How Suzanne Lacy’s Feminist Work About Sexual Assault in the 1970s Created a New Art Form

Suzanne Lacy, 'Ablutions,' 1972.

Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, Ablutions, 1972.


In her new book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s (Thames & Hudson), critic Nancy Princenthal explores the history of speaking out about sexual assault as it was taken up by feminist artists at a key moment in art history. Nancy Spero, Valie-Export, Ana Mendieta, and many others encouraged public dialogue about sexual violence by men, making way for artists in their lineage to continue the conversation today. One artist that Princenthal engages is Suzanne Lacy, whose performances invited viewers to hear true testimonies from female victims of rape and to experience terrifying situations that mirrored the inner turmoil women faced after being assaulted. In an excerpt from her book below, Princenthal explains why social practice art, a type of conceptual work in which artists enlist social interactions as their medium, can be derived from Lacy’s pioneering work. —The Editors of ARTnews

In 1973, the simple, somber testimony of a brave few had been met with shocked silence; four years later, women were ready for outspoken, organized resistance—and for opening the definition of rape to forms of assault that hadn’t before been thus categorized. Conditions that fostered violence would be targeted as well. By the end of 1977, as Moira Roth wrote, “Rape was … seen as a political act rather than only as an individual sexual assault.”

Having urged women to toughen up and fight back, and encouraged survivors to speak out, feminist artists quickly came to agree that broader-based strategies were called for against biases far more entrenched and prevalent than had been recognized. Strikingly, the social-justice work undertaken in the second half of the ’70s, with its emphasis on solidarity, reinscribed sexual violence within the realm of universal female experience in which second-wave feminists had initially placed it.

For most of the women who formed the core of this new genre, activism was second nature. Many had grown up with—and away from—the protest movements of the sixties, and indeed came together as feminists in response to those movements’ deep-rooted misogyny. Women say yes to men who say no, ran one favorite slogan of the late sixties. Burning draft cards closed some doors, perhaps, but opened others during the antiwar effort’s salad days, of free love dispensed largely in terms defined by men. Thus the mounting anger that led Robin Morgan to announce, in 1970, “Goodbye, goodbye forever, counterfeit Left, counter-left, male-dominated cracked-glass-mirror reflection of the Amerikan nightmare. Women are the real Left.” And thus, simplifying things only a little, did “second-wave” feminism rise from the ashes of male chauvinism’s bonfires.

There were occasions on which such combustion occurred spontaneously. Perhaps nowhere do the tangled lines of sexism, racism, militant resistance, theater aimed at the masses, and intimate harm get more knotty than with the made-for-television saga of Patty Hearst’s 1974 abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army. At a time when the remaining activist groups had grown increasingly violent and gone further underground, a small, motley collective of agitators kidnapped the nineteen-year-old heiress. The greatest material success secured by the SLA’s leader, Donald DeFreeze—a nominal leftist and civil rights crusader (and the group’s sole African-American)—was the chaotic and short-lived distribution of free food at stores across California, one of his conditions for Hearst’s release.

In a recent book about the affair, lawyer Jeffrey Toobin writes, “At first. … The press and the public appeared to regard the crime through the prism of celebrity rather than politics.” It was indeed richly ironic that the celebrity in question was descended from a near-mythical media dynasty (whose first ruler, William Randolph Hearst, was the model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane). “In any case, the SLA was a political orphan,” Toobin continues, “scorned by the Black Panthers and other stalwarts of the movement,” including most (but not all) of the famously red-toothed Weather Underground. But the violence of its actions was real, producing civilian fatalities and the deaths of many SLA members, including DeFreeze, in a shoot-out with the police. The survivors, fugitives for a year and a half, engaged while on the lam in a fair amount of self-education, including in feminism; Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex was Hearst’s “bible” during this period.

Indeed issues of gender and sex, and of sexual coercion, would play a significant role in her trial. Determining her state of mind was crucial to assessing her culpability, which in turn involved judging her relationships with the SLA’s men. “‘Free sex was one of the principles of the cell’” she said she was told shortly after the kidnapping. “‘No one was forced to have sex in the cell. But if one comrade asked another, it was “comradely” to say yes,’” Toobin reports.

