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Between 1973 and 1975 artists Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly conducted a detailed study of women's work in a metal box factory in Bermondsey. Their investigation was timed to coincide with the implementation of the Equal Pay Act (EPA), which had been passed in 1970. They drew together their findings to create an installation that was first displayed at the South London Art Gallery (now the South London Gallery) in 1975. Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry 1973-1975 tells the stories of over 150 working women who participated in the project and offers a specific account of the participants' relationship to the workplace, as well as a more general examination of the changes in labour and industry brought about by the EPA.
Harrison, Hunt and Kelly employed a sociological approach, collecting a vast amount of data through interviews, archival research and observation. The rigour of their method is matched by the minimalist look of the work itself - black and white photographs and films sit alongside simple type-written texts and photocopied charts and documents. Punch cards and rates of pay record the gap in wages between men and women, and films of life in the factory show women confined to repetitive, stationary and low-skilled tasks while men perform more physical and supervisory roles. Objective and subjective points of view coexist in the piece and the points of contact between the personal and the political, the public and the private are themes that run throughout. The portraits and names of the female employees that are installed near the beginning of the display put human faces to the facts and figures and invite the viewer to engage with issues on more personal terms.
The daily schedules documenting the working lives of men and women in the factory provide further evidence of the division of labour along gender lines. They also bring the issue of domestic labour into the foreground, as many of the women spoke almost exclusively of the work they performed at home. As Kelly later observed: 'We interviewed the men and they told us everything that happened on the job, but the women wouldn't even talk about what they did at work. They just said, 'went to work, came back', and then they talked about what they did in the home.' (Mary Kelly interviewed by Douglas Crimp in Mary Kelly, London 1997, p.15)
Women and Work developed from Harrison, Hunt and Kelly's involvement in the Women's Workshop of the Artist's Union, a group formed in 1972 with the aims of advancing women's causes within the union and of ending racial and sexual discrimination in the arts. Significantly, the Women's Workshop also sought to make connections with women's groups in other unions. One report stated 'The Women's Workshop maintains that women in whatever sector they are employed are largely unorganized and consequently receive the lowest pay and work in the worst conditions; it is our intention to support our sisters in their struggle for unionization and also in the action they take as organized workers.' (Women's Workshop, 'A Brief History of the Women's Workshop of the Artist's Union, 1972-1973' in Hilary Robinson, ed., Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, Oxford 2001, p.87)
While there is a specific parallel to be drawn between this statement and Women and Work as a project, it also points to the more general inter-mingling of art, politics, union activism and feminism that took place in Britain in the early 1970s. Artists such as Hans Haacke, Stephen Willats and Conrad Atkinson were early proponents of a politicized form of Conceptual art that emerged around this time in Britain and in America, but Women and Work was one of the earliest projects to tackle political and industrial issues from an overtly feminist perspective. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate now how radical a move this was, but the significance of the artists' intervention was recognized by factory management when they eventually banned Harrison, Hunt and Kelly from the site.
Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly, Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry, exhibition catalogue, South London Art Gallery, London 1975.
Judith Mastai, Social Process/Collaborative Action: Mary Kelly 1970-1975, exhibition catalogue, Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver 1997, pp.77-94.