Sunday, May 20, 2007

Los Angeles Woman Have a History

The Studio for Southern California History is the first space in Los Angeles devoted to the city’s history, and opened an exhibition titled “Los Angeles Women: A Record of Experience,” also the first historical exhibit about L.A. women.

I went to the opening celebration of the exhibition on January 13. Victorian Bernal in the Studio’s newsletter Proofs says that “this budding organization devoted to Southern California history that is neither museum, archive nor library. … If we ‘read’ history at the library, ‘see’ history in museums, and ‘learn’ history in school, it makes sense to ‘make’ history in a studio.” So this particular Studio has an exhibition full of interactive exhibits so we the visitors could help in the making of history.

Across the left wall was a 45’ mural of Women’s History Timeline divided into Global, National and Local dates, and below was where the visitors could add names to the timeline. The first name was new to me: La Brea Woman, a 9,000 year old skeleton found in the La Brea tar pits. The only human found in the tar pits, La Brea woman had a skull with features similar to present day Chumash Indians and was found near a grinding stone and a domesticated dog. The traditional women’s task for Chumash and other Southern California Natives was grinding acorns into mush for their staple food.

The timeline’s second two names I was familiar with: Toypurina, a Tongva shaman who in 1785 led a rebellion of Tongva people against the San Gabriel Mission; and Biddie Mason, who in the 1850s walked with her Mormon slave master to Los Angeles, sued for her freedom which she won, and became a leading mid-wife and property owner. Toypurina and Biddie Mason are two amzing women! As I walked slowly looking at names on the timeline I mostly learned new names but also saw some names I knew as well as saw themes emerging in this herstory.

Southern California women had a long history in fighting racism as I saw in two more names: Modesta Avila had in 1889 fought the railroad who wanted to take her land; Carlotta Bass had used her newspaper The California Eagle to fight for rights for African-Americans from 1912-1952. Women here also were feminists for over a century. I learned that Caroline Severance had in 1866 founded with Susan B. Anthony the Equal Rights Association, moved to Los Angeles in 1873, and worked for women’s suffrage for decades. Writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman while living in Pasadena in the late 19th century wrote some great feminist short stories such as "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is considered one of the greatest circa 1900 fictions by an American woman.

Women here have been leading environmentalists for a long time: wealthy Pasadenan Minerva Hoyt had persuaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to establish Joshua Tree National Monument while Aurora Castillo had in the 1980s founded Mothers of East Los Angeles that fought for environmental justice for East L.A defeating the building of a prison. Also women here had long struggled for labor rights, including Dorothy Healey in who 1933 organized Mexican and Japanese berry pickers in El Monte into a union and a strike. In the 1940s courageous organizer Luisa Morena organized Mexican and Jewish cannery women into a union.

But besides reading and learning from the timeline, I contributed by adding the name Mary Foy in the late 19th century. For a few years I have been having my students research Los Angeles history and literature; Rita Ramos from East Los Angeles College had turned in a terrific paper about Mary Foy, Los Angeles’s first woman librarian and one of its first high school teachers in the 19th century. Foy was also a feminist who fought for women’s suffrage. Ramos had found out that librarians didn’t know who Mary Foy was, and found that terrible. She taught me about Mary Foy, and I added her name, one of many Los Angeles women who broke into previously male profession as teachers, professors, businesswomen, politicians etc.

Other visitors had added names—we were all making history in this wonderful exhibit which taught me so much.

Also the exhibit includes an art piece that was an homage to the 1972 Womanhouse art installation that galvanized a generation of young artists and writers including me. Feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro had gotten their women art students to make installations in the rooms of a to-be-demolished North Hollywood house. Though I didn’t see Womanhouse, I did hear Chicago and Shapiro give a talk and show slides of Womanhouse—it was astounding. Sandra Sider in Art Spaces Archive Project describes the bright pink kitchen created by Vicki Hodgetts, Susan Frazier and Robin Weltsch:

the insides of the drawers featured collages of exotic locales that represented the fantasy travel that might have been in the minds of women trapped at home in their kitchens. There were also several portraits of notable women, such as Angela Davis, with definite political overtones.* Visitors especially noticed the spongy sunny-side eggs fastened to the ceiling that morphed to breasts as they went down the wall and then became eggs once again as they approached the stove. The breasts were soft and could be squeezed by visitors

Later on I met Vicki Hodgetts who did the sunny-side egg/breasts on the ceiling. After that I got involved with the city’s first women’s art gallery called Womanspace. That really was the building of my career as a writer and feminist.

At the exhibit in 2007 Kesa Kiva had gotten middle school girls to create a “Girl House Project,” a small dollhouse associated with a large art installation of a girl’s bedroom the middle school students had made about a girl being sexually harassed. The 2007 dollhouse was being exhibited in part as homage to the 1972 Womanhouse..

The exhibit will run through the end of May 2007. The Studio is located at 525 Alpine, Suite #103, Hours:
Tuesday - Saturday, 12 - 6 p.m. and by appointment.

They have a website


Unknown said...

Julia: Thank you for a lovely view of our exhibit. May I quote from you and use your photos (credited of course) in our archive? Sharon from the Studio

California Writer said...


Yes, you may quote from my review for your archive, and glad you appreciate my review