Guerrilla Girls – Redefining the F word at NMU

Alisa Fox

Bringing the issue of feminism to Northern’s campus comes the Guerrilla Girls, masked feminist avengers of the injustices brought upon many women and people of different races. March is Women’s History Month, with this year’s theme being “History is our strength.” On March 16, the Guerrilla Girls will appear at NMU bringing with them powerful words of wit mixed with historical facts, to help to celebrate Women’s History Month.

“Although many of the people who come to our presentations do agree with us in a general sense, we’re really about steering them towards transformation: transforming people to identify themselves with feminism or explain feminism to those that may have a false idea of it. We’ve always thought that humor was a great way to get into people’s psyches to make them think about the issues. Satire is really a great form of protest,” said an anonymous member of the Guerrilla Girls who has taken the pseudonym Frida Kahlo.

The Guerrilla Girls began in 1985 when they learned that an art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York had hosted only 13 women out of the 200 artists in the exhibit, and every single artist was white. Blacks and other races were not represented at all. That’s when they began questioning the lack of diversity within the art society, and, eventually, the rest of the world.

It soon became clear that they needed to do something about the discrimination, but they wanted to keep their identities a secret.

“The art world was a very small place at the time, and to complain about the system that you wanted to succeed in was very difficult,” Kahlo said. “We decided that we had to do it anonymously, and anonymous protests have had a very important place in art history. We put a few posters up and they were very provocative. There were a lot of requests for photographs and we realized that we needed a disguise.”

For this reason, gorilla masks were donned and the names of dead female artists were taken such as Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Rosalba Carriera and Lee Krasne. What started out as a way to protect their own identities also doubled as an effective way to keep the focus on the issues of feminism and discrimination rather than on the members’ careers and personalities, Kahlo said.

The Guerrilla Girls have made an impact all over the world. They started out merely hanging posters that outlined the facts of discrimination against women, but one thing led to another and soon they were giving lectures and presentations at universities and museums on four different continents.

“We travel all over the country every year, and we travel to many schools. We find there is a very strong floor for feminist activists.  Even though the media might lead you to think that women all want to look like the rock stars, we find that that is not at all the reality. The media presents a false reality of where young women are right now,” said Kahlo.

Although many women are anxious to help and want to be involved with the Guerrilla Girls and their causes, it seems that not many people classify as feminists.

“Many people who come to our presentations do agree with it, but many do not,” Kahlo said. “We have asked the question of who in our audience identifies themselves as a feminist. In many cases fewer than 10 or 15 people in the audience put up their hand.”

The Guerrilla Girls tackle many tough issues in their presentations, including rape, abortion and homelessness, among others. Their most important goal is empowering women, who make up about half of an average university’s student body, said Kahlo.

“It’s really important to empower young women who are about to step into the professional field and to realize that the atmosphere of college and whatever sense of empowerment that they felt in college may not follow them into the professional world. They may need the equipment to stand up for equal opportunity,” Kahlo said.

Christine Flavin, an assistant professor of art and design and the head of photography at Northern who has worked out the details of the Guerrilla Girls’ visit, said she loves the Girls and the message that they bring with them.

“I think it’s an important topic to bring to any university,” said Flavin. “I was a part of bringing the Guerrilla Girls to the University of Missouri when I was there. I think that humor is one of the best ways for people to be made aware of things that might be uncomfortable, and this group addresses issues that could ruffle people’s feathers with a huge amount of humor and aplomb.”

Provost Susan Koch was the driving financial force behind bringing the Guerrilla Girls to campus for Women’s History Month. Other supporters include the School of Art and Design, MERC and Committee W, a union for NMU’s female faculty and staff. With their help, the Northern community now has the opportunity to learn the historical facts behind modern day sexism and racism.

“Any student in a liberal arts academic community should attend performances and programs that discuss cultural, social and political issues,” Flavin said.  “For a well-rounded education, you need to be aware of contemporary trends and ideas. And you need to be able to pin them to the historical facts that you’ve been studying over however long you’ve been here. This is politically, culturally important. I think it’ll be tons of fun.”

The Guerrilla Girls will be appearing March 16 in Jamrich 102 at 7:30 p.m., and admission is free. For more information about the presentation, contact Christine Flavin at [email protected] If you’d like to learn more about the Guerrilla Girls, visit