About a month ago, or maybe more, I went to The Cooper Union to meet the two curators of “We Dissent: Design of the Women’s Movement in New York.” The show, on view through December 2nd, was assembled by Stéphanie Jeanjean, an adjunct assistant professor of art history at the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Alexander Tochilovsky, the curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. We spoke first in their offices right off the school’s gallery space, and then Jeanjean gave me a tour of the collection—papers, prints, and pamphlets, the exhibition follows the sometimes informal but always critical role the school played in a history of feminist action.
Christine Blasey Ford had given her testimony the week prior. On the stand, Ford had answered a question with an explanation of memory as it works, the rare slogan that imprints in the mind while explaining how that happens: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said when asked how she could trust her own recollection. The day we met, Jeanjean, Tochilovsky, and I spoke about physical remnants from past protests in front of the Anita Hill signs included in the exhibition—a photo of Hill’s face on a circular disc, the words “Women Will Remember” printed on her cheek. The day after our interview, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Lots happened in between those days; more has happened since. It is hard to say what of this time will remain not because we don’t know, but because the more words we use the more they reveal themselves to be inadequate. We are, in these in-between days, better served by slogans. Whether they are commandments or mottos, mantras or truisms, pull quotes or soundbites, the vocabulary of what is quickly remembered and easily repeated does as much at the moment as any manifesto.
Jeanjean and Tochilovsky started thinking about this show several years ago, motivated more by the school’s history than a social sensibility. In 1914, Cooper Union (then known as the Cooper Institute) hosted a talk called “What is Feminism?” Twelve speakers—six men and six women as though it were a jury, though who or what was on trial is another question for another time—were invited to speak for 10 minutes each. One speaker, Frances Perkins, activist and future Secretary of Labor, said feminism was a revolution and she identified above all else as a revolutionist. “I believe in revolution as a principle,” she said. “It does good for everybody.” A later meeting would include speeches by the labor organizer Rose Schneiderman and the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
After the 2016 presidential election, the historic parallels took on a new urgency. Both essential and immediate, every statement about our time had an obvious analog to the past. Yet the school does not have an official connection to protest, Jeanjean told me. What they provided was an arts education for women at a time when they were not supposed to receive anything like that; to teach them a trade when many white women were not supposed to think of themselves as workers. In their admissions archives, they can see the women who applied for financial aid, explaining why they needed to attend what was then called The New York School of Design for Women at Cooper Institute, separate from the general population from its founding in 1852 until 1859.
“They’re pretty much kids by themselves trying to face the economical situation of the late 19th century,” Jeanjean explained, “knowing there’s very little work for women, knowing what will happen without family support or marriage. It wasn’t only about education, but opportunities to become autonomous and independent.” This is particularly true of printmaking, which has much in common with industrial design and less with the artistic practices typically associated with leisure activities for upper-middle-class women.
Many of the artifacts were created to be brochures or similar educational tools, to get information to readers who needed it most. Passed out on street corners, it’s a flyer. In a glass case, it’s art. Both curators talked about how an exhibition changes the object itself. Tochilovsky can see that function existing, even in a museum or gallery setting. The artifact retains the intention because the conversation is, for so many issues, the same. “On the one hand it might seem depressing,” he acknowledges. “It’s like, where is the progress? Where is the success? But success only comes from being consistent and dogmatic. A power structure doesn’t topple so easily.” Paper is frail and people are careless. A certain level of protection is necessary, but much of the work can be picked up and handled.
A row of books lines the middle of the gallery space, early editions of writing beginning in the late-19th century through the present, such as SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. There is a copy of Through the Eyes of Rebel Women by Iris Morales, a brief history of the women in The Young Lords. Nearby are turn-of-the-century pamphlets with titles like “Marxism and the Woman Question” and “Women’s Liberation and The Socialist Revolution.” A resource handbook from the 1983 protest staged by the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice outside the Seneca Army Depot has a cover with an illustrated timeline of the activists who were there before them, and before the well-known convention at Seneca Falls —the women of the Hodinoshoni Iroquois Confederacy, who came in 1590 to call for the end of the war between nations, for example, and the abolitionists of the 1800s who gathered nearby at Harriet Tubman’s house.
