Anyone studying art, design or film in 1970s London will most likely remember that, due to space or financial restrictions, their courses were often located in what were politely termed ‘annexes’. This could be anything from repurposed prefabs to sealed-off sections of public buildings such as old Victorian schoolhouses: usually the latter. Walking down the long, dark corridors of beige or dark-green coloured walls, the occupants received a visual education, for the walls were splattered with pamphlets, signs, stickers and posters that shouted the politics of the time. Particularly in old schoolhouses, private segregated areas such as the men’s and women’s toilets tended to be rooms that were massive by today’s standards. Thus even the ‘ladies loos’, as women-only spaces, became arenas for feminist discussion, problem-solving and plotting and were equally papered with newsletters and posters that pulsed with demands for women’s rights.
This was only one of many surprising venues for the acquisition of radical political awareness, for anger and debate was everywhere as 1970s Britain was in a state of upheaval. The liberation movements of the 1960s had finally begun to affect social perspectives. Once ‘freedom from oppression’ was in the air, issues of gender, race and class became everyday sources of conflict and change. The agents of transformation were trade unions, community groups, workshops and collectives, colleges and universities, radical publishers. Their instruments were strikes, sit-ins, marches, campaigns, consciousness-raising meetings, radical magazines as well as myriad forms of artistic expression.
Within this milieu, the posters of See Red Women’s Workshop emerged, expressing the concerns and demands of the growing Women’s Liberation Movement. They aimed to challenge the social and media stereotypes that bound women at that time, and in doing so, hoped to change society for everyone. But in order to do this effectively, they had to undertake the heavy task of picking apart the many forms of everyday sexism that existed in work, in education, in the medical services, in publications, in entertainment. They also needed to provoke political change via their imagery. Working collectively gave them the creativity, debating skills and lasting power to meet these challenges while at the same time creating a bold feminist aesthetic. Their reach was incredible: See Red posters were found in local women’s groups, art colleges and community centres around Britain, and as far away as the USA, transported to feminists there by friends who stuffed the posters into their suitcases.
Although See Red was influenced by the work of other poster collectives at the time, their posters were highly distinctive. They were shocking in their use of bright colours as well as in their subject matter, for See Red were intent on upholding the principle that ‘the personal is political’ (as at that time, women’s work in the home was considered inferior to men’s work outside the home). One groundbreaking poster was composed of a line drawing of a 24-hour grid, each square showing hour-by-hour the chores done by a woman in caring for children, husband and home. Meanwhile in one of the squares her husband is on tea break telling his mate ‘My Wife Doesn’t Work’. Another poster simply states ‘PROTEST’ in large letters, showing a drawing of a woman’s head, mouth open, as she vomits smaller sketches of women cooking, doing housework, marrying, posing in beauty contests, submitting to sex and being subjected to violence.
Working from the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, many of the earlier See Red posters express complex ideas and scenarios through simply but boldly drawn images, silkscreened in flat colours. As time went on they were able to use photographs and more advanced screen methods, but their posters never lost their punch, as evidenced by a 1979 poster, updated in 1984, taking a swipe at Margaret Thatcher. Her photograph is shown with a balloon caption stating ‘Tough!’ while framed by illustrations of ways in which her policies were seen to be causing harm to women and children.
Over the 16 years of their existence See Red had over 40 women participating and survived everything from ongoing financial difficulties to threatening phone calls and a vicious attack by right wing extremists, which obliterated their studio. Fortunately it happened when the studio was empty.
Four Corners’ book is a suitable tribute to See Red Women’s Workshop. To trawl through the posters is to journey through history, with regard to measuring the position of women’s rights in the early years of the modern Women’s Movement as well as ascertaining their position now, and what may have been gained or lost in between. See Red’s incredible output of posters played a major role in many women’s political awakening in the 1970s and 1980s, including mine. Now in 2016 I work in an art and design college, in a relatively new custom-made building with large, progressively stylish, white/grey modernist unisex loos. Men and women slide past each other silently into one of many cubicles, all the while looking at the floor. No politics there, then.
Liz McQuiston is a lecturer at Ravensbourne, London and the author of numerous books on graphic design. See Red is available now from Four Corners Books, £19.99; fourcornersbooks.co.uk