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Home HRArt and auctions Women in Revolt! Tate Britain’s exhibition of gutsy feminist art in the UK from 1970 to 1990

Women in Revolt! Tate Britain’s exhibition of gutsy feminist art in the UK from 1970 to 1990

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Women in Revolt! At Tate Britain.

Women in Revolt! Tate Britain’s exhibition of gutsy feminist art in the UK from 1970 to 1990

By James Brewer

There is a saying, “If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there,” implying you were very likely too high on illicit substances or psychedelic reveries to be aware of the passing of the years. The 1970s in Britain had a different vibe: tie-dye shirts, bellbottom trousers, platform heels, disco, glam rock, punk styles, workers’ strikes in the so-called Winter of Discontent. At the same time, a new spirit of women’s protest and collective feminism was invigorating society.

Tate Britain has mounted a bravura exhibition, Women in Revolt! ranging through dramatic and heroic feminist art and social movements from 1970 to 1990. Networks of women espoused radical ideas and rebellious methods in an energetic and sometimes forgotten contribution to British culture. Displaying work by over 100 women artists and collectives, this is the first broad survey of its kind in a major institution.

Poster from Jill Posener’s Spray It Loud.

The two decades saw women go beyond the formal structures of trade unionism and the confines of their homes to enter struggles for rights to childcare, freedom from oppression and violence inside and outside the home, for gender rights, better working conditions, equal pay, and resolute opposition to racism. They drew much strength from support groups weaponising art and political endeavour. Theirs is a legacy of success for some of their aims, but many advances have been rolled back by the state, while social media (undreamed of then) has become a disturbing platform for abusing women.

The exhibition title comes from a 1972 publication Patriarchal Attitudes: My Case for Women to Revolt by the prolific novelist and historian Eva Figes (1932-2012). She set out to show what she said were the ways in which Christianity, capitalism and even Freudian psychology had forced women into a subservient role and analysed the basic motivations behind the oppression of one sex by another.

Grunwick strike picket line, 1976.

Throughout the Tate rooms there is a buzz of radical earnestness and activism, and plenty of humour. Painting, drawing, photography, textiles, printmaking, film, sculpture, and archival materials demonstrate how women sought to bring about change in social, economic, and political fields. Women in Revolt! gives due credit to many women, who despite long careers, have largely been left outside the artistic narrative.

Untitled Rug and Figures. By Rita McGurn.

The ‘master’ blaster poster for the entire show features a lung-busting still from the 1977 film 3 Minute Scream by Nottingham-born artist and musician Gina Birch, a founding member of post-punk rock band The Raincoats. The piece embodies just what the title says it is: Birch’s release of pent-up anger and frustration, as she yells at the top of her lungs throughout the entire duration of a Super 8 film reel. Unnervingly, the scream resonates through all six rooms of the exhibition.

Archive film which vividly chronicles the stirring first Women’s Liberation conference in the UK in 1970 and associated ‘vox pops’ set the scene for the long overall narrative. The event started at Ruskin College, Oxford, which has a history of advocating working-class education. A much greater attendance than expected of 600 women and a few men (who looked after the creche) gathered for three days of lively debate. To cope with the numbers, some sessions were moved to the nearby Oxford Union, where sculptured busts of illustrious males were blanketed over. There were calls for big reforms including free contraception and abortion on demand. The organisers kept out the mainstream press which they feared would treat the gathering as a jokey thing. It amounted to a ‘second wave’ of feminist protest, more than 50 years after the agitation for women’s suffrage and was recounted in A Woman’s Place, by a brilliant filmmaker, Sue Crockford (1943-2019) who had been in the late 1960s involved in the political campaigns of Angry Arts/Liberation Films, and later helped set up a much-needed local childcare centre. She went on to a successful career as a TV executive and independent film producer.

Record sheet from Women & Work, by members of the Artists’ Union.

The Oxford conference was a reaction to a history workshop the previous year where the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham, who remains today eminent in her field, called for a clearer focus on women’s history.

The focus turned sharply though to the present. In 1973, a group of London artists took a practical and art-linked approach to publicising the conditions of working women by carrying out a survey at a metal box factory in Bermondsey. The Tate curators characterise the initiative, called Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry 1973–1975, a milestone of conceptual art. The project was developed by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt, and Mary Kelly of the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union.

Members of Kay Hunt’s family worked at the factory, and that helped provide access to employees, over 150 of whom took part in the undertaking. Through interviews, digging into archives, and observation, the researchers gathered a wealth of data on pay scales and shifts. This was in the context of the Equal Pay Act, passed in 1970, which was to enter into force in 1975. They looked at clock-in cards, medical department records, reports of workplace accidents, and made typed schedules detailing the mundane activities of both women and men. A typical sheet of paper about an average day refers to “Full-time (8am-5pm) Double seamer operator Louisa Clark, aged 59: 5.25am Get cup of tea in bed; 5.40am Get up, get myself ready, tidy round; 6.15am Have tea and toast; 6.50am leave home; 7.50am Clock in, never late; 8am start work… 5.45pm Get home, husband makes cup of tea; 6.15pm Cook dinner together; 7pm do some housework; 9pm sit down, watch tele… 10.30pm Go to bed.” Some descriptions indicated that women were being disproportionately assigned small, repetitive tasks.  Eventually the researchers were barred from the factory, but not before they achieved a comprehensive dossier. This comprised an installation of black-and-white photographs, audiotapes, charts, film, and text panels which was displayed in 1975 at the South London Art Gallery, not far from Bermondsey.

View of the “Rising Up” display.

