I was raised in a family that believed in equal rights for women, which was very unusual for that time. The bad news was they never bothered to tell me that not everyone else believed in that, too. In 1957, when I went to UCLA, I first began experiencing sexist attitudes. Whenever I tried to bring gender up, I was met with derision. People would say, "What are you? Some kind of suffragette?" In order to make a place for myself in the L.A. art scene, I had to excise from my work any hint of gender. And I did.
I used to hang out with the Ferus Gallery artists at Barney's Beanery. I was practically the only woman on the scene, and Billy Al Bengston was the first real artist I ever met. Much to his chagrin, I used to follow him around. Years later, I ran into Billy Al at a party. I hadn't seen him for 20 years, and I said, "I really want to thank you. Even though you gave me a lot of shit, I did learn something from you." He said, "I know, Judy. It's because I was such a male chauvinist that you did everything you did." I burst out laughing. I said, "Don't take all the credit."
All through the '60s, I was told, "You can't be a woman and an artist, too." Well, what was I supposed to do, saw myself in half? By the end of the decade, I was sick and tired of it.
I met with the head of the art department at Cal State Fresno. I said to him — and this happened to be true, just not the whole truth — "I'm concerned about the paltry number of women who come out of graduate school and start their own art practice. I want to do something about that." But I knew I was planning to start a feminist art program. Though I'm not sure the term "feminist art" had even existed before that.
I wanted women students who wanted to be artists, and I wanted to take them off-campus. After a couple months, the studios just exploded. In the spring, we had an exhibition and a whole lot of people trekked up to Fresno from CalArts. John Baldessari came, and years later one of my students told me that he stuck his boot in the crotch of a sculpture of a prone woman spread-eagled. CalArts offered to fund the whole feminist art program, and in the summer of 1971 there was a caravan: Me, my students, their boyfriends, their husbands, their pets — we all moved to L.A.
I talk about how unbelievably sexist Los Angeles was, but there was also an incredible feeling of self-invention there that allowed people to imagine alternatives. That I could imagine an alternative like a feminist art program? I don't think that would have been possible in the East.
—As told to Catherine Wagley