The women in Chandon Fraser’s black and white photograph of the Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970, look familiar. With their earnest faces, hand-knitted jumpers and unkempt hair, they are my generation seen through the grainy-grey lens of 50 years.
“Talkin ‘bout my generation” – The Who
I wasn’t at that first meeting because I was, at the time, an archetypal earth mother living in the country, looking after babies and a flock of hens. But their ideas were beginning to filter through even to my hippy rural idyll. There was a heady list of injustices faced by women at the time (particularly married women). Apart from not receiving equal pay, we could be dismissed from our jobs when pregnant, did not receive statutory maternity pay, nor were we protected by sex-discrimination law so that jobs could be advertised just for men. Classed as the legal dependents of our husbands, we were not entitled to claim benefits in our own names nor secure a mortgage or bank loan without the signature of a husband or father. The law did not protect us from rape or sex on demand within marriage, and there were no rape crisis centres or women’s refuges. A court order could not be obtained against violent husbands. Domestic abuse was considered a private matter. Divorce – with all its implications – was the only way out. For women of colour, the situation was even worse. The first Race Relations legislation passed in 1965 had no teeth.
Some of Fraser’s photographs show meetings and marches that include the occasional male sympathiser, all cigarettes, long, unruly hair and sideburns. But they’re rare. What she does capture is the camaraderie. Women sitting around in discussion groups. We see Sue Crockford with her perm, bouncing her baby in its homemade bonnet on her knee while laughing with Juliet Mitchell.
The Nursery Campaign, Hackney on Mother’s Day 1976, photographed by Christine Vogue, pictures a group of women holding homemade placards. They stand amid striped baby buggies, demanding the right to nurseries and childcare that offered them a road to economic independence. It was in this landscape of nascent change that the infamous 1970 Miss World contest took place, and the comedian Bob Hope wisecracked: “It’s quite a cattle market. I’ve been back there checking the calves. I don’t want you to think I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything.” For his pains, he was pelted with flour.
Brilliantly curated and one of the largest shows mounted by Tate Britain, Women in Revolt is a complete archive of the period. It begins in 1970 and, for me, is like dipping a madeleine into lime tea. It brings it all back: the anger, the pain, the optimism. The belief that, through protest, things could be better. Much of the work in the exhibition has little commercial value, but its historic worth is priceless. There are films, posters and magazines. Old copies of Spare Rib and Shrew, one with an ironic take on the infamous Allen Jones sculpture of a crouching woman dressed in leather, designed as a coffee table. Much of it feels ephemeral and makeshift, having been cobbled together on kitchen tables. It’s photocopied, collaged and stapled together. This is very much a pre-internet, do-it-yourself world. There are leaflets for handing out in the street and flyers for sticking on walls put out by the National Abortion Campaign, the Birmingham Women’s Liberation and the International Marxist Group.
The 70s was a colourless era. Several of the winters were freezing, while rubbish piled up in the streets as a result of the three-day week. Often, the lights went out. Capitalism was being challenged on every front, including the miners’ strike, which we see being supported by Hackney Greenham Women, photographed by Maffei Murray. The most high-profile women’s group was the Greenham Common Women’s peace camp, occupied from 1981 to 2000. Visiting on several occasions with my young children, I saw how the women there were incorporating DIY methods of art into their protests by weaving spiderwebs of wool and objects into the fence. Embrace the Base, 1982 by Brenda Prince, shows a group carrying a placard to the then Prime Minister that reads: “Dear Margaret, Here’s your Christmas cheque. Don’t spend it on bombs for the children. Love Mother xxx.”
As the exhibition moves through the 70s to the 80s, it incorporates more than the white middle-class women who were most visible at the first WLM meeting. Queer women and women of colour begin to demand visibility. In 1979, the first National Black Women’s Conference was set up by the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). The front of one of their magazines boldly states in green letters: Black Women in Britain Speak Out. The female body was throwing off its pinnies and duffle coast to become more sexualised. In 1976, Cosey Fanni Tutti performed her Women’s Roll naked at the AIR Gallery. In it, she explored the sexual body, particularly within the context of the sex industry. Leaning on pop art, Margaret Harrison, a member of the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union, made a series of drawings that challenged the portrayal of women in popular culture. Suggesting that society reduces women to domestic sites of erotic consumption, she presents, in Little Women at Home 1971, a warrior woman dressed in a breastplate with pointy pink nipples. Wearing stockings held up by barbed wire, the heel of her silver stiletto boot is crushing a box of Brillo pads.
Protest and politics elide in this exhibition. The London Women’s film group depicts women demonstrating outside their workplace for Fair Pay, while FOWAAD, the newsletter of OWAAD, asks: BLACK KIDS….who cares. Alexis Hunter’s The Marxist Wife (still does the housework) packs a punch even now, ironically depicting a female hand continuously wiping away the face of Karl Marx. The late Susan Hiller’s work, Ten Months 1977, is particularly potent. As befits this highly intelligent artist who once trained as an anthropologist, she maps and documents the mound of her expanding stomach during pregnancy in ten frames containing twenty-eight individual photographs. The anarchic influence of punk is seen in the nudity and painted bodies of The Neo Naturists, a performance art group formed by Christine and Jennifer Binnie, with Wilma Johnson, that was linked to various subcultures. Formed to counter the effects of Thatcherism, they performed in nightclubs, as well as galleries, to broaden their audience. Elsewhere, butch gays make out in a uniform of vests and Doc Marten’s on Hampstead Heath in work by the Californian photographer Del Lagrace Volcano, who wanted to “display a solidarity with gay male subculture…..and reclaim their sexuality from the patriarchal gaze.” There are also strong paintings by Lesley Sanderson, a Chinese-Malaysian British artist who challenges the eroticised stereotype of the ‘oriental’ women, and a fearsome version of the goddess Kali waving a machete and wearing a garland of severed white male heads (an inverse reference to Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?) entitled Housewives with Steak Knives 1985 by Sutapa Biswas that undercuts narratives of colonialism and imperialism.
Time is needed to look at all this expansive exhibition has to offer. What seems to be clear, looking back to the early 1970s, is that while there were huge restrictions on women’s lives, there was also an optimism that things could and should get better, A belief that by making the personal political things would change. In these hardened and more cynical times, there’s still plenty to do be done to create opportunities for all women. Yet, somehow, the belief that change can be achieved through will and protest seems less certain, the progress made over 50 years more fragile in our own dystopian times.