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Rebecca Shurvin

Rebecca Shurvin is a fourth year student who is completing an Honours Specialization in History at UWO.   She enjoys writing historical papers that focus on women and gender issues.  Next year, Rebecca is returning to Western for a fifth year to complete an Honours Specialization in Art History, and hopes to continue her studies in either history or art history after graduation. 



As the majority of Americans turned from activism to conservatism during the Reagan years, [1] the Guerrilla Girls emerged as a feminist art group who challenged sexism and racism in the Western art world.  Established in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls formed in reaction to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City the year before. [2]   The exhibition’s title, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” and catalogue provided to museum visitors suggested that the featured works were those that best encapsulated the past decade of painting and sculpture. [3]   The Guerrilla Girls were propelled to action by this exhibition for they felt it did not represent the international art community.  Instead, they believed that the exhibition represented the exclusion of, and discrimination against, women artists and artists of colour.  Of the one hundred and sixty-nine artists selected for the show, only thirteen of them were women and none were artists of colour. [4]   This essay will explore a variety of tactics used by the Guerilla Girls to expose the prevalence of sexist and racist discrimination in art institutions and culture at large.  

Since their inception in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have successfully organized exhibit interventions, art gallery protests, feminist lecture series, and provocative publications through which they can express their platform of inclusion. They have studied and drawn from lessons of past feminist movements, while developing their own new and unique approach to feminist issues.  Their decisions to maintain anonymity, to use humour and irony, and to recognize the power of the media have been the foundation of their success. The group’s inclusive vision and avoidance of militantly radical activities has contributed to the positive reception of their ideas.  

The Guerrilla Girls remain current and culturally relevant. Looking to the feminist movements of the past, especially the second-wave movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, the Guerrilla Girls noticed tactical issues that could have been prevented with anonymity.  In A History of U.S. Feminisms, author Rory Dicker notes that conflicts arose among women involved in the second-wave movement when one woman or a small group of women garnered greater media attention. [5]   Dicker mentions that many second-wave feminists preferred that all women activists had an opportunity for equal representation and participation in the movement and media attention surrounding it, and refers to Kate Millett, whose book Sexual Politics landed her on the cover of Time magazine. [6]   Millett became the focal point of public interest, and as a result, she was targeted by fellow feminists for being attention-seeking and self-interested. [7]   In order to avoid issues of spotlighting that had plagued previous feminist movements, the Guerrilla Girls decided to withhold their names and personal appearances.  This allowed them to avoid problems of personal grandstanding; if no names were revealed, all group members would receive equal recognition and praise.  

By choosing anonymity, the Guerrilla Girls also succeeded in protecting themselves from potentially harmful backlash. [8]   Many of the founding members of the Guerrilla Girls were artists, art critics, curators, and museum administrators, and they were targeting some of the most important members and institutions of the Western art world. As a result, they were potentially risking their careers and livelihoods.  The Guerrilla Girls protected their personal interests by withholding their names and appearing in public under the shield of gorilla masks.  Consequently, they were allowed greater liberty to say and do as they wanted without fear of reprisal.  

The Guerrilla Girls recognized this benefit, but cited their main reason for remaining anonymous as wanting to keep the public focused on the issues they were addressing as opposed to the individual personalities and appearances of the women presenting them. [9]    Taking advantage of the anonymity to put their anti-sexist, anti-racist platform into action, each member of the Guerrilla Girls adopted the name and persona of an artist who the group felt had not been afforded proper representation and recognition in the Western art world. [10]   By adopting the names of women artists and artists of colour who had been ignored, such as Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Liubov Popova, the Guerrilla Girls brought attention to these individuals.  They prompted the public to inquire about these artists, and to question why they have been underrepresented in the history of art.  

Although anonymity provided the Guerrilla Girls with a variety of benefits, critics often cite their decision to remain anonymous as one that is cowardly, dishonest, and unfair.  However, these critics are often individuals who the Guerrilla Girls have centered out as being sexist and discriminatory. [11]   For example, Leo Castelli and other gallery owners, such as Allan Frumkin and Pat Hearn, were the targets of a Guerrilla Girls’ poster entitled “These Galleries Show No More than 10% Women Artists or None At All.” [12]   Therefore, the gallery owners’ critiques of the Guerrilla Girls’ anonymity appear tainted by bias, and their credibility is diminished. The Guerrilla Girls see their choice of remaining anonymous as capitalizing on a strategy that has consistently been used to oppress women.  The Guerrilla Girls highlight the important difference between chosen and enforced anonymity, and suggest that because they embrace anonymity, they have prevented a patriarchal art world and society from being able to use it against them.  Mira Schor, writing for ArtForum magazine, recognizes that, “[w]hereas in the past anonymity had been a curse on female artistic creativity, the Guerrilla Girls have embraced the strategic benefits of their covert existences.” [13]    

