Josie McLellan | Twentieth Century British History
How did British feminist art of the 1970s represent work and class, and what light does this shed on the women’s movement more generally? This article discusses the work of artists, including Bobby Baker, the Feministo and Fenix collectives, the Hackney Flashers, and Mary Kelly. These artists were eager to connect feminist activism to other struggles on the Left and were thus initially drawn to document working-class women’s paid work. Their political commitment to represent ‘ordinary’ working lives often led to lengthy periods of research, as well as attempts to make both the creative process and the finished product accessible to new participants and audiences. However, across this period, two changes took place. First, artists began to focus on women’s unpaid work, drawing attention to the tension between domestic work and paid employment, and the lack of easy solutions to this problem. Secondly, most lost faith in art’s power to represent the experience of work beyond the individual and the personal. Early political idealism gave way to sustained soul-searching about the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic difficulties of representing the experience of others, particularly those of a different class background. This article, then, shows that the early British women’s movement was keen to engage with working-class experience and that it did so in a way that was self-reflective. In the end, it was this self-reflection, and the questions that it generated about the morality, politics, and aesthetics of representing others, that led to the personal and psychological turn of the later 1970s.