Women in revolt

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990

Showing at Tate Britain until 7 April. Entrance £17

Reviewed by Nancy Taaffe

The artwork displayed in the exhibition Women in Revolt! roughly starts at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. In the post-war period the working class won big structural gains; the NHS, welfare, free education and council housing, as well as higher wages and improved working conditions. Reforms gave more money and more time to workers, men and women, two prerequisites for art.  

The second-world war ruptured family relations. The war needed women out of the house. Jobs that had previously been considered the domain of men had to be done by women because many of the men were off fighting.  

Elements of domesticity were nationalised. Childcare facilities were made more freely available. Some war nurseries were available for free for twelve hours a day, to enable women to work. Many of the artists in this exhibition are the daughters of the women who were changed by the war.

This exhibition can be seen as an attempt by groups of artists, cooperatives, and political activists to consciously and unconsciously hold on to and extend rights that had been won by the post-war generation. Even if you can see in the subsequent sweep of history the shortcomings of some of the methods and ideas used to fight back, the exhibition charts the resistance. Some women fought individually, some fought collectively, but all of them fought back.  

Room One – Rising with fury

This room shows small grassroots campaigns springing up in communities to resist the onslaught. Campaigns against the closures of nurseries, protests for equal pay, and paintings depicting the difficulties women encountered securing meaningful work are displayed.

This room proclaims that in the 1970s there were no statutory maternity rights or any sex discrimination legislation. Married women could still be legally raped by their husbands in marriage.

In this room you sense the frustration at what is perceived by many artists as the stalled or incomplete revolution.

Room Two – The Marxist wife still does all the housework

The very name of this room acknowledges the existence of Marxist and socialist ideas in wider society in the 1970s and 1980s. The backdrop to this time would have been big industrial struggles.

The art in this room attempts to address the question of the public and private sphere; a dominant theme is ‘make the personal political’. Wages for Housework as an international movement took off. Artists produced art at their kitchen tables, whilst they had caring responsibilities and domestic chores. They attempted to home birth, their bodies became subjects for their art. Their environment informed their materials. They explored fertility, reproduction and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into sustaining a family, whatever that family looks like.

They challenged the idealised nude, the selfless mother and doting housewife. They turned images of women on their heads and looked at them from different perspectives. They used the materials of the home, wool, fabrics and photography.

I found this room more challenging, with its emphasis on small consciousness raising groups attempting to change things. It felt like it was at times raging against the ‘macho’ nature of the big industrial struggles of the time, intimating that these didn’t address women’s oppression. Although it was also contradictory, as it had a section dedicated to the seminal two-year strike for union recognition by mainly Asian women workers at the Grunwick film processing lab in west London.

Room Three –  Greenham women everywhere.

Whilst a layer of women joined single-issue liberation campaigns, others set up women’s groups attached to more generalised struggle, and in particular the labour movement struggles. The campaign for nuclear disarmament saw the Greenham Common women peace camp.

This was the most political room, with homemade magazines and banners etc, from groups such as Women Against Pit Closures, overtly socialist and Marxist groups, anti-racist groups, and those fighting for abortion and reproductive rights.

Maybe I’m biased because the miners’ strike woke me up politically, but I liked this room most. One of the most memorable speeches I’ve ever heard was a report of a miner’s wife who had become so emancipated by the dispute that when husband decided to go back to work, against her wishes and before the strike had ended, she left her wedding ring and a note on the mantel piece saying that because she was a completely changed person since the strike had started she couldn’t reconcile herself with his actions. Here the personal was not only political, it was for a greater cause other than herself.

Room 4 – Black woman in now

With the backdrop of the uprisings taking place in Black communities across Britain, expressed by the Brixton and Tottenham riots, this room reflected the rising voices of women within the Black, gay and disabled communities. The international struggles, such as those against apartheid, influenced the art of these groups, as did the struggle against the anti-gay section 28 and the struggle of the disabled community, such as the struggle for equal access to transport facilities. The liberation struggles taking place outside in wider society became the subject for marginalised groups within the women’s movement and in turn the art that was created.

Last room – There’s no such thing as society

It’s interesting that the exhibition ends with the election of the first female prime minister and her infamous comments on individualism.  

This room reflects the counter-revolution that set in in life, and in particular in women’s lives, based on the failure of those that led the movement in the 70s and 80s to lead it to a generalised lasting victory. The room reflects the corporatisation of life and, interestingly, art. This room proclaims that with the onslaught of neo-liberalism the type of art that Room One showcased became more or less crushed – not least because art space became privatised and exclusive.

This exhibition showcases the resistance of women in many different forms over a period of nearly four decades. Go see it to get a flavour of the time.