Mary Beth Edelson: Activism and International Feminist Collaborations

Come Dressed as Your Favorite Artist (1979-03-14)The Feminist Institute


Throughout Edelson’s prolific career, she has been a committed activist for women and women artists. She participated and photographed numerous events at museums and galleries protesting the lack of representation of women artists such as the 1976 event at the Museum of Modern Art. 

Women's Action Coalition meeting at Drawing Center (1992)The Feminist Institute

Edelson was an active member of WAC formed in response to several events including the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and a number of gang rape trials.

Women's Action Coalition protest (1993)The Feminist Institute

Membership grew to 3,000 in New York City (active January 1992 to November 1995) and Edelson participated in events and photographed many of their actions that brandished the slogan “WAC is watching, women take action.” WAC activities and protests addressed issues of oppression of women, people of color, and those who identify as queer.

Women's Action Coalition Pace Protest, Mary Beth Edelson, 1993, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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These WAC images include a meeting at the Drawing Center, a march against rape, and a 1993 protest sign aimed at Pace Gallery in which Edelson made a poster using The New York Times Magazine cover of all the white men represented at the gallery.

Combat Zone Campaign Headquarters Against Domestic Violence, Mary Beth Edelson, 1994, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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In 1994 with the support of Creative Time, Edelson established "Combat Zone: Campaign Headquarters Against Domestic Violence" to develop self-defense workshops for victims of domestic violence. This three-month project provided classes for local women and provides a model for others around the country.

Combat Zone Campaign Headquarters Against Domestic Violence press release, Mary Beth Edelson, 1994, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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Additional programming focusing on women in prisons, violence against the queer community, and the first online conference on domestic violence. Edelson has noted that many friends and WAC members assisted in the undertaking including Janet Henry and Diane Dwyer.

International Feminist Collaborations canvas by Mary Beth EdelsonThe Feminist Institute

International Feminist Collaborations with Suzanne Lacy, Mary Beth Edelson, Nil Yalter, Ulrike Rosenbach, and Miriam Sharon, documented by Mary Beth Edelson

Throughout her career, Edelson has sought out
collaborators or organized others to make a difference, as she has often said
“If you want to get anything done, form a group.” This impulse is evident in
the "International Feminist Collaborations" project in which she connected with
artists in 1977 that included Suzanne Lacy (Los Angeles), Nil Yalter (Turkey,
living in France), Ulrike Rosenbach (Germany), and Miriam Sharon (Israel). This collaboration was documented by Edelson in a 2003 self-created book and includes an introduction on the group’s formation, correspondence among the five artists, and documentation on their proposal for a collaborative exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Of note, is a letter Edelson wrote to her collaborators, one of the many documents the Fales Art Library at New York University now has in its collections and is included in her IFC documentary book. This select letter illustrates the extent of the ideas exchanged among the artists as Edelson writes to all the collaborators about their ideas and potential projects. 

In the Introduction to this documentary book written after their original exchanges, Edelson (with editing by Lacy) wrote that they were seeking international collaborations with like-minded feminist artists: “As a group we sought each other out based on our common interests in sociologically based art concepts, with particular focus on contemporary mobile cultures including Bedouin Nomads, Anatolian Turkish immigrants, US inner city homeless, and our own evolving international network of feminist artists. We viewed our group as a metaphor for the nomadic experience, since feminist artists had begun to travel from one city or country to another to seek out and create a ‘tribal’ feminist network.” (Edelson, 2003, 3) Edelson has used the term tribe or tribal as a way to describe groups of women or representations of women that were such a significant aspect to her work and organizing as a feminist activist and artist. The group’s project for the Centre Pompidou was to establish a temporary community for which each artist would build their own shelter, remain for the duration of the performance, and rely of the public for necessities such as food. The collective living environment of women artists would be on display, as well as the social interactions among them while each produced their own work. The habitats and detritus left behind would act as documentation of the piece. Edelson wrote, “Our curiosity about our personal and group limits made us willing to radically position our bodies in public. Besides, we were performance artists, immersed in an understanding of how our bodies were representative of conditionings and readings and subject to forces often far beyond our individual lives. The subversive nature of this venture lay in unblocking boundaries, and in producing new social contracts,” as they were to rely on the public for necessities and interaction. (Edelson, 2003, 4) While the IFC proposal was never realized, Edelson found the collaboration among the artists a significant part of the historical record of feminist art during the 1970s to compile the documents decades later into a book, but also because she felt the issues confronted continued to be pressing as these five women represented Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Atheist backgrounds.

