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31 January 2024

Feminism has always been complicated – just ask the women of the Seventies

A short film at Tate Britain is a reminder of the glorious energy and contradictions of the women’s liberation movement.

By Tracey Thorn

I discovered a little gem of a short film the other day that is showing as part of the current Tate Britain exhibition, “Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990”. As I arrived the film was just beginning one of its cycles, so I sat down on a bench with some headphones and got lost for half an hour in the world of Seventies British feminism. Made in 1971 by Sue Crockford, the film, shot in black and white, is called “A Woman’s Place” and is like a time capsule filled with the ideas and styles of the era.

It opens with footage from February 1970 in Oxford of the first National Women’s Liberation Conference. A poster outlines some of the weekend’s programme: “Women and the Economy”, “Women and Revolution”, and, on a slightly more ominous note, “Where Are We Going?”

Dressed in coats and jumpers and long scarves – it looks cold inside that union building – women stand up to make arguments about housework, childcare, women in prison, women in what they call the Third World. There are calls for the overthrow of the system and the “total reorganisation of society”. There are digs about not just sitting around “contemplating our vaginas” but getting involved fully in political life.

The talk is wide-ranging, utopian. The room is full of dreams of liberation – from men, from expectations around motherhood, from capitalism. To enable the women to talk, the husbands – all of them in leather jackets, moustaches and sideburns – are running the crèche, while also, it being the Seventies, smoking in the children’s faces. “It’s hard work,” says one of the dads, looking absolutely shattered. “Would you consider doing this on a more permanent basis?” asks the narrator, and a look of sheer panic crosses his face.

By now I’m absolutely entranced by the film, it’s so fizzing with ideas, while at the same time being so REAL, so full of actual people in all their complicated glory. In the evening there are “workshops”, which seem to consist of the women violently disagreeing with each other. One shouts furiously at another about “bourgeois notions of work and non-work”, pointing a finger, tucking her hair angrily behind her ear, her whole body language that of fight-not-flight, and ends by demanding, “Well, what are you doing at a women’s liberation conference then?” It reminds me that there has always been as much division as unity here, that there is no way of being definitive about what is or isn’t feminist – it’s in the eye of the beholder.

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Out on the street, vox-pop interviews draw in women who aren’t at the conference: an A-level student who thinks women have life easier than men; a mother with a small child, who turns out to be unmarried but deeply disapproves of couples living together; a posh woman in a headscarf, who thinks women already HAVE equality, possibly because she is dripping with privilege. “Some women think they’re oppressed,” says the interviewer. “I’m not repressed,” she replies saucily. “No, opp-ressed,” he says, and it runs like a Dick Emery sketch.

Finally, the film cuts to another event, a march down Oxford Street in March 1971. The weather is freezing, the banners demand “Equal Pay” and “Abortion on Demand”. It starts to snow and the soundtrack begins to play a Thirties recording of the song “Keep Young and Beautiful”: “Keep young and beautiful/It’s your duty to be beautiful/Keep young and beautiful/If you want to be loved”. On Oxford Street the women are singing those lyrics, ironically of course, but as I look at the film now I think about how they ARE all young and beautiful, with their feather cuts and tight bomber jackets and bell-bottom jeans, skipping and dancing along the road, snow flying in their faces, their clogs clacking on the tarmac.

And then the film ends and the credits roll: “Photographed by Andy… Mike… Alan… Sound by Colin… Reg… Richard…”, and the woman beside me in the gallery pulls off her headphones. “Ha! All men!” she says, and we laugh, somewhat ruefully.  

[See also: Motherhood, the most political experience of my life]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State