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Women in Revolt!

Protest Poster at Women in Revolt! by See Red Women's Workshop
Protest, See Red Women's Workshop

We’re in March, but it’s hard to focus solely on international women’s month, when the last few months have been marked by ongoing global protests for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the genocide of Palestinians - and other conflicts and genocides that are getting far less attention; and when every day we watch and share brutal online content of other people’s tragic realities.


Many of us feel sick in the stomach, angry and forlorn. When I look around me, however, I am surprised, and disappointed, that there aren’t more of us demanding change, speaking out against rampant inequality and injustice – and, that this apathy is also engulfing large swathes of the ‘feminist community’. Most days, all I want to do is SCREAMMMMMMMM ... like Gina Birch in the Three Minute Scream, 1977.


Still from Gina Birch, Three Minute Scream, 1977

The three minutes clip of Gina Birch screaming features in Women in Revolt!  - a huge retrospective, which explores two whole decades (1970 - 1990) of Britain’s radical feminist activism and art - Tate Britain until 07th April. I went to see it a few weeks ago, and loved it. I found it inspiring and thoroughly recommend a visit … even though it left me feeling ambivalent about the progress we have made since.

Women in Revolt! showcases the work of over 100 women artists who were excluded from the art world at the time, but who found new and radical approaches to making their mark on British culture – in ways few mainstream artists had done. The pieces on display are organised chronologically, rather than thematically. The exhibition's rich content incorporates different techniques, including a wide range of media from painting, drawing, collage, photography, film, sculpture, textiles, and printmaking – there are lots of zines and leaflets too. It’s well researched and curated by Linsey Young who reveals that ‘the vast majority came direct from artists, which is highly unusual, and archives, such as the Bishopsgate Institute, Black Cultural Archives, The Feminist Library in Peckham and Glasgow Women’s Library.’

Lubaina Himid, The Carrot Piece, 1985
Lubaina Himid, The Carrot Piece, 1985

In the 1970’s and 80’s, women’s art, especially Brown and Black women’s art, was shunned by the big boys in the art world. They were far too absorbed in their own patriarchal glory. Despite women of colour’s important work as part of the British Black Arts Movement or initiatives such as Four Indian Women Artists – the first exhibition, in 1981, organised by and featuring only women of colour - it took artists such Lubaina Himid, Stella Dadzie, Rita Keegan, Chila Kumari Singh Burman and many others, decades to become household names. Because their art disrupted the status quo and conventional form, and because of what Lubaina Himid described as the ‘double negation of being a woman and Black’, there was no place for them at the head table.


“This show isn’t about stars,

it’s a constellation of women who are very well-known in their own communities

but have not always reached the mainstream.”

Linsey Young


In addition to giving women artists the profile they deserve, as artists as well as activists, Women in Revolt! provides context for their art. It covers fascinating slices of socio-political her-stories and issues that defined the times and are still relevant today - from equal pay, maternity rights, to gender-discrimination, racism, ablism and more. It’s more than art for arts sake.


The marxist’s wife (still does all the housework), Alexis Hunter

We’re now in 2024 – almost 50 years since the Equal Pay Act (1975) came into force – and we’re still lagging behind our male counterparts: the median pay gap hovers around 9.4% - unchanged since 2017-18. In addition, women carry the burden of unpaid care work. Any feminist who has perused the works of Karl Marx will have been stunned by the complete omission from his theory of so-called ‘reproductive labour’ – i.e. most women’s work (vis-à-vis ‘productive labour’ – i.e. mostly men’s work, at least back then) and its role in fuelling the insatiable capitalist ogre.


Wages for Housework, Monica Sjöö, 1975

In 1972, Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici and Brigitte Galtier got together to challenge that notion. Selma James presented a paper at the UK’s third national women’s liberation conference – the first one had taken place in 1970 and there were 10 conferences all in all between 1970 and 1978. She outlined six demands: ‘the right to work less; the right to have or not to have children (rather than just abortion); equal pay for all; free community-controlled nurseries and childcare (rather than 24/7 state childcare); an end to price rises; and the right to a guaranteed income, for women and men, and to wages for housework.’


What happened next is really not that surprising. Back in the 1970’s, the British feminist movement was dominated by white middle class feminist who, she recalls, argued ‘that wages for housework would institutionalise women in the home and that going out to work was the beginning of liberation – no reference to wages or working conditions.’ 

Selma James at Democracy Now!

The International Wages for Housework Campaign didn’t need their endorsement to launch. It remains as cutting edge now as it was then – because, guess what, housework is real work, and women still do more and it's still unpaid. A prominent defender of trans and sex workers’ rights, Selma James became the first spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, undeterred by TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Feminists), and the co-ordinator of the Global Women’s Strike - before any of these issues reached the mainstream. A true trailblazer.


Collective spirit!


One of the hallmarks of the ‘second wave’ - which came 50 or so years after ‘first-wave’ succeeded in enshrining women’s suffrage into UK law (note these are very ‘western’ constructs) – was the power of collective action and organising. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp is a remarkable example of how that manifested.


Greenham Common Banner

When in 1981 a group of women set off from Cardiff to protest against the decision to store nuclear missiles at an RAF base in Berkshire, they meant business. Met by silence from the authorities, they set up a semi-permanent camp and were joined by thousands of women. They created a women-only-space (which by some is interpreted as trans-exclusive spaces – it isn’t!), women came and went - some staying for months, some years – until the camp was dismantled in 2000.


