Tate Etc

On the home front Recent Acquisition: Margaret Harrison

The pioneering feminist artist talks to Tate Etc.’s Mariko Finch about her 1977 piece Homeworkers, a politically potent work exploring the plight of non-unionised women in the 1970s doing manufacturing work at home, which is now on show at Tate Modern

Following the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, factory owners adapted very quickly, transferring low-paid tasks to night shifts, downgrading people’s jobs and forcing many women to labour from their own homes by making it difficult for them even to get to work.

Helen Eadie, a trade unionist, had started to investigate this situation through the Home Workers Campaign and asked me to go with her when she interviewed some of the women. I was able to take photographs and gain a deep understanding of their problems by talking to them. Their lives had been completely taken over, with the family being pushed to the periphery of the home. We visited women who were making fireworks in their kitchens. There were boxes of explosives stacked around, and their children were living among them. It was at the beginning of globalisation: people were desperate for work, while industry followed the path of finding the cheapest places to get things done.

I had to think carefully about how I would approach the production of Homeworkers, and how I would make these women’s stories into an artwork that was relevant to the reality of their experience. It was quite a challenge as there were a lot of black-and-white photography, text and film works around at that time, and the prevailing theory was that photography would ‘tell the truth’. Of course, now it is blatantly obvious that it could be manipulated. It was thought that the act of painting would drown out the subject matter because it was carrying too much history, but I didn’t agree. At the time I was also writing for publications such as Studio International, so there was a pressure to put my findings into words. But I thought the visual could convey so much, like shorthand. Text works in a different way and at a different speed – that’s not to say it’s not useful or relevant.

Like many other artists, I was starting to produce work around different issues, but we couldn’t find many role models from the recent past. Speaking to the younger generation of women artists who are working now, I find that many feel they have a kind of validation for producing works of a politically provocative nature because of the artists who came before them. For that reason, it’s great that Homeworkers is at Tate Modern, while Women and Work, produced with Mary Kelly and Kay Hunt, will be shown alongside Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women Workers of England series (a mix of artworks and written accounts) at Tate Britain. My generation had to look back further in history to make the art we produced in the 1970s, and that Tate is giving over a space to this work, alongside Pankhurst, is very significant.