In contrast to previous feminist movements, which had adopted graver tones, the Guerrilla Girls favoured a humorous approach. In a 1990 interview conducted for a retrospective show of Guerrilla Girls work, group member “Louise the Poster Girl” explained, “[m]aking demands are the tactics of the 70s and let’s face it, they didn’t really work very well … we decided to try another way: humour, irony, intimidation, and poking fun.” [14]   The Guerrilla Girls infused their stance against sexism and discrimination with humour, contradictions, and juxtapositions that encouraged the public to pay attention to, and get involved in, their cause.  In this way they avoided classification and dismissal as angry and humorless women with chips on their shoulders. [15]  

By calling themselves “girls,” the group reclaims a word that could be used against them as a term of dismissal and eliminates the potential for their opposition to suggest that they are simply incompetent little girls who are “not complete, mature, or grown up.” [16] The word “girl” also presents a comical juxtaposition with the word “guerrilla,” which is traditionally used in military discourse. The Guerrilla Girls do in fact employ militant tactics, but not in the traditional sense.  They have reinvented guerrilla militancy, “waging what they call a cultural warfare… where the main ammunition is wit.” [17]  

The group’s public attire, which incorporates gorilla masks, fishnets, and short skirts, illustrates the kind of humourous juxtaposition that has attracted public interest and helped them to create a unified front.  The gorilla masks suggest an aggressivity normally associated with men, while their clothing is hyper-feminine in style. [18]   Lucy Irigaray notes that the Guerrilla Girls’ decision to dress in an overtly feminine fashion allows them to “convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to thwart it.” [19]   In addition to their posters, performances, and lectures, the Guerrilla Girls’ name and physical appearances reveal their ability to use humour, irony, and juxtaposition as tools of subversion and expression.   

The Guerrilla Girls’ ironic and sarcastic tactics have also allowed them to fight discrimination in the Western art world by highlighting contradictions within the museums, galleries, and education facilities.  For example, in 1988, they produced a poster entitled “The Advantages of being a Woman Artist” (Figure 1). This poster included “advantages” such as “working without the pressure of success,” “being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine,” and “not having to be in shows with men.” [20]   Instead of making demands, the Guerilla Girls used sarcasm and irony to bring attention to the gender discrimination prevalent in American art institutions.  In doing so, the Guerrilla Girls highlighted incongruities in the art world’s rhetoric, which ostensibly supported gender equality, by employing satire as a method of critique. [21]   When asked about their use of humour in an online Question and Answer, the group responded, “[w]e've discovered that ridicule and humiliation, backed up by irrefutable information, can disarm the powers that be, put them on the spot, and force them to examine themselves.” [22] “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” prompted the public to question why women are being denied success, why women’s art is automatically labeled as “feminine,” and why women’s art is not being exhibited alongside men’s art.  The Guerrilla Girls’ message achieved international recognition as this poster was translated into more than eight languages and circulated across the globe. [23]   The Guerrilla Girls used this poster to illustrate to the global art community the double standards that exist within Western art world practices.  

The Guerrilla Girls gained iconic status with their 1989 poster entitled "Do Women have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum?" that incorporated both text and visual imagery to highlight their platform (Figure 2).  The poster features a reclining nude reminiscent of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Grand Odalisque (1814), wearing a gorilla mask, juxtaposed with statistics reflecting the bleak representation of women artists in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.  On the poster the Guerrilla Girls state that “[l]ess than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” [24]   By appropriating Ingres’ work, the Guerrilla Girls have ironically paired an iconic symbol of patriarchal art with a statistic in order to challenge gender discrimination in the art world. [25]   These “believe it or not” statistics underscore the gap that exists between ideal social structures and actual practices, and make denial or indifference inappropriate reactions to discrimination. [26]  

In contrast with previous feminist groups who had, at times, engaged in hostile relationships with the media, the Guerrilla Girls recognized the importance of the media as an effective means of establishing a positive rapport with the public. [27]   Professor Christine Tulley comments on this relationship, and suggests that without spectacles that attract media attention, the Guerrilla Girls’ mandate “may not be heard or, if heard, may quickly fade from public interest.” [28] Tulley notes that it is the Guerrilla Girls’ recognition of the media’s authority that has allowed them to outlast other feminist groups such as the Women’s Action Coalition. [29]   The Guerrilla Girl’s affiliation with the media enables them to reach out to a more diverse audience.  