IFC 2, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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IFC 3, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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IFC 4, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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IFC 5, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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IFC 6, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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IFC 7, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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Credits: Story

Written by Dr. Kathleen Wentrack
(c) 2019 Kathleen Wentrack

Kathleen Wentrack, PhD, is a Professor of Art History at The City University of New York, Queensborough CC and the editor of the forthcoming book "Collaboration, Empowerment, Change: Women’s Art Collectives." She recently published “1970s Feminist Practice as Heterotopian: The Stichting Vrouwen in de Beeldende Kunst and the Schule für kreativen Feminismus,” in "All Women Art Spaces in the Long 1970s" edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell (Liverpool University Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor to Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice and a co-coordinator of The Feminist Art Project in New York City.

Produced by Erica Galluscio

Photography of studio space provided by Kolin Mendez Photography

Accola Griefen Fine Art exhibition photos courtesy of Accola Griefen Fine Art: Rob van Erve

Images of "Goddess Tribe" installation courtesy of David Lewis New York

Select Bibliography

Buszek, Maria Elena. “Mothers and Daughters, Sluts and Goddesses: Mary Beth Edelson and Annie Sprinkle.” In: It’s Time for Action (There’s No Option). About Feminism. Ed. Heike Munder. Zurich: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and JRP/Ringier, 2007, 228-61.

Edelson, Mary Beth. The Art of Mary Beth Edelson. New York: Seven Cycles, 2002.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Firsthand: Photographs by Mary Beth Edelson, 1973-1993 and Shooter Series. Essay by Jan Avgikos, “No Reverse Gear.” Mary Beth Edelson: New York, 1993.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Interview with Kathleen Wentrack. New York, 12 September 2008.

Edelson, Mary Beth. "Male Grazing: An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley.” In: Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000.” Ed. Hilary Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, 592-94. First published as “Objections of a ‘Goddess Artist:’ An open Letter to Thomas McEvilley.” New Art Examiner 16, No. 8 (April 1989): 34-38.

Edelson, Mary Beth. “Pilgrimage/See for Yourself: A Journey to a Neolithic Goddess Cave, 1977. Grapceva, Hvar Island Yugoslavia.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics #5, Spring 1978: 96-99.

Edelson. Mary Beth. Seven Cycles: Public Rituals. With an Introduction by Lucy R. Lippard." New York: Mary Beth Edelson, 1980.

Edelson. Mary Beth. Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums. New York: Mary Beth Edelson, 1990.

Edelson. Mary Beth. “Success Has 1,000 Mothers: Art and Activism from Mary Beth Edelson’s Point of View.” In: Women’s Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Ed. Gayle Kimball. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2005, 27-60..

Freitag, Barbara. Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unraveling an Enigma. London: Routledge, 2004

Gimbutas, Marija. Gods and Goddess of Old Europe, 7000 to 3500 BC/Myths, Legends, and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Griefen, Kat. “Considering Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artists.” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2019, 38-9.

Höglinger, Nora. “Mary Beth Edelson: “The Goddess is Us.” In: Feminist Avant-Garde: Art of the 1970s, The Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna. Ed. Gabriele Schor. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016, 120-25.

Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses. Ed. Vincent Hale and Vincent Croce. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing and Rosen Publishing Group, 2014.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Dial Press, 1976.

Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.

Winifred Milius Lubell, The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy, Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1994

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