The show’s embrace of feminist sexual expression and diversity was reflected in the collective’s collaboration with sex workers, who worked with the group on its objects, installations, and performances – all of which explored the place of sexual self-expression in these women’s feminist politics. The panel discussion brought publishers, porn stars, and performance artists (and combinations thereof) together to talk about the place of eroticism, sexual orientation, and feminism in their various works and professions. Shortly thereafter, Sprinkle’s unusual burlesque show at the notorious Times Square strip club Show World was “discovered” and included in Richard Schechner’s 1985 revue, The Prometheus Project, and Sprinkle began the process of incorporating these new passions for feminist politics and performance art into her longstanding career as a sex worker.22

The timing of Sprinkle’s mash-up of sex, feminism, and art was not coincidental. All three had fairly recently come together in spectacular and contentious ways in the conflation of the “culture wars” initiated by the decade’s conservative politics in the US – of which the country’s NEA scandal was a very visible symptom – and the “sex wars” initiated by the decade’s most audible feminist voices, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who joined forces with the era’s conservative politicians in fighting for anti-pornography legislation that would have seriously curtailed the free speech rights outlined in the country’s Constitution. This “warring” atmosphere would come to a head when New York City’s all-women Barnard College organized the conference “The Scholar and the Feminist: Towards a Politics of Sexuality” in 1982. Although the conference, and the subsequent publication of the writing and images presented there, encompassed a spectrum of feminist positions on the role of sexuality that existed between pro-sex and anti-porn thinkers in the women’s movement, the conference was picketed by several women who argued that its subject was anti-feminist.23

While this split that sexuality would cause within the feminist movement in this decade would clearly sever bonds many activists had enjoyed since the start of the second wave, the pluralism promoted in the conference and anthology helped to articulate the beginning of a new era. In her introduction to Pleasure and Danger, the landmark publication that came from the Barnard conference, sociologist and conference coordinator Carole Vance wrote: Feminism should encourage women to resist not only coercion and victimization, but also sexual ignorance, deprivation and fear of difference [...]. Feminism must also insist that women are sexual subjects, sexual actors, sexual agents; that our histories are complex and instructive; that our experience is not a blank, nor a mere repetition of what has been said about us, and that the pleasure we have experienced is as much a guide to future action as the brutality […]. It is not enough to move women from danger and oppression [. . .]. Feminism must increase women’s pleasure and joy, not just decrease our misery.24 Vance’s notion of a dynamic, diverse women’s movement reflected a view that would increasingly be shared and fought for by feminists as the women’s movement pushed into the 1980s, and its third wave.25

It was this in environment that Sprinkle’s work as a “newly-christened” artist was born and nurtured – indeed, the Franklin Furnace The Second Coming exhibition was itself part of a spate of exhibitions and publications by feminist artists, authors, and collectives that, like Sprinkle, sought to counter the influence of anti-porn feminism with work that drew attention to how this position demonstrated a threat to personal liberties, the evolution of feminist thought, and the plurality of feminism itself.26 When faced with the very real possibility of feminist theory being applied in a way that many felt would limit rather than expand women’s freedom and equality, feminist artists rose to reconsider the potential for sexual self-expression in their lives. As such, popular sexualized imagery was reinvestigated for its feminist potential, rather than simply criticized for its sexism, and Sprinkle emerged to posit that her experiences in the world of commercial pornography might yield insights in this regard.

And, in much the same way that Edelson’s film-noir vixens were appropriated and (as the artist calls this strategy) “re-scripted” from this era on, at the same time Sprinkle began to “re¬script” her two decades of sex work – in films, photographs, and performance – in the context of her findings after discovering and studying both art and feminist history. Her burlesque performances took on new meaning when restaged in art venues such as The Performing Garage, The Kitchen, and Highways, and vice-versa, as Sprinkle changed her performances in burlesque venues to include politicized messages addressing feminist activism, queer culture, free-speech issues, and even the burgeoning AIDS crisis. She reviewed and deconstructed her film and photo work in performances such as The Prometheus Project and Post-Porn Modernist, and artist’s books such as Annie Sprinkle’s ABC Study of Sexual Lust and Deviations; and she devised new work that drew attention to the similarities between seemingly playful projects such as the Public Cervix Announcement and Tit Prints and serious, by-then canonical, second-wave feminist work by predecessors such as Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke.27

As Sprinkle herself would say about this new chapter of her life, “My feminist mother used to come into my room and joke whether I would grow up to be a whore or an artist. She was exactly right!”28 This statement is more than a quip: it reflects perfectly the manner in which Sprinkle embodies the third-wave embrace of both/and rather than either/or in regards to feminist identity. But, the paradoxical nature of Sprinkle’s creative and feminist practices is not limited to simultaneously being whore and artist, but also – again, in a manner strikingly similar to Edelson – to being constructionist and essentialist; or, as Sprinkle articulates these positions, slut and goddess. As an offshoot of the Club 90 support group, Sprinkle created the “Sprinkle Salon” in her apartment/studio – which the artist herself called an update of “Warhol’s Factory, an outrageous creative powerhouse, blending art and sexuality.”29 It was from the Sprinkle Salon that the Sluts and Goddesses workshop developed in 1991: a 12-hour, daylong workshop where Sprinkle transformed a group of participants (male and female) into wig-wearing, spike-heeled, raunchy alter-egos to “learn the secrets, feel the powers, and enjoy the pleasures of sluthood,” before being dressed in “sparkly goddess attire” and taking turns chanting and worshipping each other.30