At her trial Hearst attested, tearfully, that she had been raped by DeFreeze and another SLA member. But ultimately a Mexican tchotchke that she was given by one of the men, and which she had put on a necklace and wore—in fond memory, it was argued—throughout the proceedings, was crucial in determining her guilt. It is impossible to say who was playing a role, and when. The SLA may not have warranted identification as a political group. The treatment Hearst submitted to while their (putative) captive may have been simply criminal. Or perhaps not. While anomalous, her situation sheds light on problems of determining guilt that is the sharper for being skewed. In a period during which radical politics went hand-in-hand with sexual coercion and drama staged for the largest possible audience, consent was perhaps never harder to judge.

If the kidnapping of Patty Hearst seems an only-in-California story, with its aspiring actors, roller-coaster plot, castle-on-a-hill backdrop, and courtroom-drama denouement, the extraordinarily gruesome murders committed five years earlier by the Manson “family” were even more deeply grounded in the West Coast mix of Hollywood royalty and tabloid headlines. Given this history, it seems inevitable that art undertaken as activism against sexual assault emerged in Southern California.

It can be said to have begun quietly, with the creation of an inexpensive little book by Suzanne Lacy called Rape Is. First published in 1972, it marked a leap outward from individual accounts of personal experience toward a far broader definition of rape and a much wider audience. By early 1977, Lacy and several other artists had organized Three Weeks in May, a program of events that produced national headlines. It proved a turning point in Lacy’s career and, although this has not been sufficiently acknowledged, it heralded—perhaps it invented—a new genre of art. The development of “relational aesthetics” and “social practice” art over the past decade and more is significantly indebted to Lacy and her collaborators. Other artists, mainly women, were beginning to engage in similar efforts. But Lacy, drawing on work with Judy Chicago, and also with a wide range of collaborators including, especially, Leslie Labowitz, was singularly influential in forging a union between artists, civic leaders, community organizers, and the mainstream news and entertainment media.

In 1975, Lacy undertook a program called One Woman Shows, in Los Angeles. Its structure was transitional, reaching for collectivity while still based in personal authorship. Finding each other by word of mouth, more than 50 women, some experienced artists and some not, each asked three others to attend one-time performances. Lacy staged the first, beginning by naming herself “The Woman Who Is Raped”—in solidarity, she made it clear, not from actual experience—and reading aloud that day’s police reports of rape. Among the other women who participated in the One Woman Shows, with performances at L.A.’s Woman’s Building, were Melissa Hoffman, Laurel Klick, and Cheryl Swannack, who performed rituals to exorcise violent experiences; Cheri Gaulke, who told a story about a battered woman; and Jerri Allyn and Anne Gauldin, who enacted skits in restaurants about harassment of waitresses by customers and coworkers.

Soon, though, Lacy wanted to reach further. “Take Back the Night” marches had begun; one of the first was in Philadelphia in October 1975. An International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women was held in Brussels in March 1976, attended by over two thousand women from forty countries. (It was inspired by Bertrand Russell’s international tribunal on crimes committed in the Vietnam War.) Topics included medical and economic injustices, attacks on lesbians, spousal abuse, prostitution, pornography, and femicide as well as rape. The conference opened with the reading of a telegram sent by Simone de Beauvoir for the occasion. A Take Back the Night march took place in association with the Tribunal. A broad coalition seemed necessary and possible.

Lacy’s organizational abilities, which Moira Roth described at the time as “uncannily effective,” were used “to draw women together not only for the purposes of protesting violence but also, and increasingly, to celebrate and strengthen the community of and network among women.” Along with her prodigious ability to initiate collective action, Lacy also had the benefit of an urban context in which several factors converged to support the proposition that art could be a potent force in resisting sexual violence.

Not only was Los Angeles in the ’70s a leading center for developing feminist thought and feminist art, it was also a city with an enormous proportion, per capita, of sexual assaults. A spokeswoman for the department of Human Relations in L.A. county affirmed, in 1976, that Los Angeles deserved its reputation as the rape capital of the nation. At the same time, as Lacy and Labowitz pointed out to me, California’s exceptional commitment to public higher education in the late sixties gave a wider range of people access to cultural opportunities, including those on offer at the Woman’s Building in L.A. (founded in 1973). Labowitz, who had been in Germany from 1972 until 1977, noted that the class system in Europe kept both fine art and higher education there more restricted. But, she added, it had far less crime. “In Europe, I experienced greater freedom walking on the streets,” she recalled. “You can’t be free if you don’t feel safe.”