What bound these women together was a core belief that nuclear disarmament is a feminist issue. Sound familiar? And even if life on the camp was challenging, it gave rise to rich discussions about race, class, sexuality, gender roles and the creation of unorthodox art forms – all of which played a role in informing the women’s movement over time – not least in relation to environmental destruction and climate justice.


There is, in fact, a growing interest in and acknowledgement of the relationship between gender and ecology. RE/SISTERS, at the Barbican last year, highlighted the systemic link between the oppression of women and Black, trans and indigenous communities and the degradation of the planet – and of course, amongst the many examples of feminist resistance, it featured the Greenham protest.


Y B A WIFE, Is there live after marriage - See Red Women's Workshop, 1981

Feminists also used their collective voice to respond to sexist advertising and negative media imagery. Magazines such as Red Rag and Spare Rib, and groups such See Red Women’s Workshop began to emerge and with them creative forms of political art that helped reclaim the narrative. See Red produced posters for the women’s liberation movement and a diverse set of community groups. Their emphasis was always on working collectively, on sharing skills and knowledge: ‘No one individual took the credit. This was a concept many in the art world found hard to accept.’

Poly Styrene inevitably pops up several times in this exhibition - it exudes her rebel spirit and that of the era. But she is far from being alone in the punk and post-punk era. Avant-garde artist Cosey Fanni Tutti rose to prominence through her work as a musician in the electronic scene with Throbbing Gristle, and, Chris & Cosey – and as a performance and striptease artist – weaving connections between different worlds. She admits identifying more with ‘Gay Liberation’ than ‘Women’s Liberation’. But ultimately, according to Lucy Whitman – aka Lucy Toothpaste - author of the punk feminist, anti-fascist zine JOLT - it didn’t really matter if women identified as feminists or not. What mattered the most, was that everything they did was unconventional. They were redefining women’s role in society.


Black Women Will Not Be Intimidated, See Red Women's Workshop, 1980 - 81

While sections of the feminist movement focused on the impact of intersecting inequalities – gender, race, sexuality, class, ablism – and helped bring some of these issues into the public domain, in ways hadn’t been done before, this didn’t happen unilaterally. Much of the movement was dominated by ‘white middle class educated women’ who did not want to give up their privilege. The voices and identities of Black and Brown women, lesbians, trans women or women living with some form of impairment were further marginalised.


Stella Dadzie, Motherland, c. 1984

So, they organised their own spaces, prioritising the issues that defined and mattered to their communities, and they produced art that better reflected their realities - shaped by the politics, structural racism, police violence, inequality and other societal injustices. That is how the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) was formed in 1978. Co-founded by Stella Dadzie, Olive Morris and Gail Lewis, it was the first Black-women’s rights activist-based organisation in the UK.

Tough, See Red Women's Workshop, 1979

The ghost of Maggie Thatcher hangs in the air like the smell of a blocked drain. Her decrepit spirit pops up in several pieces through the last decade of the show. Everything she stood for - individualism, privatisation, and tradition, as immortalised in her ‘there is no such thing as society’ interview for Woman’s Own - was diametrically opposed to the collective DIY spirit, politics and concerns of the broader feminist movement. Sadly, her neoliberal ideology and free-market agenda prevailed - mostly.


Since the 1990’s, women in the UK have apparently had it all, which could not have been further than the truth. Today, Thatcherism is alive and kicking, visible in the accelerated dismantling of the ‘state’, housing crisis, privatised utilities and the commodification of absolutely everything by the current incarnation of Tory rulers whose so called culture war is leading to a massive backlash against gender justice, amongst other issues, and threatens to propel us back to the 1950's. But where is the rage?


Chila Kumari Singh Burman. If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress - Uprisings, 1981

This makes Women in Revolt! so timely – a necessary trip down memory lane, back to a time when women were actually revolting! So head to the Tate, experience and be inspired by feminist art, activism and ire. It’s raw and maybe a tad naïve, but these women weren’t afraid of being loud, disruptive – and somehow they were also freer. Unwittingly, the era helped pave the way for the Spice Girls world where feminism is more about girl power and girl bosses ‘leaning in’. Today it has become increasingly co-opted, coated in sprinklings of sickly pink and weaponised. ‘Feminists’ seem to care more about ‘Barbie’ not getting an award than they do about Palestinian, Sudanese or Congolese women dying in childbirth in ripped tents or squashed under rubble.


It's time to feel the rage!

You have a month before it closes from its current location at Tate Britain. From there, it will tour the UK, going to National Galleries Scotland: Modern, Edinburgh (25 May 2024 – 26 January 2025) and to The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (7 March – 1 June 2025).


Chris Ofili, Requiem, 2023

Women in Revolt! is not the only reason to go to Tate Britain. If you are familiar with the space – you will know the huge staircase leading up to the first floor. You may or not remember what the décor was like a year ago, David Tremlett's Mondrian-esque 'Drawing for Free Thinking', which had been here since September 2011. It has now been replaced with Chris Ofili’s Requiem - a sobering, personal homage to the victims of the Grenfell fire – in particular to the artist Khadija Saye. The fresco with adorn the space for the next ten years.


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