When the word "feminist" comes up, it's possible in 2013 to shrug and murmur dismissively, "Whatever was that about?"

We have, after all, come a long way, baby, from a time when women's career options were defined largely by nursing, typing or teaching. Women routinely do everything now -- run companies, courts, jackhammers, space shuttles, even museums. (Of the Twin Cities' five art museums, four are headed by women.)

So why is a spate of feminist exhibitions, talks, film screenings and other events now opening in the Twin Cities?

The activities celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota and its offshoot WARM gallery, organizations that were huge contributors to the national dialogue about women's roles and options in art.

Exhibitions involving more than 100 local and national women are being staged at Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota and Robbin Gallery in Robbinsdale, buttressed by a display of archival material at the university's Wilson Library and a Nash exhibit of paintings by the late Josephine Lutz Rollins, a pioneering educator who taught art at the U from 1927 to 1965.

Part reunion and part nostalgia trip, the events are driven by a deeper motivation.

"The older people have a fervent desire to pass on to another generation, not what we did but that we did it; this is a house we built," said Joyce Lyon, a founding member of WARM and associate professor of art who co-organized the university's show with Nash director Howard Oransky.

Recalling a time when local art colleges had no female faculty members, art history books ignored women, and museums and galleries were male turf, she said that young women today need to understand the stakes in the contemporary art -- and political -- scene.

"Young people today assume that things they have were always there, and we know they weren't," Lyon said. "Not every victory is secure."

A cultural marathon runner

From the start, WARM was a place where women could tell their stories, support each other's ambitions, dream big dreams, and test new ideas about art. Some pushed for acceptance of previously ignored subjects, especially female experiences like menstruation or childbirth. Others championed materials (fabric, ceramics) and crafts (lace-making, tapestry) that the art establishment had long trivialized as "women's work." Others launched new organizations and promoted ideas about sex and gender that were later embraced by the larger society.

"WARM was one of the key nodes in a national network that emerged in the '70s," said Oransky. Similar programs and galleries blossomed in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but many have closed or altered their mission over the years, he said, while "WARM has proved itself to be one of the marathon runners in this story."

The Nash Gallery show will span the decades featuring pieces from the '70s, recent work and a contextualizing timeline. It will be organized thematically along such topics as the body, identity and political oppression. National stars among the 72 featured talents include Chicago painter Ellen Lanyon, New York sculptor Nancy Azara, multimedia provocateur Judy Chicago, now of Belen, N.M., and New York painter/filmmaker Howardena Pindell.

The keynote address will be given Thursday by Harmony Hammond, a U of M alumna who co-founded A.I.R., the first women's cooperative art gallery in New York. Besides more than 40 solo shows of her own work, she founded the feminist publication Heresies and in 2000 wrote the award-winning book "Lesbian Art in America."

"Feminism brought into the mainstream a lot of materials and issues that were then picked up by men," said Oransky, citing the felt-sculptures of Robert Morris and the antiwar paintings of Leon Golub.

Evolving feminism

WARM, too, has changed over the years. Founded in 1973 as a networking organization, it ran a cooperative gallery in Minneapolis' Warehouse District from 1976 to 1991. Its mentorship program, which pairs seasoned artists with novices, has flourished since 1982 and typically provides support for about 30 women at a time. In keeping with its evolving role as a service organization, it changed its name to Women's Art Resources of Minnesota in 2010.

In February, Robbin Gallery will feature recent work by 37 current members of WARM. Some have been involved almost since its founding while others joined recently as protégées.

"Everyone joins WARM for slightly different reasons," said Robyn Hendrix, 30, a Carleton College graduate who is the youngest member of the organization's board. "We offer good opportunities for women who are looking for a community of artists, or who might be changing directions and want to establish a support network.

"I think feminism is still extremely relevant," she added, "especially in the past year when women's bodies were under political attack and we're still being objectified in 90 percent of the media representations people see every day. We still need an artistic voice like WARM to counteract that."

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431