Three Weeks in May, Lacy’s first full-blown public program—it ran from May 7 to May 24, 1977—was some time in the making. Looking back on it shortly afterwards, she wrote, “For several years, I struggled to integrate my work as a feminist educator and organizer with my work as an artist. A resolution has not come easy, for when one is trained as I was in social sciences, pre-medicine and community organization”—training she was now fully exploiting—“you learn to look for the kinds of results not readily apparent after completing a conceptual art piece.”

In addition to her academic background, it helped, as art historian Sharon Irish has pointed out, that Lacy had been exposed to commercial movie and television production during her graduate studies, and that for nine years starting in 1974, she lived with a man who ran a special effects business—Robert Blalack, of Praxis Film Works. Reflecting on her early alternation between “personal” art-making and political activism, Lacy said, “The apparently simple solution, to look at the structure underlying this political activity and use it as a model for artwork, did not occur to me until new ideas in performance art provided the context for it … I wanted to provide … a structure for dialogue at a mass level—to raise the consciousness of our entire community.” She admitted, “These intentions were not always clear to me—most were worked out during the elaborate process of constructing the piece. … The value of political art lies not only in its use as a model for what is possible, but as the elucidation of a process of thinking which combines aesthetics, political philosophy, and action-oriented strategy.” A new art form was consciously being birthed.

The cover of Nancy Princenthal's 'Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s.'


It is worth noting that formulating this kind of work in the 1970s was very different—considerably harder, in many ways—than it would be now. Internet search engines and social media provide instant, relatively frictionless connections with people in every field; that connectivity doesn’t guarantee response, but it does enormously ease the process. As Lacy undertook the organizing for Three Weeks in May, she delineated what she termed “four major ‘audience-groupings,’ or constituencies, roughly parallel to political or professional affiliations”: local government officials, feminist activists, women artists, and representatives of the media.

“These groups could simultaneously create events, serve as audiences, and increase their political awareness of each other,” she explained. As the coalitions came together, the piece took shape—not the other way around. And Lacy reached out person by person, often starting with a friend or colleague, although, she said, “I also used the traditional information paths found in the phone book and newspapers.” Distinctions between artists, collaborators, self-chosen audiences, press, and the broader public were deliberately blurred.

Negotiating these relationships required maintaining a precarious balance. You have to know “how to hold on to your vision and yet retain the flexibility which makes it a truly community-responsive art piece,” Lacy wrote, saying it was hard to decide “which ‘challenges’ from the milieu surrounding the piece are to be heeded and which ignored.” In a recent conversation, Labowitz recalled struggling to “merge self-awareness with social practice,” for which, she said, the significant presence in Germany of the Frankfurt school of political philosophy provided theoretical support, and a long view of social action, that were lacking in the US (although the feminist movement was stronger here). While these considerations added to the challenges of the face-to-face (or at least telephoned) negotiations with collaborators required at the time, personal discussions were essential to the program’s final shape and meaning. The evident involvement of individual hands, the seams that showed when the whole was assembled, gave the work a rough texture that contributed to its vitality.

At the center of Three Weeks in May were two 20-five-foot-wide, bright yellow maps of Los Angeles hung in the City Mall, a shopping center directly downstairs from City Hall. On one map, daily police rape reports were recorded with a stamped red “Rape,” around each of which nine fainter “rape” stamps were added, representing the estimated number of unreported assaults. The second map provided names, phone numbers, and locations (approximate, for safety reasons) of victim support centers, from hotlines to hospital emergency rooms. Artists, activists, and politicians together created the schedule of the more than thirty events that took place over the course of the program. Media attention was actively solicited throughout. Among collaborating organizations were the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, Women Against Rape, Men Against Rape, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), the American Civil Liberties Union, the Los Angeles Men’s Collective, and members of the Woman’s Building. An affirmative action program presented two self-defense demonstrations. County government representatives participated in a rape prevention workshop.

Four lunchtime performances at the City Mall were conceived by Labowitz. The first addressed Myths of Rape, in which six black-clad and blindfolded women (representing society’s blindness) carried signs while Labowitz handed out printed information. The second performance, called simply The Rape, explored the double victimization of survivors, first by the perpetrator and then by the criminal justice system. In the third performance, All Men Are Potential Rapists, members of the Los Angeles Men’s Collective recreated childhood games that fostered aggression against women. Women Fight Back, the last performance (and the most widely publicized; it was covered on local television), involved roughly half a dozen performers concealed by large black paper cones on which were written such exhortations as “gouge eyes” and “turn fear to anger!” At the conclusion, the performers broke free of their coverings to rescue an artist representing a woman in danger.