Exemplifying the workshop’s creations is the series of photographs of Linda Montano that came from it. Sprinkle’s mentor since participating in Montano’s “Summer Saint Camp” in Kingston, New York, from the 1960s Montano has used her performance art to address the very issues of transformation that would inspire Sprinkle’s own. And, like Edelson, Montano’s early, second-wave performances based around religion and mythology (in her own case, stemming from her background as a strict Catholic and, briefly, a nun) have been stereotyped as essentialist. Sprinkle’s Twelve Sluts and Goddesses Inside Linda Montano give lie to this typical tactic of interpreting such second-wave work, and the resulting images/characters – ranging from Montano as “Pinup Model Lindy Page” to “Supreme Goddess Guru Leendah,” with various feminine and transgendered personae in between – reveal, with a combination of humor and glamour uncharacteristic of Montano’s own work, the control and discipline that underlie the entire history of what she calls “Living Art.”31

Though typically fun and comical, Sprinkle’s workshop had a serious foundation, by this time derived from her continuing development as an artist, feminist, and person – what Sprinkle calls her “post-porn transformation.” Whereas early in her career, Sprinkle’s performances addressed her transformation from shy, retiring Ellen Steinberg to sexy, feminist Annie Sprinkle, in the early 1990s the artist began discussing her new transformation: from Annie to the Goddess-figure Anya. And, in something of a reverse process of Edelson’s study of mythical goddesses giving way to femmes-fatales, Sprinkle’s career-long contemplation of the “slutty” women of pornography gave way to a study of ancient goddesses and spiritual sexuality, eventually leading to a doctoral degree in Human Sexuality in 2002. Similarly, the pansexuality of Annie has given way to Anya’s lesbianism – and even monogamy, as expressed in her ongoing, seven-year collaborative piece with her spouse, artist Elizabeth Stephens, entitled The Love Art Laboratory.32

Ultimately, Sprinkle has stated that her Sluts and Goddesses aimed to articulate the ways in which “most women have various sensual and sexual personae within themselves. We have been taught to judge them as either good or bad, to allow some of them, and others to fear and repress. According to our research, embracing and exploring all of [sic] sexual personas is not only fun and pleasurable, it is empowering, liberating and healthy.”33 And, in this regard, one not only finds the common thread behind the uncommon work of Edelson and Sprinkle, but arguably just one of many threads to be teased out of the common fabric of the feminist experience. The search for common struggles and strategies shared by such different artists is particularly exciting when considered in the context of the intergenerational dialogues possible in our current, third wave of the women’s movement – in which an unprecedented, overlapping number of generations coexist to learn from one another as they chart the future course of feminism. With the “sluts and goddesses” of Edelson and Sprinkle in mind, I would like to return to the voices that began this essay, speaking of the need to transcend the labels of “junior and senior,” “mother and daughter.” The similarities to be found in the work of different feminist generations on display in It’s Time for Action, remind us that we live through certain waves together, and waves are literally fluid – besides their nebulous beginning and end, they also flow into one another. This exhibition reminds us that no matter what our birth-date, we are all living through and defining the third wave – feminism’s evolving present, not just a generational label – and, as such, are all actors in its evolution as the tide continues to roll.