Another reason the Guerrilla Girls have remained current and effective over the past twenty-five years is related to their critical examination of past feminist groups and desire to avoid the stigmatized persona of the “angry feminist.”  The Guerrilla Girls do not aim to completely destroy Western art institutions nor do they want to totally reinvent society; instead, they promote change within these frameworks.  According to Anne Teresa Demo, the Guerrilla Girls’ posters, lectures, and performances employ strategies of “demystification rather than revolution.” [30]   The Guerrilla Girls avoid public alienation by advocating change within the museums, galleries, and Western art canon as opposed to calling for a complete eradication of these institutions.  Advocating for the latter would likely lead the public to label them as radicals, and therefore their platform would be considered both impractical and unrealistic.  

The Guerrilla Girls’ 1998 publication, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, is an example of how the group highlights sexism and discrimination.  With this publication, the Guerrilla Girls chose to work within the established framework with what Cynthia Freeland has called the “add women and stir” approach. [31]   Similar to their use of past artists as personas in the public eye, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art underscores the void of women artists and artists of colour within traditional discourse.  The introductory pages prompt the viewer to consider the following question:  “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?” [32] The Guerrilla Girls have faced criticism for implementing this “add women and stir” approach, as some radical feminist groups feel that the entire Western art discourse should be reinterpreted and reinvented.  Although a complete revision of the Western art canon may be the ideal way to achieve equality for underrepresented artists, the Guerrilla Girls recognized that this approach was not realistic.  Adopting it would likely alienate or intimidate potential supporters and this could inhibit their success.  Instead the Guerrilla Girls ask the reader to question why they have previously been ignored.  

A considerable difference between the Guerrilla Girls and the second-wave feminists is that the Guerrilla Girls consistently place a great emphasis on inclusiveness.  Throughout their twenty-five year existence, the Guerrilla Girls have worked to eliminate divisions between feminists and non-feminists, as well as divisions among the feminists themselves. Chicana feminists Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa influenced the Guerrilla Girls’ inclusive approach to feminism.  In 1979, Moraga and Anzaldúa declared, “[w]e want to express to all women – especially white middle-class women – the experiences which divide us as feminists; we want to examine incidents of intolerance, prejudice, and denial of difference within the feminist movement.” [33]    

Similarly, the Guerrilla Girls have worked to include all ethnicities, ages, economic levels, and sexual orientations. [34] This strive for inclusiveness parallels a larger aim of the third-wave feminist movement of the 1980s and 1990s: diversity in membership and advocacy.  The Guerrilla Girls advocate for diversity by using masks to conceal identifiable physical traits such as skin colour or age.  In fact, even the gorilla masks, which many claim subvert the group’s aim of diversity, are all different.  While one member may wear a mask that is covered in hair and shows an intimidating tooth-bearing grin, another may sport a hairless mask with a tight-lipped smile and flaring nostrils.  Through supporting and encouraging diversity, the Guerrilla Girls have increased in numbers; instead of attracting solely white middle-class heterosexual women, the group now appeals to a far greater number of Americans.  Also, the inclusive approach legitimizes the Guerrilla Girls, for if they were an exclusive group, their challenges against discrimination, sexism and racism would seem contradictory.  

The group also advocates for change outside of the art world, and over the years has expanded their projects to include gay and lesbian rights, homelessness, and politics. For instance, in order to highlight the dire situation of homeless Americans, the Guerrilla Girls created a poster to reveal that a prisoner of war is afforded more rights than a homeless person.   They state that under the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war is entitled to the food, shelter, and medical care that many homeless Americans struggle to attain. [35]   Through championing other causes, the Guerilla Girls are able to increase their support base, and in turn, their success. The Guerrilla Girls have expanded their presence in the public sphere by commenting on a wide range of social injustices and demonstrating that their advocacy is not limited to the art world.  As the June 1990 New York Times article included in their retrospective show “Guerrilla Girls Talk Back” reveals, “the Guerilla Girls are not art critics, they’re social critics.” [36]  

Art critic, writer, and theorist Lucy R. Lippard regarded the Guerrilla Girls as having “almost single-handedly kept women’s art activism alive” from their inception in 1985 through to the mid 1990s. [37]   Similarly, early on in their career, the Guerrilla Girls were recognized by New York magazine as one of the four powers to watch for in the art world. [38] Maintaining their anonymity, inclusivity, satirical humour, social activism and media-friendly stance, the Guerilla Girls have managed to stay relevant and promote an anti-discriminatory agenda in the art world and elsewhere.  In recognition of this, the Guerrilla Girls were asked in 2009 to create a poster to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the shootings that took place at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada.  The group, now well established in social activist discourse, explored the continuation of hate speech against women and feminism by quoting historical figures such as Confucius, Frank Sinatra, Rush Limbaugh, and Pablo Picasso. [39]   Gloria Steinem, second-wave feminist and key leader of the Women’s Liberation Movement, sums up the nature of the Guerrilla Girls’ success:  

Their very anonymity makes clear that they are fighting for women as a caste, but their message celebrates each woman's uniqueness.  By insisting on a world as if women mattered, and also the joy of getting there, the Guerrilla Girls pass the ultimate test: they make us both laugh and fight; both happy and strong. [40]


Building on their early successes filling the streets of New York City with posters that highlighted gender and racial discrimination in the Western art world, the Guerrilla Girls have developed into a powerful collective that continues to further activist discourse and social change.



