WE SAY NO TO EMPTY ABSTRACTIONS, to the 'art for art's sake' philosophy of the privileged white middle-class male artworld. WE THE OPPRESSED cannot afford this empty play with works and forms, for us the important task is to convey to people, to WOMEN - their dignity and strength and beauty.
Anne Berg and Monica Sjöö
Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990
Find out more about our exhibition at Tate Britain
Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970 - 1990 presents two decades of art as provocation, protest and progress. Taking the 1970 National Women's Liberation Conference as its starting point, the exhibition explores the relationships between art and the women's movement in the UK. It brings together women who made art about their lives and the inequalities that informed them, acknowledging that the personal is political.
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition addresses the social and political contexts that influenced the art women were making in the 1970s and 1980s. It focuses on artists who were organisers, agitators and community leaders. It includes women who worked independently and those who practised in collaboration. Together, they formed a movement defined only by its range of perspectives, many of which undermined and challenged each other. As a result, the artworks on display are as diverse as those who made them. They remind us there is no single experience of being a woman, an artist or an activist.
Women in Revolt! showcases more than 100 artists, introducing a constellation of voices rather than a few individual stars. It recognises and celebrates a wide-ranging network of women who challenged the art world and society. By acknowledging the action these artists took and the relevance their art still holds, the exhibition hopes to give them the attention and credit they deserve.
Making the exhibition
In 1985, art historians Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock published Framing Feminism, a foundational text introducing art and the women’s movement in the UK. In their preface Parker and Pollock state:
We are neither critics nor historians claiming superior knowledge of events and issues. We cannot be detached. We are evidently partisan – in ways that may be more visible to our readers than to ourselves. Nevertheless, we have attempted to be representative, selecting material which relates to major events and developments.
Women in Revolt! follows in the footsteps of the countless artists, historians and archivists who have safeguarded the history of women’s art in the UK. It draws from the exhibitions and publications these women produced while acknowledging the challenges they faced. The artists featured were making work at a time when there were almost no commercial or institutional outlets for their art. Many lived in or near cities with vibrant art scenes, working with alternative venues and publishers, but larger organisations, Tate Gallery included, were barely showing – let alone collecting – women’s work. As a result, access to the history of women’s art has not been equal to that of their male counterparts. Women in Revolt! is one of many programmes and publications attempting to redress this balance. It invites those previously forced to the margins to take up space, filling Tate’s galleries with hundreds of works that tell a range of stories from a range of perspectives
Like the women’s movement itself, the exhibition privileges women’s own voices. Research wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of the many women who shared their expertise and opened their archives. Particular thanks go to the exhibition advisors Althea Greenan, Griselda Pollock and Marlene Smith, as well as to Stella Dadzie, Juliet Jacques, Suzanne Scafe and Lucy Whitman.
Rising with fury
In the early 1970s, women were second-class citizens. The Equal Pay Act wouldn't be enacted until 1975. There were no statutory maternity rights or any sex-discrimination protection in law. Married women were legal dependants of their husbands, and men had the right to have sex with their wives, with or without consent. There were no domestic violence shelters or rape crisis units. For many women, their multiple intersection identities led to further inequality. The 1965 Race Relations Act had made racial discrimination an offence but did nothing to address systematic racism. While trans women were gaining visibility, a controversial 1970 legal case found that sex assigned at birth could not be changed, setting a precedent that would impact trans lives for decades. The 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act gave people with disabilities the right to equal access but failed to make discrimination unlawful. In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act had partially decriminalised sex between two men, but lesbian rights were almost entirely absent from public discourse.
In 1970, more than 500 women attended the first of a series of national women's liberation conferences. Sally Alexander, one of the organisers notes, it was the beginning of 'a spontaneous iconoclastic movement whose impulse and demands reached far beyond its estimated twenty thousand activists.' Many of these activists were also members of organisations like the Gay Liberation Front (1970-1973) and Brixton Black Women's Group (1973-1985). Together they marked a 'second wave' of feminist protest, emerging more than fifty years after women's suffrage. They understood that women's problems were political problems, caused by inequality and solved only through social change.