1. See Donna Haraway, “Otherworldly Conversations; Terran Topics; Local Terms,” in Science As Culture 3, n. 1, 64-98.
2. Katy Deepwell, “Editorial Policy,” in n.paradoxa: international online feminist art journal, n. 11 (October 1999), http://web.ukonline.co.uk/n.paradoxa/edit.htm
3. Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, “Introduction,” in Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, ed. Heywood and Drake (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 3.
4. Judith Roof, “Generational Difficulties; or, The Fear of a Barren History,” in Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue, ed. Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan (Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1997), 72.
5. Astrid Henry, Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 4.
6. Astrid Henry, Not My Mother’s Sister, 4.
7. Diane Elam, “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves,” in Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue, 63.
8. For contemporary analyses of these problems from a feminist perspective, see Christine Tamblyn, “The River of Swill: Feminist Art, Sexual Code, and Censorship,” in Afterimage 18, n. 3 (October 1990), 10-13; “Nonprofits and Their Sponsors: Risky Business,” in Village Voice (27 February 1990), 49; and Carol Jacobsen, “Redefining Censorship: A Feminist View,” in Art Journal 50, n. 4 (Winter 1991), 42-55. For a recent analysis of these scandals, see Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America, ed. Brian Wallis, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine (New York: New York University Press, 1999).
9. The United States’ Supreme Court modern legal (and criminal) definition of “obscenity” is that which appeals to the “prurient interest” of its viewers and is found “patently offensive” in light of “community standards,” as decided in the Miller v. California case of 1973.
10. For an excellent, and extensive, discussion of this “nature/culture” split in feminist theory—and problems with the same—see Diana Fuss, Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York and London: Routledge Press, 1989).
11. Mary Beth Edelson, “Male Grazing: An open letter to Thomas McEvilley,” in Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 592-4. First published as “Objections of a ‘Goddess Artist;’ An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley,” in New Art Examiner 16, n. 8 (April 1989).
12. Mary Beth Edelson, “More on Women’s Art: An Exchange,” in Art in America 64, n. 6 (November-December 1976), 11-23.
13. Edelson, The Art of Mary Beth Edelson (New York: DAE Books, 2002), 78.
14. For the artist’s statement on her discovery of this text, see The Art of Mary Beth Edelson, 15.
15. E. Ann Kaplan, “Introduction,” in Women in Film Noir, ed. Kaplan (London: BFI Publishing, 1980), 2.
16. Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” in Feminism and Film, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 193. Originally published in Screen 23 (1982), 78-87.
17. Edelson, The Art of Mary Beth Edelson ,131.
18. Laura Cottingham, “Shifting Signs: On the Art of Mary Beth Edelson,” in The Art of Mary Beth Edelson, 25.
19. On the occasion of Montano’s 50th birthday, in 1988 Montano “baptized” Sprinkle as an artist, as evidenced in a touching series of photos that show Sprinkle blindfolded for 6 hours, and subsequently led to a park by Montano, who pours water over Sprinkle’s head and declares the weeping Sprinkle “born again” as an artist. See Linda Montano, “Summer Saint Camp,” in TDR: The Drama Review 33, n.1 (Spring 1989), 94-96; and Annie Sprinkle, Post-Porn Modernist (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998), 87-89.
20. Annie Sprinkle in Anne Pasternak, “(Interview with) Annie Sprinkle,” Journal of Contemporary Art 5, part 2 (Fall 1992), 105.
21. Quoted in Arlene Raven, “Star Studded: Porn Stars Perform,” in Crossing Over: Feminism and Art of Social Concern (Ann Arbor and London: UMI Research Press, 1988).
22. See Sprinkle, Post-Porn Modernist, p.95.
23. The resulting publication was the book, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (New York: Routledge, 1984.) For an account of the protests, see Vance’s recent introduction, “More Pleasure, More Danger: A Decade after the Barnard Conference,” in the Third Edition of Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Vance (London: Pandora Press, 1992), xvi-xxix. See also Dorothy Allison’s personal account of being a target of the Barnard attacks in Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1994), 101-119. In addition to a two-page leaflet distributed by the group Women Against Pornography, in July of that year WAP’s allies gave agitated – and arguably libelous – accounts of both the sessions and the sexual lives of individual participants that remain something of a black mark on late feminist history.
24. Vance, “Introduction,” from Pleasure and Danger, 24.
25. The subject of the “sex wars” and its implication for feminist art are explored more thoroughly in Maria Elena Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 302-310.
26. See, for example, Vance, Pleasure and Danger; Audra Lorde, Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984); Women Against Censorship, ed. Varda Burstyn (Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 1985); Joanna Russ, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985); and Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography, and Censorship, ed. the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) Book Committee (East Haven, CT: LongRiver Books, 1986).
27. Sprinkle herself articulates her indebtedness to such predecessors in Post-Porn Modernist; and The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop, or How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps, video (1992). Feminist scholars have also, more recently, noted this heritage; see Chris Straayer, “The Seduction of Boundaries: Feminist Fluidity in Annie Sprinkle’s Art/Education/Sex,” in Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, ed. Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson (London: British Film Institute, 1993), 156-175; and Jane Alison Schneider, “Slippery Subjects: Representing Feminist Sexuality in Film, Video, and Live Performance, 1972-1992,” MA Thesis in Theatre (San Diego: University of California, San Diego, 1994).
28. Annie Sprinkle, Love Magazine 83 (n.d.), 4963; As quoted in Linda Williams, “A Provoking Agent: The Pornography and Performance Art of Annie Sprinkle,” in Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, ed. Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson (London: British Film Institute, 1993), 176.
29. Sprinkle, Post-Porn Modernist (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998), 64.
30. Sprinkle, Post-Porn Modernist (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998), 183
31. See the extensive interview with Linda Montano in Angry Women, ed. Andrea Juno and V. Vale (San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications, 1991), 50-65.
32. This seven-year piece is inspired by Linda Montano’s own “Seven Years of Living Art.” See Sprinkle and Stephens’ documents at: http://loveartlab.ucsc.edu/
33. Annie Sprinkle and Maria Beatty, The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop, or How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps, video (1992).