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

Nancy Princenthal


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. 


A galvanizing work that seems bound to inspire artists for many years to come. 

— ARTnews

An invaluable, detailed art-historical account of struggles to represent sexual violence. 

— Artforum

A gripping history. 

— Bookforum

Unspeakable Acts is an important and urgent book. Princenthal’s trenchant, honest, complex exploration of the radical representations of sexual violence in the 1970s delineates the upheaval of implicit assumptions about rape, bodies, silence and speech in particular works by individual artists in light of their broader artistic and political meanings and lasting consequences. I read it with breathless, captive attention.

— Siri Hustvedt, author of "The Blazing World and Memories of the

Riveting… A potent study of feminist art and activism of the 1970s… Clearly grasping the scope and complexity of her subject, the author contextualizes the stumbles and stamina of feminism, addressing objectification and exploitation while focusing on artists' pivotal acts of defiance, which brought heightened awareness to taboo or underdiscussed topics… Paying attention to the groundbreaking work of artists giving voice to sexual violence, Princenthal plainly establishes art's significant contributions to social change movements.

— Kirkus Review

In this uniquely focused and vitally analytical history, Princenthal recognizes an underappreciated facet of revolutionary art, and dramatically captures the bravura, shocking, at times media-savvy, in other cases stunningly covert performances of Yoko Ono, Suzanne Lacy, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, and Marina Abramovic, as well as the ferocious pictorial work of Nancy Spero… [An] unprecedented and searing inquiry.

— Booklist

Throughout the art-historical record, sexual violence against women was a subject typically rendered by male artists for a male audience. Princenthal shows how that finally changed in the last quarter of the 20th century…women took an experience that had been artistically mined by men for millenniums…and found ways to convey it in their own terms… [She] takes a tangled history and weaves it into an elegant account

— The New York Times

Nancy Princenthal's Unspeakable Acts delves into the links between violence and silence, art and terror, and how pioneering women made them into art. … [Her] lucid and challenging narrative chronicles the efforts of artists and activists (who were frequently one and the same) to find 'language for violence [as] the first step in mitigating its effects.' … Princenthal is also deft at drawing a roadmap through the political, social, and aesthetic divisions of the '70s.

— Hyperallergic

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. A former senior editor of Art in America, where she remains a contributing editor, she has also written for the New York Times, Parkett, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She is currently on the faculty of the MFA art writing program at the School of Visual Arts. Her previous book, Agnes Martin, won 2016 PEN/ Jacqueline Bograd Weld award for biography.