The artists in this room made art about their experiences and their oppression. They worked indiviually, and in groups, sharing resources and ideas, and using DIY techniques. Their subject matter and practices became forms of revolt, and their art became part of their activism.
the marxist wife still does the housework
By the mid-1970s, women has asserted their rights to equal pay and to work free from discrimination and harassment. Some held positions of power in business and politics, and following Margaret Thatcher's election as prime minister in 1979, a woman held the highest office in the country. Despite this, traditional gender roles remained. For women to achieve equality, change was needed in both public and private spheres.
Small consciousness-raising groups brought women together to discuss their shared experiences and recognise the social and political causes of their ineqaulity. This practice woke women up to their oppression and made the personal political. Women discussed the concept of reproductive labour - the work required to sustain human life and raise future generations - and joined international campaigns such as Wages for Housework. Art became a tool to highlight the unpaid activities they were expected to perform and the physical and emotional impact this had on them.
For many women artists, there was no separation between their home life and artistic practice. They produced work at kitchen tables between caring and domestic responsibilies. Their environment informed the materials used, the size and format of their work, as well as their subject matter. Artists also turned to their bodies as their subjects. They explored fertility, reproduction and the complexity of navigating highly prejudicial medical systems, particularly for women with multiple intersecting identities.
The artists in this room challenge art historical tropes and media stereotypes: from the idealised nude to the selfless mother and doting housewife. These women present their bodies and homes as sites of oppression whilst simultaneously reclaiming agency over them.
Oh bondage! up yours!
Some people think little girls whould be seen and not heard
But I think 'oh bondage, up yours!'
Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spx, 1977
Subcultures provided opportunities for new models of womanhood from the mid-1970s. Punk, post-punk and alternative music scenes combined socially conscious, anti-authoritarian ideologies with DIY methods. Technical virtuosity was out, and the amateur was in. Freed from the pressure of being the best, the first, or the most original, artists began trashing the conventions of both high and popular culture, giving rise to new forms of expression.
Young musicians, artists, designers and writers set up bands, record labels, fanzines, collectives and club nights. They created work that pushed the boundaries of acceptability, often using clashing and violent imagery and explicit material. For many women this meant subverting gender norms, embracing the provocatively 'unfeminine' as well as the hypersexual.
Through their DIY methods, multi-disciplinary approaches and challenge to the status quo, these subcultures had much in common with the women's movement. Yet artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti notes: 'I aligned myself more with Gay Liberation than Women's Liberation... Freedom "to be" was my thing. I didn't want another set of rules imposed on me by having to be "a feminist".' For zine writer and punk feminist Lucy Whitman (then Lucy Toothpaste), it didn't matter whether these women identified as feminists or not, 'in all their lyrics, in their clothing, in their atitudes - they were challenging conventional attitudes'. These artists were freeing women of the bondage of expectation and helping them redefine women's role in society.
Greenham women are everywhere
On 5 Septmber 1981, a group of women marched from Cardiff to the Royal Air Force base at Greenham in Berkshire. They called themselves Women for Life on Earth. They were challenging the decision to house 96 nuclear missiles at the site. When their request to debate was ignored, they set up camp. Others joined, creating a women-only space. Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp became a site of protest and home to thousands of women. Some stayed for months, others for years, and many (including a great number of artists in this exhibition) visited multiple times.
Greenham women saw their anti-nuclear position as a feminist one. They understood that government spending on nuclear missiles meant less money for public services. They used their identities as mothers and carers to fight for the protection of future generations and a more equal society. The camp's way of life - communal living, no running water, regular evictions and arrests - was challenging. But Greenham was also a refuge. Women were liberated from the restrictions of heteronormative society and embraced separatism. Race, class, sexuality and gender roles were regular topics of discussion.
Protest took on artistic forms for Greenham women. They made banners and collages, produced sculptures and newsletters, and weaved spider webs of wool around the perimeter fences. They wrote and sang protest songs and keened – wailing in grief to mourn lives lost to future nuclear wars. Large-scale public actions, like the 14-mile human chain created by 30,000 people holding hands to ‘embrace the base’ brought widespread media coverage to their cause.