Lacy’s own contribution was a three-part, two-day piece at the Garage Gallery of the Studio Watts Workshop called She Who Would Fly. In the first, private part, Lacy served as witness on two afternoons as women came to the gallery to relate experiences of sexual violation. After they had spoken, the participants wrote their stories on sheets of paper and attached them to maps of the United States that covered the room. The second part, again private, was a “ritual” in which four women who had been raped—Nancy Angelo, Melissa Hoffman, Laurel Klick, and Cheryl Williams (two of whom had participated in One Woman Shows)—shared stories and food, and anointed each other with red greasepaint. Part three was the only segment open to the public, and then only to a few viewers at a time. A flayed lamb cadaver, to which large, white-feathered wings were attached, was suspended from the ceiling. An account by poet and novelist Deena Metzger relating the details of her rape (“‘Take off your clothes,’ he says. My body is shaking. …”) was added to the testimonies on the wall. And on a ledge above the door crouched four nude, red-stained women, observing viewers as they entered.

Their impact, along with the skinned and winged lamb, was forceful—overwhelming, for some. In Lacy’s description, “Avenging angels, metaphors for a woman’s consciousness which splits from her body as it is raped, the bird-women were intended to remind visitors they were voyeurs to the pain of very real experience.” Wrote scholar Meiling Cheng, “The work’s most important aspect is the moment when the audience members suddenly discover that they are being watched by these bird women. [It] transforms the performers from traumatized flesh/objects into accusatory subjects.” Clearly a searing performance, it just as obviously reflects Lacy’s sensibility, however much the program was meant to subsume individual voices.

The LAPD statistics that were assembled as part of Three Weeks in May show that 83 rapes and attempted rapes took place during its run. As one might expect, the vast majority of victims were young (between 12 and 30). Nine of the victims knew the suspect; eight successfully resisted assault. Weapons were used in 12 cases. One suspect was a family member; one victim was followed from a bar. The most dangerous location was South Central, with 26 rapes; Hollywood was next, with 15. Later statistics, included in a documentary book (printed in an edition of 10), showed that, for the entire year of 1977, 2,386 rapes and attempts were reported, the majority (1,141) in residences. There were 698 African-American victims of rapes and attempted rapes, and 764 white ones; at the time, the city was approximately 10 percent black.

Again, these statistics can only be called the roughest of estimates, and fully subject to racial bias; the LAPD was notorious for racism. (Its handling of the 1965 Watts uprising and subsequent introduction of SWAT teams—now an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics, then for Special Weapons Attack Teams—were infamously crushing.) At the same time, it seems clear that women of color were falling victim in disproportionate numbers; as with all rape statistics, those reported undoubtedly represent only a fraction of actual attacks.

Three Weeks in May also included, as part of the documentation it assembled, the California penal code on rape, which outlined the conditions that would permit a charge to be made: they include the plaintiff’s incapacity to consent because she was mentally compromised or unconscious, attacked or threatened with force, or erroneously “believes the man is her husband” due to a bogus marriage. This last is explained by the code’s preliminary statement, which “defines rape as an act of sexual intercourse, with a female who is not the wife of a perpetrator.” In other words, a husband’s right to rape his wife was at the time unconstrained by California law.

A great deal of what Lacy and her collaborators presented in Three Weeks in May was news to the public. In a statement to the press, the organizers wrote, “The truth is that no place is safe. It seems clear to say that women should not hitchhike: seventeen [of the victims] were raped while accepting or offering a ride to a stranger or acquaintance. But twenty-one [twenty-four, per statistics printed later] were raped at night in their own homes. . . . And twenty-three were raped on the streets in broad daylight! [underlined in the original]. One woman was raped by her bus driver when she fell asleep before the end of the route, another at five in the afternoon as she sat in her office.”