One of the most moving displays in the exhibition is of the women-led industrial action at the Grunwick photo processing factory in northwest London in 1976. It comes from the archive of the all-female Format Photographers Agency. The women were protesting at degrading working conditions and in support of a sacked colleague. Grunwick employed many female Ugandan Asian workers, who were among 137 people fired. They set up pickets outside the factory, and as the company tried to bus in strike-breakers more than 20,000 people arrived to protest, leading to pitched battles in the street.

The employees were dismissively referred to by parts of the media as “strikers in saris.” One of their leaders, Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010, was greatly inspirational and even went on hunger strike with three colleagues. In the end, the women found themselves taking on not just the company chiefs but the trade union leadership which had initially supported them. After two years of struggle, in July 1978 the strikers gave up, but there was some comfort in that they had drawn attention to the plight of immigrant workers in the UK. Mrs Desai was quoted as saying: “We have shown that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect.” On the other hand, the mass demonstrations in support of the women prompted the outlawing of ‘secondary picketing’ by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Lesbians are Coming Out, 1992

Although remembered in monochrome, this and other episodes constitute anything but a black-and-white narrative. These were years of drama and determination. The Format agency chronicled issues, events and people who got little coverage in the mainstream media, as well as more momentous social movements, including the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, LGBTQ+ marches and demonstrations, soup kitchens during the miners’ strike, and women’s rights movements.

Among incidents highlighted by the exhibition is the demonstration in 1970 against the Miss World Contest, at the Royal Albert Hall. Members of women’s liberation groups organised a protest outside the London venue, while inside the hall, fellow activists threw flour bombs and old vegetables at the compere, American comedian Bob Hope.

Meanwhile, at the inspiration of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and others, the first National Black Women’s Conference, organised by OWAAD, took place in 1979 at the Abeng Centre in Brixton, attended by some 200 women of African, Caribbean, and Asian descent.

Making big headlines in the early 1980s were the Greenham Common protests, and the exhibition has related banners, posters, and journals. A group of women marched to Greenham Common Air Base near Newbury in Berkshire over plans to site cruise missiles there. They set up the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and attempted to disrupt construction work, cutting into the fence. In December 1982 more than 30,000 women joined hands around the site. Many women faced court hearings, fines and even prison. Five years later, the US and USSR signed a treaty which paved the way for the removal of the missiles. An installation by Margaret Harrison, Greenham Common (Common reflections), recreates a military base fence on which hang clothing, and alongside is a pushchair, a reminder that women took along children on their protests.

Lesbians are Coming Out (detail).

Jill Posener and friends living in a London squat in the late 1970s documented angry but witty feminist graffiti on what they considered to be sexist advertising posters. On a poster exclaiming ‘Renew his interest in Carpentry’, featuring a model leaning suggestively against a tree, someone added a punchline: ‘Saw his Head Off’. The group at the time kept their heads down for fear of being prosecuted but sold prints as postcards to raise funds for their causes. Jill Posener later moved to the US and became photo editor of the lesbian magazine On Our Backs.

Various women reacted against the press’s increasing homophobia during the Aids crisis.  Among those resisting bigotry was the See Red Women’s Workshop, a print studio and artists’ collective founded in 1974 by Julia Franco, Sarah Jones, Suzy Mackie and Pru Stevenson. They worked from a squat in Camden Town, and later a studio in south London. Typical was Lesbians are Coming Out, a screen print poster of a street scene with gay women in happy mood. “Lesbians are coming out…in full force!” declares red lettering at the top, and at the bottom is a savvy cat insisting “Lesbians are everywhere.”

Tough! My Message to the Women of Our Nation.

Another side of women’s creativity is seen in life-size sculptures in crochet by Rita McGurn. These are bold and colourful in materials often underappreciated because of their association with domestic labour. Rita (1940-2015) who was born in Glasgow was a television and film designer in the 1970s and 1980s. Self-taught, she practised her talents mainly at home. Rarely did she show her crochet creations in public, and then only locally. She used whatever materials were to hand, often acrylic, wool and cotton yarns, stuffed with polyester hollow fibre. Her daughter, the artist France-Lise McGurn, has recalled: “We all lost some good jumpers to those crochet figures, as stuffing or just stitched right in.”

The exhibition closes with strivings for change towards the end of the Thatcher administration, and the response to Section 28, a 1988 law banning the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. The legislation, which hampered schools and councils from providing guidance to young LGBTQ+ people, was repealed in 2001 in Scotland and in 2003 in the rest of the UK.

A strong curatorial team is led by Linsey Young, Tate curator of contemporary British Art, with Tate assistant curators Zuzana Flaskova, Hannah Marsh, and Inga Fraser. Film co-curation is by Lucy Reynolds, senior lecturer at Westminster School of Arts.

In celebration of Women in Revolt! a public mural is on display for the duration, under the arches of the Camden Lock Bridge, an area renowned for its alternative culture. As a commission from six London artists by street advertising specialist JACK ARTS, the mural is based on women’s rights protest placards.

Captions in detail:

Poster from Jill Posener’s Spray It Loud, 1980.

Grunwick strike picket line, 1976. Detail of photo in Format Photographers Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

Untitled Rug and Figures, crochet, 1974-1985. By Rita McGurn. The McGurn family.

Record sheet from Women & Work. A document on the division of labour in industry, 1973-5, compiled by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt, and Mary Kelly for the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union.

View of the “Rising Up” display in the first room.

Lesbians are Coming Out, 1992. See Red Women’s Workshop.

Lesbians are Coming Out (detail).

Tough! My Message to the Women of Our Nation, 1979. See Red Women’s Workshop, 1974-1990.

Women in Revolt! Is at Tate Britain until April 7 April 2024.

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