From the time she was a toddler, Judy Chicago’s liberal, social justice-minded father and art-loving mother encouraged her to express herself artistically. Her talent was evident even then, and it blossomed as she grew to adulthood.
But it was her experience as an undergraduate at the Art Institute of Chicago that helped chart her course as an artist and a feminist. The sexism she experienced there prompted her to launch her own personal rebellion by shirking gender norms in her work. She trained in what she referred to as “macho arts” — auto mechanics, pyrotechnics, and boat building — and began working with mixed media like needle point and industrial materials.
At at time when the feminist movement was exploding, she augmented her unusal art with a gender-norm-deyfing personal style by smoking cigars and wearing masculine clothing. Chicago’s rebellious approach made feminism more accessible through art, and helped evolve the art community beyond the deeply ingrained binary gender norms.
During the mid 1960s Judy Chicago, born Judith Sylvia Cohen, changed her name to the beloved nickname following the unexpected and sudden death of her first husband. She wanted her name to be “something independent of being connected to a man by marriage or heritage.” So she chose Judy Chicago, a nickname given to her by a friend because of her Chicagoan accent.
Chicago believed that “the personal is political,” and her lived experiences validated that, as did the experiences of so many of her female students. She encouraged exploration of themes that were traditionally taboo in the art world, like giving birth, reproduction, and more.
In a 2018 interview with renowned feminist Gloria Steinem, Chicago said her goal as an artist was “to create images in which the female experience is the path to the universal, as opposed to learning everything through the male gaze.”
Leaning deeper into her feminist ideology, Chicago focused her teaching methodology on creating more spaces for “female-centered content.” She founded the first feminist art program in the United States at California State University in Fresno in the 1970s, a critical time for the burgeoning second-wave feminism movement.
Chicago also founded Through the Flower, a nonprofit organization focused on public education about art’s potential to be a catalyst in women’s achievements. Her teaching and her art, including works such as The Dinner Party, are credited with helping drive the growth of feminist art and art education.