From the Artistic Space section: Harriet Goodhue Hosmer Papers, 1852–1972, photograph of Hosmer surrounded by her Italian workmen, 1861. The photograph shows Hosmer — elfin, pugnacious, and defiant — in the center of a group of rough male artisans in Italy. On the back, the inscription reads, “Hosmer and Her Men.”

Photo courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Arts & Culture


7 min read

Exhibit probes what gender has meant to how such areas are used

The 1910 class notes for the all-woman Garland School of Homemaking in Boston were titled “Times Where We Need the Man.” The list of gendered chores now seems antiquarian: chop wood, sweep ashes, care for horses, and bring in coal.

But one chore still sounds familiar. It reads: “wash windows (?)”

That question mark, a sign of the longstanding tug-of-war over housework, survived the past century intact. But relations between American men and women have changed a great deal — and are still changing.

One aspect of ever-shifting gender relations is being explored this semester at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study: space, that wide realm of interiors and exteriors that marks the social commons — that is, everything outside our bodies. How are men and women negotiating access to space? And how have those negotiations changed over time?

In mid-April, Radcliffe will sponsor “Inside/Out: Exploring Gender and Space in Life, Culture, and Art,” a two-day international conference of artists, architects, researchers, legal scholars, and sociologists. It’s part of an annual series of Radcliffe spring conferences on gender that have explored war, food, and other points of intersection between the sexes.

The conferences are usually accompanied by an exhibit in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, and “Inside/Out” is no exception. “Inside/Out: The Geography of Gendered Space,” by turns grave and whimsical, is on display through October.

The exhibit is in four parts, each representing a realm within space: private, public, political, and artistic. The categories are derived from feminist scholar Kerstin Shands, who sees two types of gendered spaces. “Bracing” spaces represent resistance, and “embracing” spaces imply empowerment and safety.

In the “private” section of “Inside/Out,” there are documents, magazines, books, and photographs that illustrate what for centuries was regarded as a woman’s exclusive purview, the household.

The 1910 class notes are there, in looping old-fashioned handwriting. So are fragile issues of 19th century magazines, with titles such as Mrs. Mayfield’s Happy Home (1877) and The Mother at Home and Household Magazine (1864).

On display in the same case are passages from books that express the exclusivity — and confinement — of a woman’s household dominion. In her 1875 novel “We and Our Neighbors,” Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” offers up a passage that would make a modern-day Eliza flee across the ice to escape the slavery of gender: “Self begins to melt away into something lighter,” she wrote of women kept inside by social norms. “Her home is the new personification of herself.” A passage from “Art in the Home” (1879) goes further, by modern standards, declaring that a woman “should be herself the noblest ornament of her ornamental dwelling.”

For 19th century women who were uncomfortable being ornaments, there was travel, or even living alone in cities, a set of spaces explored in the exhibit’s “public” section. In cities, women could take on nontraditional roles, said the exhibit notes. Lynn, Mass., entrepreneur Lydia E. Pinkham (1819-1883) did well, turning her home remedy for “female maladies” into the most popular patent medicine of the age.

But urban spaces were also segregated by gender. An engraving from the July 21, 1875, Illustrated London News pictures a “ladies” window at a New York post office. “I just love the image of going to a post office and having their window be for me,” said Schlesinger executive director Marilyn Dunn, with a laugh. “It captures the idea of gendered space.”

In the same display case is a note on the Women’s Hotel in New York City, which opened in 1878, offering a week’s board and lodging for $6. The Barbizon, a more contemporary women-only hotel, was profiled in a 1963 issue of the New York Evening Post. The headline was “Where the Boys Are Not.”

Where the boys are not is also a theme in the “artistic” section of the “Inside/Out” exhibit. There’s a photo of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, co-founders of the California Institute of the Arts Feminist Art Program, at “Womenhouse.” The 1971 art installation, set up in a deserted Hollywood mansion, featured the work of only women, and men were banned from the opening.

But the same section in the exhibit shows that the art world was often where the boys were and the women were not. On display is a 1985 banner from the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of feminist artists formed to protest a Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art show. Of the 169 artists represented, they complained, only 13 were women.

The banner, a spoof on an odalisque-like nude, also claimed that while 5 percent of the artists were women, 85 percent of the nudes were. “Do women have to be naked,” the banner asked, “to get into the Met. Museum?”

“Inside/Out” offers a glimpse at the feminist pioneers of the art world, including sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), who was born in Watertown, Mass. She sculpted “The Sleeping Faun,” a male figure whose softened musculature rewrote the standards of masculine display. Hosmer’s plaster model of “Queen Isabella of Castile” — monumental and imperial — was intended to show that the queen was the equal of explorer Christopher Columbus, whose iconic journey she helped to sponsor.

The sculptor “was very much interested in female heroism,” said Schlesinger operations manager Bruce Williams, who co-chaired the exhibit committee.

An 1861 photograph shows Hosmer — elfin, pugnacious, and defiant — in the center of a group of rough male artisans in Italy. On the back, the inscription reads, “Hosmer and Her Men.”

Then there is that sphere that is more familiar — or at least more dramatic — than the others: “political” space. This section looks at “sites of resistance,” said Williams, including the parades, protests, sit-ins, and other events that demanded expanded access for women in social and physical spaces.

Protest is on display, in the video touch-screen portion of “Inside/Out,” including black-and-white footage from a stormy 1970 takeover of the New York offices of Ladies’ Home Journal by feminists. The magazine’s editorial policy, they said, kept women in the confining grooves of “children, kitchen, and church.”

One joyful photograph, a line of women at the front of a protest march, is from the opening of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. Prominent in the picture are Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” and Bella Abzug, a New York lawyer, activist, and congresswoman. Abzug is famous for her defiant pun: “This woman’s place is in the House — the House of Representatives.”

“Inside/Out: Exploring Gender and Space in Life, Culture, and Art” will be held April 15-16, Radcliffe Gymnasium, 10 Garden St. Free and open to the public, registration is required. Deadline to register is April 5.

Also in conjunction with “Inside/Out,” the Harvard University Graduate School of Design presents the exhibition “Inhabit” by independent artist and “Inside/Out” conference panelist Janine Antoni. “Inhabit” will be on display from March 22 to April 16 in Gund Hall, 48 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass.