Jessica Campbell’s Heterodoxy and American Proto-Feminism

Amidst the smoke and amiable din of Polly’s, a popular Greenwich Village restaurant on MacDougal Street, a group of New York City women met in 1912 to form a feminist club called “Heterodoxy.” The typical denizens of Polly’s were bohemians, anarchists, artists, writers, actors, and so forth, including Emma Goldman and Sherwood Anderson. The “Heterodites, as the women dubbed themselves, were definitely in their element at Polly’s. 

According to the founder of Heterodoxy, Florence Guy Wilson, there was no unacceptable discourse with one exception: “There is the strongest taboo on taboo,” she quipped. The unorthodox “Heterodites” hailed from relatively diverse political, personal, and professional backgrounds; significantly, most of them were white, upper-class women, although several were unmarried and some were publicly involved in same-sex relationships.. 

Membership dues were $2 per year. Minutes were never taken. The Heterodites assembled regularly at Polly’s to discuss–and often vehemently debate–some of the most pressing matters of their era. Virtually every subject was on the table: women’s suffrage, reproductive and sexual self determination, public health and sanitation, housing, prison reform, and more. 

Toronto artist Jessica Campbell’s multimedia exhibition, Heterodoxy, which is on view until June 2 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) in Philadelphia, attempts to piece together the history of this little-known, proto-feminist group; it also reimagines and relocates the spirited scene at Polly’s to the FWM in a much-altered and arguably more inclusive 21st-century context. 

Jessica’s project is a combination of an exhibition, lecture series, and catalog.

Jessica’s project, explains the FWM press release, is “a combination of an exhibition, lecture series, and catalog.” Furthermore, the gallery space itself is an essential component of the overall concept of Heterodoxy

The walls on the right and left sides of the gallery are decorated with large, colorful, hand-tufted rugs in a stylized floral design. Some of them, with their centers cut out, function as frames for small, abstract portraits. 

Three tables surrounded by mismatched chairs occupy the floor space while a cheery, cartoon fireplace on the far wall is suggestive of a domestic setting. The lights are low. There’s a hush rather than a racket (in contrast to the scene at Polly’s). The tables evoke the Heterodites’ gatherings at Polly’s and, more generally, summits in countless kitchens in which “woman is shut up,” to quote Simone de Beauvoir, through the ages.

Quite the opposite of the trendy, high-tech immersive art experiences of recent years in which participation is most often a matter of projecting oneself into the artworks(s) to unspecified ends, Heterodoxy fosters a different sort of immersion. The spectator’s involvement is not predetermined. Intellectual and emotional agency are retained. The FWM has invited local groups to reserve the gallery for private meetings. 

Heterodoxy is the result of Jessica’s artist’s residency at FWM, which included a months-long project involving intensive collaboration to produce major components of the exhibition. Foremost was the construction of a group of 16 hand-tufted rugs, each measuring 4’ x 10’. 

Click image to enlarge.

FWM artist residencies are uniquely collaborative. “With each residency,” explained Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, DJ  Hellerman, “our studio transforms itself to work with new materials and develop new skills to help artists realize an experimental vision.” Partnering with Jessica, the FWM team of artists “took on tufting,” which was new for them. 

As the Heterodites kept no records of their meetings in order to facilitate uninhibited dialogue, piecing together a coherent history required considerable archival excavation. Jessica’s imaginative, abstract depictions of 60 different Heterodites seem to, among other things, mock the sub-genre of male portraiture: group and individual representations of men’s clubs, guilds, societies, leagues, and so forth. Indeed, Heterodite Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a brilliant activist, feminist, and orator, referred to Heterodoxy as “a wonderful free masonry [sic] of women.”

Usually displayed horizontally in frieze-like progression, the men’s club portraits establish a non-familial lineage (and, often, a hierarchy) of transcendent brotherhood as well as a chronology of membership, a history. Moreover, they function as a very real material, structural barrier between the inner sanctum of men and the outside, desegregated world. 

The portraits are edgy and fragmented, evoking the radical modernist artistic styles of the early 20th-century.

