Exhibition review of Ms Understood: Women’s Liberation In 1970s Britain

Tucked away down a side street in east London, the Women’s Library is one of the best educational museums in the capital. The problem is nobody seems to know it exists. For example, during the hour I spent visiting the library’s latest exhibition on a dreary Saturday afternoon recently, I shared the exhibition space with just one other visitor.


It’s a damn shame, because Ms Understood: Women’s Liberation in 1970s Britain, like all their recent exhibitions, is an informative, fascinating and accessible introduction to a key period of women’s history.


Although substantial gains had been made by women in the preceding decades (the vote, legalised abortion, the introduction of the pill), there was still much to fight for.


Women continued to be "routinely discriminated against in education, the workplace and at home. There was no such thing as equal pay. If you got married, you could lose your job. If your husband beat or raped you, that was your problem," one display notes.


In addition, while the popular image of the 1960s is one of revolution, free love and anti-establishment politics, the majority of dissident groups were male dominated, often belittling the important contribution women made.


Asked what the role of women was in the US civil rights group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the main organisers Stokely Carmichael replied: "The position of women in SNCC is prone."


It was in this general atmosphere that 600 women met at Ruskin College in Oxford for the first National Women’s Liberation Movement conference in February 1970. With men running the crèche, the delegates debated the issues facing women and the challenges ahead. "It was an amazing buzz," remembers Sue Crockford. "I think it was one of those rare times in your own history when you know you’re there at an occasion that’s historically important."


Playing on a loop in one corner of the exhibition, Crockford’s impressionistic 1971 documentary of the event, A Women’s Place, provides a glimpse of the chaotic and passionate discussions that took place, lingering on the men taking care of the children, albeit with a cigarette in their hands.


Out of the conference came four key demands – equal pay, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand and free 24-hour nurseries. This influential gathering energised the movement, leading to a headline-grabbing protest at the 1970 Miss World Competition and the first National Women’s Liberation Movement march in March 1971.


At the former, "demonstrators shouted, blew whistles, and threw flour bombs, tomatoes and stink bombs." Heckled by the protesters, comedian and host Bob Hope replied: "Pretty girls don’t have these problems."


Studying the photos, press clippings, magazines and oral testimony on display, many visitors will be surprised by the sheer radicalism and energy evident in the movement at this time.

Of the Playboy protest, the Women’s Liberation Newsletter had the following to report. "Sally was arrested for assault (stubbing her cigarette out on a police pig) … Maia was arrested for abusive language (telling a pig to fuck-off)." The past really is a foreign country.


From Ann Oakley’s Housewife and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch to the monthly magazine Spare Rib, which sold 30,000 copies at its peak, the exhibition argues the literature of the 1970s "brought about a new way of thinking" for many women. Special mention should also go to the selection of staggeringly good posters on display, many of which made me laugh out loud with their radical politics and sharp humour.


Turning to the present day, the question must be asked. Have the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s been achieved?


With a new Fawcett Society report highlighting the persistent pay gap between men and women, pregnancy discrimination still rife in the workplace, abortion still illegal in Northern Ireland and childcare prohibitively expensive throughout Britain, the answer has to be a resounding No.


So what can concerned women (and men) do? The last section of the exhibition, titled "Where are we now?" gives hope, highlighting the important work women’s groups continue to carry out.


The rejuvenated Reclaim The Night marches, this year’s student-led protest against Miss England, the creation of the anti-porn group Bin The Bunny – this is where the radical spirit of the Women’s Liberation Movement lives on.


Ms Understood: Women’s Liberation In 1970s Britain runs until March 31. Admission free.


*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer, based in London, UK. [email protected].

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