Unspeakable Acts Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

Nancy Princenthal

One of the Best Art Books of 2019 — The New York Times

A groundbreaking exploration of how women artists of the 1970s combined art and protest to make sexual violence visible, creating a new kind of art in the process, now in paperback. 

The 1970s was a time of deep division and newfound freedoms. Galvanized by The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique, the civil rights movement and the March on Washington, a new generation put their bodies on the line to protest injustice. Still, even in the heart of certain resistance movements, sexual violence against women had reached epidemic levels. Initially, it went largely unacknowledged. But some bold women artists and activists, including Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta, Marina Abramovic, Adrian Piper, Suzanne Lacy, Nancy Spero, and Jenny Holzer, fired up by women’s experiences and the climate of revolution, started a conversation about sexual violence that continues today. Some worked unannounced and unheralded, using the street as their theater. Others managed to draw support from the highest levels of municipal power. Along the way, they changed the course of art, pioneering a form that came to be called, simply, performance.

Award-winning author Nancy Princenthal takes on these enduring issues and weaves together a new history of performance, challenging us to reexamine the relationship between art and activism, and how we can apply the lessons of that turbulent era to today. 


Nancy Princenthal speaks of the unspeakable brilliantly, bravely, thoroughly, and thoughtfully. She addresses art, literature, theatre, film and video games… and the real life politics they reflect, offering a long overdue look at creative coverage of rape, domestic violence, and other acts. In the process she has also written one of the best recent books on feminist arts.

— Lucy R. Lippard, writer and activist


Nancy Princenthal


Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based writer who is the author of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s; she is also the author of Hannah Wilke, and coauthor of three books on art by women, including Mothers of Invention: The Feminist Roots of Contemporary Art. A former Senior Editor of Art in America, she has also contributed to the New York Times, Hyperallergic, Bomb, Apollo, and elsewhere. Princenthal has lectured widely, and taught at Bard College, Princeton University, Yale University, the School of Visual Arts, New York University, and its Institute of Fine Arts.