On the walls, there are prints by the artist Faith Ringgold calling for Angela Davis’s release, the words “Free Angela” overlapping with the words “Free America,” a triangulated vortex of protest that is a promise: freedom for Davis would mean freedom for the country. Ringgold’s children’s books sit near graphic novels like Where Is Ana Mendieta? and close to an early edition of Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. There is also an obligatory Guerilla Girls poster, a must at any show about feminist art history; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque wearing a gorilla mask has become as recognizable as any of the classical paintings its confrontational text indicts. Jenny Holzer truisms line the wall right by the entrance, her calls for extreme action truncated into the shortest sentences. Videos of the Women’s Art Coalition (WAC) protests at galleries showing Carl Andre’s work after the suspicious death of performance artist Ana Mendieta play on a loop, as do videos of protests for abortion rights in Washington and New York.
“We Dissent” was designed to challenge the concept of unified feminist waves. As an example, Jeanjean references the second-wave feminists, often contextualized as being all bra burnings and birth control. But the 1960s itself is better defined by the civil rights movement, labor organizers, and other fights for equality that intersect with but are not limited to gender. Students of the school are expected to attend, and many of them are working on projects related to the materials on display. While most were familiar with the work Jeanjean cited as being considered emblematic of second-wave feminism (mainly the pill and Roe v. Wade) few were aware of the reproductive justice movement that fought forced sterilization and other abusive practices by gynecologists who were also eugenicists. Other visitors have included women who held the signs or made the posters at the protests the show documents; while Jeanjean led me around, a woman named Denise Petrizzo approached us and introduced herself as both a film editor and a member of WAC, offering her own personal footage of a protest she attended in the 1990s. She had already visited the show the week it opened, FaceTiming a fellow WAC member who couldn’t be there.
The digital concerns Jeanjean, who mentions that if we were to lose electricity we can lose the internet. This is, in many ways, the connection between what exists online and what exists in our hands: both can be destroyed. Fire, flood, the oils on our fingerprints—all of that can turn history into dust. Anything can be forgotten. Maybe worse is that the past can be changed in service to simplicity, an easier recollection at the expense of too much to say. These artifacts are prompts. They carry meaning not to replace recollections but to hold memory.
Our perception of feminism requires, according to Tochilovsky, a reactive examination: a willingness to see history with more depth than what exists on the surface. “From day one of looking at these organizations, they are not waves. It’s a continuous effort. There isn’t a lull. Things never stop,” he tells me, pausing to draw a graph to illustrate his point. On a piece of scrap paper with a thin, inky pen, he makes a long straight line, while a second line curves and oscillates above and below it. The tension wanes, he says, pointing at the low lapses, but it is the attention that raises the work to the forefront of our understanding. “When there’s more tension, there’s more visibility. More articles, more books. There’s a spike, but the work itself is ongoing. Grassroots is maybe not the right word, but at this level”—he points at the straight line—“it’s always happening.” He points again at the curves. “We see the artifacts in these spikes. These are the protests, the photos. In a way, it is a disservice to everything else. The planning, the organizing, the strategizing and the arguing—those are just as important as the actual artifacts.”
The right statement and the right strategy doesn’t always happen at the moment; they are a collection of all the moments that came before. Jeanjean and Tochilovsky thought about including more well-known visuals, like images of suffragettes with banners, if only to situate the rest of the work in a recognizable context, but ultimately decided the strength of Cooper Union’s archive was in what visitors didn’t already think they knew. “It doesn’t mean that we should ignore it,” Tochilovsky says. “It means the public has that perception and we should expand it. That’s where the power starts to come through.”
In the gallery, I wondered about other activists like Petrizzo: people who had shown up to actions that looked spontaneous, and now, from our perspective, seem inevitable. Jeanjean mentioned that they’ve had many visitors tell them they also attended the protests included in the exhibition, that they contributed to the zines or made signs seen in the photographs and video footage. They were a little surprised, Jeanjean said, to see the level of preservation involved. It wasn’t because the artifacts don’t matter, but because they relied on a vocabulary in the present tense: what needed to be seen and heard now. Written on cardboard or Xeroxed at day jobs, they are just scraps of paper. Hung on gallery walls or protected in archives, they’re remnants of an accumulated immediacy, an urgent sensibility for a language that believes in a future.
Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.