Boyer, Paul S. et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of American People. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Broude, Norma and Mary D. Garrad, eds. The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994.

Dicker, Rory. A History of U.S. Feminisms. Berkeley, California: Seal Press, 2008.

Falkirk Cultural Center. Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: The First Five Years. San Rafael, California: Falkirk Cultural Center, 1991.

Freeland, Cynthia. But is it art? An Introduction to Art Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Guerrilla Girls. Montreal Project: Disturbing the Peace. 2009.

–––––.  Online: Frequently Asked Questions. 2006.


–––––.  Online: Website Blurbs. 2006.

–––––.  Guerrilla Girls’ Beside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin Group Publishers, 1998.

–––––.  The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. 1998.

–––––.  What’s the Difference between a prisoner of war and a homeless person? 1991.

–––––.  Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? 1989.

­­­­–––––.  The Galleries Show No More than 10% Women Artists or None At All. 1985.

Lippard, Lucy R. The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essay on Art. New York: The New Press, 1995.

Lustig, Suzanne. “How and why did they Guerrilla Girls alter the Art World Establishment in New York City, 1985-1995?” Women and Social Movements in the United States 1600-2000. Spring 2002.

McShine, Kynaston. An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984.

Olsen, Lester C. et al, eds. Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publication, Inc., 2008.

Schor, Mira. “Girls will be Girls.” ArtForum (September 1990).

Tulley, Christine. “Image Events Guerrilla Girl Style: A 20-Year Retrospective.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture. 6.2 (Spring 2009).



[1] Paul S. Boyer et al., The Enduring Vision: A History of American People (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 666-667.

[2] Falkirk Cultural Center, Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: The First Five Years (San Rafael, California: Falkirk Cultural Center, 1991), Interview.

[3] Kynaston McShine, An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984), 11.

[4] Falkirk Cultural Center, Guerrilla Girls Talk Back, Interview.

[5] Rory Dicker, A History of U.S. Feminisms (Berkeley, California: Seal Press,2008), 85.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad, eds., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 99.

[9] Falkirk Cultural Center, Guerrilla Girls Talk Back, Interview.

[10] Lester C. Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008), 202.

[11] Mira Schor, “Girls will be Girls,” Art Forum (September 1990), 125.

[12] Guerrilla Girls, The Galleries Show No More than 10% Women or None At All, (1985).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Falkirk Cultural Center, Guerrilla Girls Talk Back, Interview.

[15] Cynthia Freeland, But is it art? An Introduction to Art Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 123.

[16] Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric, 246.

[17] Guerrilla Girls, Online: Website Blurbs (2006),

[18] Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric, 246.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Guerrilla Girls, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, (1988).

[21] Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric, 242.

[22] Guerrilla Girls, Online: Frequently Asked Questions (2006),

[23] Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric, 241.

[24] Guerrilla Girls, Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (1989).

[25] Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric, 249.

[26] Ibid., 246.

[27] Christine Tulley, “Image Events Guerrilla Girl Style: A 20-Year Retrospective,” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing and Culture (Issue 6.2, Spring 2009), 2.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 6.

[30] Olson et al., eds., Visual Rhetoric, 201.

[31] Freeland, 132-133.

[32] Guerrilla Girls, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (New York: Penguin Group Publishers, 1998), 7.

[33] Dicker, 109.

[34] Guerrilla Girls, Online: Frequently Asked Questions (2006),

[35] Guerrilla Girls, What’s the Difference between a prisoner of war and a homeless person? (1991).

[36] Falkirk Cultural Center, Guerrilla Girls Talk Back, Interview.

[37] Lucy Lippard, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (New York: The New Press, 1995), 257.

[38] Suzanne Lustig, “How and why did the Guerrilla Girls alter the Art World Establishment in New York City, 1985-1995,” Women and Social Movements in the United States 1600-2000 (Spring 2002),, 4.

[39] Guerrilla Girls, Montreal Project: Disturbing the Peace (2009).

[40] Guerrilla Girls, Online: Website Blurbs (2006),


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