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Baroness Hayter reviews 'Women in Revolt!'

Fiat advert, London: Jill Posener, 1979 | Image courtesy of the artist, Jill Posener

3 min read

Members of the Lords: go and visit your pasts. MPs: go and witness our early struggles. Tate Britain’s display of some brilliant feminist agitprop is just a stone’s throw from Parliament

It says something about The House magazine’s sense of humour that it invited this particular 1970s “Revolting Woman” to review Women in Revolt! – Tate Britain’s new exhibition of two decades of feminist art.

It’s a stone’s throw from Parliament where laws improving women’s rights – many as a result of such activism – were passed, and where today 29 per cent of Lords and 35 per cent of Commons are women, many of them schooled in the feminist movement (including Rosie, now Baroness, Boycott, whose Spare Rib, the magazine she co-founded, features prominently in the display).

Whilst the Tate describes the exhibition as the work of feminist artists, it is actually more a history of female agitprop. As I wandered through with an old school friend re-living demonstrations attended, posters seen, badges worn and causes supported, a young woman confessed she’d followed us round, intrigued by our reminiscences, perhaps not believing that what to her was “history” was our “lived experience”.

I was surprised by the anger on show. It seemed more shouty, in-your-face, and bold in a way I’d near forgotten

So for Members of the Lords: go and visit your pasts. For MPs: go and witness our early struggles and demands, including for Equal Pay (not introduced until 1975, my companion and I recalling that our friend had been paid less than men when she started at the Bank of England). One photo, of the 1976 Grunwick dispute, reminds us that the struggle for ethnic minority women is even harder.

Time For A Change
Time For A Change, 1988 | © Lesley Sanderson

For myself, I was surprised by the anger on show. It seemed more shouty, in-your-face, and bold in a way I’d near forgotten. Indeed this display of feminist agitprop included only one painting I’d love on my walls – Lesley Sanderson’s wonderful self-portrait  with its take-down of male fantasy and racial stereotypes beautifully caught. 

The women photographers had caught the mood of the movement over two decades brilliantly, its sharpness and urgency clear in writings and pictures, championing women’s own voices and highlighting the conflicting demands of motherhood and womanhood across the social classes. As one notice emphasises, “The Marxist Wife Still Does the Housework”; enfranchisement doesn’t grow automatically.

One poster – indeed from a march I was on – reads “Equal Pay is Not Enough: we want the Moon.” A warning still relevant today when equality remains some way off. Whilst the exhibition shows how far we’ve come, let no-one think our demands have subsided. Indeed the older I grow, the more impatient I become, even wondering whether we need a new feminist movement to reassert women’s rights and ensure no-one imagines we’ll fade away with age. 

Baroness Hayter is a Labour peer

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990
Curated by: Linsey Young
Venue: Tate Britain – until 7 April 2024

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