Gina Birch 3 Minute Scream 1977 © Gina Birch Gina Birch 3 Minute Scream 1977 © Gina Birch

The Tate Modern exhibition charting two decades of women’s fight for liberation encompasses a broad range of issues and forms an important historical record, finds Lindsey German

Women in Revolt is an exhibition which is exciting from the word go. The attempt to document and display feminist art and artefacts from the beginning of women’s liberation in Britain to the 1990s encompasses some remarkable paintings but also photographs, pamphlets, graffiti art, film, and installations. Its subjects range from strikes to childbirth, from the length of the working day for women to lesbianism.

The exhibition starts with the explosion of women’s liberation from 1970. We see film of the Oxford conference, Joanne O’Brien’s photos of the Miss World contest where Bob Hope was driven from the stage by protesters, and dozens of pamphlets, duplicated sheets and badges highlighting different aspects of the movement. 

So many taboos were broken in those years. Women abandoned the idea that they had to act in a certain ‘feminine’ way. They insisted that women’s bodies and all the issues relating to them – whether childbirth, contraception, or menstruation – were social not individual concerns. The major campaigns round abortion from the mid 1970s insisted that it was a class issue and one that needed to be raised in the trade unions. Lesbianism became a political question. 

Women in Revolt reflects all these changes for women. There are also sections on black women’s art, Rock Against Racism, the miners’ strike and Greenham Common. 

For people of my generation, it’s a document of our lives. The Grunwick strike, Greenham, the abortion campaign, the ANL carnival and many more were all events I attended. I went to the exhibition with a friend who was a single parent in the early 70s. We were reminded ofthe stigma that women who had children outside marriage or brought them up alone, were made to suffer. The photos of the Hackney Market nursery show the early attempts at decent childcare which was often difficult to find. 

One stand-out installation is Women & Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry 1973-75 by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly. It’s a study of women in a Bermondsey metal box factory which involves a great deal of sociological information about what work men and women do, conducted at a time when the Equal Pay Act was being introduced. Most fascinating are lists of the women workers’ activities throughout the day – not just ‘went to work’ or ‘came home from work’ but all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, childcare, and everything else that these ‘part-time workers’ actually did. 

This highlighting of the ‘double shift’ is particularly effective and also a valuable historical record. On a similar theme is Su Richardson’s Bear it in mind where her artwork is a pair of dungarees whose pockets are filled with the items women need to go about their domestic and paid work. 

The graffiti art photographed by Jill Posener also stands out. Her most famous shot is the brilliant subversion of the Fiat car ad whose message is ‘If it were a lady it would get its bottom pinched’ (yes really) on which is scrawled, ‘If this lady was a car she’d run you down.’

There is so much that is inventive and appealing here, and so much that gives us recent social history. 

Are there problems with the exhibition? I would have liked to see far more working class and trade union-related work. Although there is some, such as the night cleaners’ strike, Grunwick and of course Women Against Pit Closures, but this was an extremely important time for working class women who became part of a militant trade union movement and who in the process developed new ways of organising. There should be more on the socialist and Marxist aspects of women’s liberation. One artwork kind of implies that Marx was himself responsible for the sexual division of labour, rather than the capitalist system that he so strongly rejected. 

The fragmentation of what is covered partly reflects the way in which the movement itself fragmented after its early years. The collective struggles with close links to the working-classmovement went in a number of different directions, and the movement itself divided. Nonetheless a combination of the impetus for change created and the changing position of women at work and in society led to big movements like Greenham and WAPC, and also to those like Reclaim the Night. 

Interestingly though, as my friend and I looked at the original demands of the women’s movement, it was striking how few of them have been met today, more than 50 years later. That’s because women’s oppression is inextricably tied up with the system of exploitation which is at the heart of capitalism. So the fight against both needs to be unified in order to win, and that means developing a socialism which has women’s liberation at its heart. 

I would highly recommend Women in Revolt. The Tate Britain has devoted space to what is an extensive exhibition covering several rooms. It is quite a lot to take in at one go and ideally you should make repeat visits, but the cost of these exhibitions makes that prohibitive for many. Nonetheless if you can make it to London, do try to catch it. There is something for every generation of women and men to learn from our recent history. 

Women in RevoltArt and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 is on at the Tate Britain, London until April next year.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.