Need inspiration in these grim political times? If you’re in New York City, head to Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood and walk to the corner of Nostrand and Greene Avenues. Look up and you’ll see “When Women Pursue Justice,” a vibrant 3,300 squarefoot mural that applauds the activism of 90 U.S. women.
Some, like Emma Goldman and Clara Lemlich, date back to the 19th century. Others are of more recent vintage and include women both well-known and little-known, dead and still agitating: Congressperson Shirley Chisholm; Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day; teacher/writer/organizer Angela Davis; civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer; labor leader Dolores Huerta; Native American activist Wilma Mankiller; Pacifica Radio’s Amy Goodman; Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan; tenant organizer Jane Benedict; and writer Audre Lorde, among them.
“When Women Pursue Justice” was created and unveiled in the fall of 2005. The idea came from artist Janet Braun-Reinitz and arts administrator Jane Weissman. “We were writing about the Pathfinder Mural [a six-story tribute to left-wing leaders painted on NYC’s Pathfinder Press building that lasted from 1989-1996] and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a mural that was a collaboration of women, about women,’” Braun-Reinitz recalls. In late 2004 a group of female artists met to discuss the idea. “We told everyone that we had no money, but we had a plan in which each woman would create a panel, in whatever style she wanted, demonstrating her take on the particular person she was painting. We’d put it up and I’d create a design for the piece to fit into.”
Braun-Reinitz and Weissman knew that they wanted the mural to be located in Shirley Chisholm’s Brooklyn district and found a wall on the side of a privately-owned house overlooking a New York City Housing Authority garden. After obtaining the goahead from the building’s owners, 13 professional artists, 5 art students from a local high school, and 30 volunteers spent 2 months painting the building. Each artist chose whom to paint and determined how to paint her, the only common denominator being that each honoree had to have taken to the streets to fight for equality and justice.
While the notion of female militancy resonated for the muralists who created “When Women Pursue Justice,” Braun-Reinitz knows that this theme does not always captivate contemporary artists and notes a thematic shift in the 20-plus years she has been engaged in community art projects. “Early in the movement, the issue, feminism, was the thing. Over time a lot of women’s murals have become focused on the famous as opposed to women more generically and the issues every female faces. The idea was for ‘When Women Pursue Justice’ to celebrate the pride we feel about the work of everyday people, not the pride we feel toward superstars. We realized that we needed to do this because many accomplishments were being lost, forgotten. Mother Jones is a wonderful example.”
Although Weissman and BraunReinitz are quick to laud apolitical or decorative art, their passion is for those muralists—men as well as women—who have bucked the tendency to avoid controversial political themes: Mike Alewitz, Judy Baca and the Social and Public Art Resource Center [SPARC], Jane Golden, Olivia Gude, Amy Sananman, Josh Sarantitus, and Kent Twitchell.
“Being a community muralist is about collaboration,” Braun-Reinitz says. “It’s about supporting one another and being accountable to the larger society. Murals have such lovely educative possibilities. When we were painting, one of the most striking things was how many people recognized that the mural was being painted by an all-woman crew. Together, we acknowledged this as being important.”
“When Women Pursue Justice” has been greeted by accolades from community residents, business and government leaders, teachers, and women’s rights activists. Still, it is a work in progress. “It is a celebratory mural and people feel good when they see it,” Weissman says. “But it is also true that while it celebrates what we’ve done, it reminds us how much organizing and political work we still have to do for women’s equality and social justice to become real.”
Short term, the pair is attempting to raise $30,000 to pay outstanding mural expenses and create an exhibition catalog with short bios of the 90 women depicted. And long term? “I’d love to do a mural on choice or the history of birth control,” Braun-Reinitz says. “Or a positive look at women as single parents. Or an anti-war mural with all the mothers of the dead rising up. There are many more women’s murals to be painted.”
Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer and co-author of Targets of Hatred .