Press coverage for Three Weeks in May was modest but encouraging. The Los Angeles Times, heralding “Downtown Programs to Fight Rape,” reported the collective sponsors’ statement: “‘This project proposes to focus critical public attention on the problem of rape in Los Angeles and, more importantly, what is being done about it.” A second article in the LA Times quoted Lacy, who explained, “I think the definition of art is the ability of a piece to reach the audience and change it.” Buoying, too was the breadth of community and political support—up to and including the Mayor, Tom Bradley. But as Lacy predicted, Three Weeks in May also seemed to contribute to an antifeminist backlash. Feminist abortion clinics were burned down; women working in rape crisis clinics were raped while at work. Perhaps most dismaying, she reported, “During the third week of Three Weeks in May a woman was brought to the City Mall and raped 100 yards from where the rape maps were installed.”

Lacy pressed on. Six months later, she and Labowitz again staged a program addressed to sexual violence, this time conceived specifically as a focused engagement with the news media. In Mourning and in Rage was a one-time public “media event” enacted on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. The recent so-called Hillside Strangler murders (the murders were actually the work of two men), in which 10 women were found raped and killed, had been sensationalized and grotesquely—if unsurprisingly—distorted by the press. At first it was reported that the victims were all prostitutes. Their pasts were investigated with salacious zeal; they were characterized as marginal and defenseless. As Labowitz put it, “the media showed helpless victims. We showed strong survivors.” Working again with WAVAW, and with the Woman’s Building, local rape crisis hotlines, City Council members, the Deputy Mayor and others, Lacy and Labowitz conceived a dramatic memorial for the victims then known.

On December 13, 1977, a hearse, escorted by two motorcycles, traveled the short distance from the Woman’s Building to City Hall, followed by a 22-car motorcade. Nine performers emerged from the hearse, draped in black and wearing headpieces roughly shaped like coffins, which made them appear to be seven feet tall (it was in part an homage to the image of Death from Maya Deren’s landmark 1943 film, Meshes of the Afternoon). As they assembled one by one on the City Hall steps, 70 performers from the following cars moved to positions behind them, unfurling a banner that read, “In Memory of Our Sisters, Women Fight Back.” One at a time, each towering, black-draped mourner strode to a microphone to deliver a statement, the first, “I am here for the 10 women who have been raped and strangled between October 18 and November 29.”

In response to each statement, the chorus of other performers, modeled on classical tragedy, chanted, “in memory of our sisters, we fight back!” As each mourner completed her statement, a woman garbed in scarlet (for anger) draped her in a similar red cape. Their indictments grew successively broad, ending with “I am here for the rage of all women. I am here for women fighting back!” Suzanne Lacy took the microphone to say, “We are here in mourning and in rage.” Singer and activist Holly Near composed and performed the now classic anthem “Fight Back” for this occasion.

As critic Jeff Kelley observed, “the performance was itself a kind of ritualistic press conference designed to capture and fix media attention by anticipating and appealing to its journalistic conventions.” The literally large-than-life actors; the anger-fueled sound bites; the clear symbolism of the funeral cortege; the control of the scene so that every photograph would capture what the artists intended, as with the “establishing” backdrop of City Hall and also the design of the banner (which, as Sharon Irish writes, was meant to fit in the horizontal frame of a camera), all were chosen “so that one image—of the women gathered on City Hall’s steps, with banner raised—could carry a clear meaning via mass media.” Similarly shaped for media impact were follow-up discussions with city politicians, which repeated and consolidated the performance’s themes, aligning government rhetoric with the artists’ agenda.

In Mourning and in Rage had the immediate result of redirecting city money originally promised as a reward for information on the Hillside murderer to self-defense classes for women. In addition, the phone company agreed to list rape hotline numbers in the Yellow Pages. But the program’s life in the press was even more important, if uneven. The decision to connect it to the Hillside crimes proved canny; one short newspaper story ran under the headline, “Feminists Hold Strangling Victim Rites.” Other press coverage addressed the project as an artwork, with an emphasis on Lacy as its author. The project was described in one report as “a public art informational piece by Suzanne Lacy,” an artist “well known in the Los Angeles art community,” and went on to quote her: “I consider this an art piece, because first, I am an artist, and I continually strive to address the art audience,” Lacy is reported (a little suspiciously) to have said. The newspapers may not have gotten it quite right—if it was art, there had to be an artist, preferably working alone, and famous—but they were at least paying attention.

Excerpted from Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, by Nancy Princenthal. ©2019 Thames & Hudson Inc. Reproduced by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc,

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