“All workers are exploited, some are more exploited than others”: A Study Informed by the Feminist Arts Practices of 1970s Britain

 

A number of legislative changes took place in 1970sBritain concerning women’s employment rights andthe control of their bodies. Rosemary Cromptonand Kay Sanderson have stated that “as far aslegislation is concerned, the decade must be regarded as the equal of that which granted thesuffrage to women”1.

The seismic change experienced by women during this decade was reflected within the contemporary practices of feminist artists. More specifically, thechanging landscape of women’s participation in thelabour market is one which was explored through an emerging form of conceptual art which tackled political and industrial issues. Margaret Harrison,Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly’s Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry(1973-5) was one of the earliest projects to address these themes from an overtly feminist perspective. This work shall be the cornerstone of the research undertaken within this study.

This study will draw on perspectives from cultural history, gender history and feminist arts practices. In her examination of heritage as a cultural practice, Laurajane Smith identifies the process of an‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’. This sees alternative or marginal aspects of heritage undermined, as the ability and authority to speak on heritage is confined to those who are identified as ‘experts’.This process has seen the social and cultural experiences of working class women neglected within heritage discourse. My research will make a distinctive contribution to heritage discourse by exploring the heritage of working class women through the lens of feminist arts practices in 1970s Britain, by recovering aspects of women’s political and cultural heritage that risk disappearing fromview.

My research will ask the following questions:

  • How have feminist arts practices helped to reveal work and material cultures alienated by an‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’?
  • How far have feminist arts practices demonstrated that heritage curation is a gendered process?
  • How do feminist arts practices reflect, and have the potential to shape, the existing theories surrounding women and work?

The objective of this research will be to survey the exploration of women and work within the feminist arts practices of 1970s Britain, to apply these findings to the existing historiography surrounding the subject, and to then assess the way in which this research can assist in a re- examination of the field through a new interdisciplinary perspective.

Empirical studies of women’s work experiences began during the seventies, with the aim of documenting and understanding the everyday lived reality of women’s working lives, and for these observations to inform the emerging theory surrounding the subject. My research will provide a unique contribution to this historiography, in that it shall bring the practices of the feminist artists of 1970s Britain to light as studies which documented and aided the understanding of these everyday lived realities.

Rosemary Stubbs

Rosemary Stubbs Image © Jason Hynes

Methodology

Rosalind Delmar reviewed Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt, and Mary Kelly’s Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry for Spare Rib in 1975. Here she stated that “theexhibits could be described variously as the tools in trade of the historian, the sociologist, the tradesunion militant or the women’s liberation activist.2” My research project will develop a case study approach focussed on particular arts practices and artists. It will include the work of: Berwick Street Film Collective; The Hackney Flashers; Margaret Harrison; Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly; alongside the work of their contemporaries in Britain and internationally, thereby using feminist arts practices as the tools in trade of the historian.

Research Impact

This research project could be applied to a reassessment of the way in which museums present heritage, informing artwork interpretation in an attempt to re-engage visitors with the concept of heritage. This project has broad scope beyond academia, and could be utilised as the basis for an exhibition proposal.

Biography

I gained my BA in History at Teesside University with first class honours in 2013, and was awarded the Rob Lee Memorial Prize for the most outstanding piece of work in Northern History. In 2015 I was competitively awarded a funded studentship by Teesside University to study MA Cultural History, graduating with merit in 2016. I have worked as a Gallery Assistant at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art since 2011, and through this role I have explored the way in which art can be used as a means of illustrating heritage.

 

Supervisors: Professor Natasha Vall, Teesside University, Dr Michael Lent, Teesside University, Dr Linsey Robb, Northumbria University

Twitter: @RosemaryEStubbs

 

 

 

  1. Rosemary Crompton and Kay Sanderson, Gendered Jobs & Social Change (London, 1990) p.53
  2. ‘Women & Work’, Spare Rib, October 1975