Jessica’s Heterodite portraits, in contrast, are displayed vertically in two rows of five (each). As each is unique, with a simple color palette, basic forms, and lines, they suggest individuation. They are fanciful and cartoon-like in keeping with one of the artist’s favored mediums, yet they do not idealize the sitters. Rather, they are edgy and fragmented, evoking the radical modernist artistic styles of the early 20th-century, especially Cubism; they stand in sharp contrast to conventional portraiture. 

According to Hellerman, any resemblance of these speculative portraits to early 20th-century modernist, abstract representations of women, is unlikely to have been deliberate. However, it is worth mentioning that Jessica’s book, Hot or Not: 20th Century Male Artists, offers a jocular look at artists like Picasso through an inverted lens of objectification via the putative “female gaze.” On the cover of the book, cartoon substitutes for the Demoiselles d’Avignon, hailed as a precursor to Cubism if not explicitly, formally Cubist, boast six-pack abs and bulky loin cloths. 

The floral motifs of the tufted rugs were based on designs by one of Heterodoxy’s members, Ami Mali Hicks. Besides being a social and political activist and organizer, Hicks was a writer, an artist and craftsperson as well as a teacher. In 1936, she published a book, The Craft of Hand-Made Rugs, during a revival in the interest in crafts rooted in anti-industrial sentiment. Two scalloped rugs constructed by Jessica recall Hicks’ original design from the book. Individual pieces of painted felt resembling tongues are stitched together in an overlapping pattern. 

One of the fundamental objectives of the group was to magnify women’s voices and discourse.

While Polly’s wasn’t private, it was a bastion of tolerance. As author Joanna Scutts has pointed out in her book on Heterodoxy, Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism (2022), one of the fundamental objectives of the group was to magnify women’s voices and discourse. The leap from kitchen table to cafe table, from the domestic sphere to the public square (so to speak), was an empowering first step.

Recesses in the tabletops shaped like dinner plates and serving platters are visible under two-way mirrors, timed to intermittently reveal and conceal what is beneath them: food for thought. Similarly, the Heterodite portraits disappear behind one’s own reflection as the mirrors obscure and invite projection. The wells contain objects and low-quality reproductions of printed material and historical documents, among other things. related to Heterodoxy, the group. 

Click image to enlarge.

The eclectic collection of ephemera, objects and texts–political cartoons, leaflets on feminism, a doll in a white dress (thought to have belonged to Heterodite Flora Dodge), a draft of of Marriage Customs and Taboo (by Heterodite Florence Guy Woodston), and more. 

In short, with its props and prompts, Heterodoxy is an aspirational “hotbed” (as Scutts put it)  masquerading as a hushed, traditionally feminine domestic interior–a witty, colorful staging ground for participatory inquiry and dialogue. It is also a site intended to upend the structure of 19th- and early 20th-century largely white feminism with the aim of critiquing classist, racist, and heteronormative models and building new ones.

Jessica is based in Toronto, Ontario. A “multidisciplinary artist and author,” she produces comics, paintings, drawings, and fiber art as well as performance works. She draws from a variety of resources such as global politics, science fiction, art, and religion (including her own “evangelical upbringing”). 

Heterodoxy is on view (and available for in situ group discussion bookings) at the Fabric Workshop and Museum at 1214 Arch Street in Philadelphia through June 2, 2024.

© Debra Thimmesch (2/27/2024) FF2 Media


Learn more about the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Check out the Heterodoxy exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Visit Jessica Campbell’s website here.

Read Jessica Campbell’s Hot or Not: 20th Century Male Artists, available for purchase on her website.

Read Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism by Joanna Scutts. 


Featured, first middle, and bottom photos: Jessica Campbell, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Heterodoxy, 2024. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Second middle photo: Moment from Heterodoxy at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Photo by Debra Thimmesch.

Tags: Debra Thimmesch, Fabric Art, Heterodites, Heterodoxy, Jessica Campbell, Joanna Scutts, Philadelphia, rug making, The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Toronto

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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