Greenham politicised a generation of women, inspiring protests across the world. It also forged relationships and networks that continue to inform the women’s movement.
black woman time now
The following two rooms highlight some of the artists that defined Black feminist art practice in the UK. These women were part of the British Black Arts Movement, founded in the early 1980s. Their artworks explore the intersections of race, gender and sexuality. They do not share a unified aesthetic but acknowledge shared experiences of racism and discrimination.
In the 1980s, a series of high-profile uprisings across the UK highlighted the reality of life for Black people. In the face of high unemployment, hostile media, police brutality and violence and intimidation by far-right groups, people of colour came together. The term ‘political blackness’ was used to acknowledge solidarity between those who faced discrimination based on their skin colour. Many artists drew on this collective approach. They formed networks, organised conferences and curated exhibitions in order to navigate institutional racism in the art world. As Sutapa Biswas and Marlene Smith described in 1988:
We have to work simultaneously on many different fronts.
We must make our images, organise exhibitions, be art critics, historians, administrators, and speakers. We must be the watchdogs of art establishment bureaucracies; sitting as individuals on various panels, as a means of ensuring that Black people are not overlooked.
The list is endless
In 1981, Bhajan Hunjan and Chila Kumari Singh Burman opened Four Indian Women Artists, the first UK exhibition exclusively organised by and featuring women of colour. In the following years artists including Sutapa Biswas, Lubaina Himid, Rita Keegan and Symrath Patti curated group exhibitions that set out to challenge what Himid describes as the double negation of being Black and a woman. By working, organising and exhibiting together, women of colour developed personal and professional networks that helped them sustain their practices up to the present day.
there's no such thing as society
In 1987, weekly lifestyle magazine Women’s Own interviewed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She discussed AIDS, the importance of the ‘traditional family’, and money as ‘the driving force of life’. During the interview she delivered the infamous line, ‘there is no such thing as society’
Thatcher’s statement centred the ‘individual’ and reflected her ‘fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice’. This position aligned with her neoliberal ideology, encouraging minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs. Thatcher’s opponents read her comments as a suggestion people could overcome the conditions of their oppression through hard work and resolve. This failure to acknowledge the social and systemic inequalities that led to this oppression was counter to everything women’s liberation stood for.
The free-market agenda of Thatcher’s Conservative government had also brought about a shift in the art world. Alongside the rapid commercialisation of the art market, a series of cuts to state funding resulted in arts organisations turning to corporate sponsorship. For the artists in this exhibition, this focus on individualism and profitability made the challenge of finding funding, space or a market for their work even harder.
Yet these artists persisted. They continued to make art, question authority and challenge dominant narratives. Times were difficult but they rose to the occassion. As Ingrid Pollard notes: ‘We weren’t expecting to get exhibitions at the Tate; in the 1980s, people set up things of their own. We did shows in alternative spaces – community centres, cafes, libraries, our homes. We occupied spaces differently.’
For artists engaged in socially motivated practices, the changing political landscape and the growing influence of the commercial art market led to further marginalisation in the 1990s. Nevertheless, sustained by their friendships and their activism, women continued to make and show art.
The work of these artists – like their belated public endorsements through exhibitions, commissions and prizes – stands as recognition of their resilience. As relevant today as it was then, their art now speaks to a generation of young activists returning to the values of the women’s liberation movement: freedom of expression, anti-capitalism, eco-activism, anti-racism and social justice.
Women in Revolt! acknowledges the foundations these artists laid, and the art historians and archivists who safeguarded their legacies. It recognises that there is no single definition of feminist art, there never was and there never will be. But in developing and sharing a variety of socially focused practices these women forged paths for those looking to create a more equitable and inclusive society. As such, their work stands as a provocation. As Kate Walker wrote in 1974: ‘In the absence of a feminist art we must invent it as we go along. Here is a start, please carry on.’
Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990 is inspired by and dedicated to Gael Elizabeth Stuart (1955–2020), an extraordinary woman and mother. Her loss is deeply felt but her impact remains