@50: Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry (1973-75)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A ground-breaking art and feminist labor collaboration from the early 1970s United Kingdom is re-examined some 54 years later, offering a fresh look at questions of representation and solidarity, as well as the origins of artistic production as a form of research.

From 1973 to 1975, three women artists – Kay Hunt, Mary Kelly and Margaret Harrison – undertook a study of (mainly women) workers in a Bermondsey-based (London, UK) metal box factory. Kay Hunt, who was born in and lived in Southwark at the time of the project, initiated the work and selected the South London Metal Box Co. where members of her family worked. At the time of the work, the three artists were committed to Women’s Liberation and active participants in the Women’s Workshop of the Artist’s Union. The research culminated in an installation of photographs, office furniture, writings, film, audio-tapes and company papers which were exhibited under the title Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry (1973-5) at the South London Art Gallery. The installation is now held in Tate’s collection and has been intermittently on display at both Tate Britain and Tate Modern since its acquisition in 2001. 

Tate’s purchase of the work at the turn of the millennium is significant. This was the period of the so-called “social turn,” – a category of art in which the ambition of Women and Work fits more comfortably than it did as “art” as it was understood in 1975. At the time of its original exhibition, artistic representations of workers were not considered fashionable.

The timing of this review aligns with this growing focus on work, particularly at a moment in which worker’s rights are being hotly debated.”

Since the early 2000s labor has become, again, a valid subject for artists, and one that continues to gain momentum, particularly now as worker’s rights are being hotly debated. This text returns to this historic exhibition as a provocation—a past example of effective political art—and in the following brief text, I will highlight some of its successes.

The work that Hunt, Kelly and Harrison produced was more akin to a sociological study than what was then considered to be “art.” This was a key contribution to the work’s success in being politically effective outside of the art institution and inside of the factory. Funding for the study came from an Artists’ Fellowship awarded by the Greater London Arts Association (GLAA) Thames Television Fund in 1973. The GLAA was a local-authority-led arts association (of which there were twelve at the time) and, although prior to the Greater London Council’s more radical support in broadening the definition of and access to the arts in London in the 1980s, the Arts Council of Great Britain (of which GLAA was a part) broadened the acceptable artistic criteria by formalizing “Community Arts” as a category and giving it its own funding stream. As stated in the exhibition catalog: “The awards were given for projects which would be of benefit to lower-paid sections of the Greater London Community.” From the outset, the work was conceived to do something socially beneficial for working class communities. 

“From the outset, the work was conceived to do something socially beneficial for working class communities.”

The aim of the study, and the resulting installation, was to show the inequality still at play between the men and women who worked at the factory after the implementation of the Equal Pay Act of 1970. The Act did not come into force until December 1975, the aim of which was to achieve parity between men and women’s wages for those doing the same type of work. The artists expand upon this in the exhibition catalog:  

Although the show focuses on the present status of women, 1970-1975, with special reference to the implementation of equal pay, it is also intended to provide a basis for general inquiry into the changing role of women in industry.

The work was also part of a wider attempt to connect members of the Artist’s Union’s Women’s Workshop with unionized women in other industries. At this time, Kelly was also involved with Berwick Street Collective which produced Nightcleaners: Part One (1972-5) a film that documented the campaign to unionize female night cleaners in London offices.

The study produced detailed data on the lives of 150 workers in the factory. The majority of the workers were working-class women, all of whom are named in the opening pages of the catalog,  with photographic portraits of them included in the exhibition.

Beyond the cover photograph of clocking-in cards, the exhibition catalog contains no images. Whether a practical or intentional decision or both, it acts to foreground the research and data presented.  That data takes the form of annotations, tables and lists, which, when read together, reveal things such as the introduction of a job role grading system in 1971 and the process by which the roles were graded. Statistics include: increases in pay grades, labor turnover, reasons for job changes, accidents and compensation, and trade union membership. On the whole, the information presented is directly related to the legal changes within the period examined. For example, the Equal Pay Act of 1970 is reprinted in the catalog.

“The aim of the study, and the resulting installation, was to show the inequality still at play between the men and women who worked at the factory after the implementation of the Equal Pay Act 1970.”

As unionized workers themselves, I propose that the three artists adopted an (union-style) activist approach within their work in the South London Metal Box Co. by making visible the pay inequalities at play in the factory to the women workers and (implicitly or explicitly) encouraging union membership. Within the exhibition catalog, the artists present themselves alongside the women (and men) workers whose work they document connecting their own labor to that of the women in the factory. Stated in the artists’ biographies are their jobs, number of children and ages of the children. These biographies are directly related to the working day descriptions presented in the exhibition and catalog, in which each worker’s age, number of children and ages are stated. Through this approach, the maternal labor of the artists and workers, in addition to their artistic practice and job roles is acknowledged. Further, the catalog lists the new grades, the jobs and the number of men and women who are employed under each grade. With the exception of grade 1, as the pay grades increase, the number of women undertaking these jobs decreases. Viewers (including the represented workers) engaging with the exhibition cannot help but make the connections between those who are paid more (or less), or why certain grades list fewer women workers, even if it only acts to confirm what the viewer (and workers) already suspected. 

The types of labor presented within the documentation also extended beyond industrial labor in the factory. Through listing the daily routines of the workers, Hunt, Kelly and Harrison draw attention to the domestic and maternal – the socially-reproductive – labor of the women, illustrating that, for most women in the study, the work does not stop at the clocking-out machine.  The artists further found that, in their interviews, the women workers would talk about their home lives while the men only spoke about work life. Referring to women’s labor in the home, Silvia Federici notes: “Getting a second job does not change that role, as years and years of female work outside the home has demonstrated.” As Women’s Workshop (Artists’ Union) members Hunt, Kelly and Harrison were aware of the contemporaneous international Wages for Housework campaign initiated by Federici, Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and others in 1972. However, in relation to the installation, Kelly has noted that her understanding extended beyond the economic—the demand for wages—to encompass the less tangible psychology of gendered divisions of labor which she believes is more encompassing in scope .

The exhibition follows a similar logic to the catalog; while there are some photographs of the workers included, the majority of the installation is about the presentation of the information gathered through the study in different formats: audio recordings and typed text-based data in frames on walls, or in folders on office-like furniture. In this sense, it is not an easy exhibition. The work demands the viewer’s attention and engagement in reading or listening to the information.  Again, I argue that this contributes to the work’s success in bridging the divide between the art world and working-class experience. This works from two positions – that of the workers, and that of the viewer. The factory workers engage with the women artists in their place of work; they are invited to talk about their experiences which is then documented and made visible to both the workers (activating political consciousness in some cases) and to the arts audience (making visible working-class experience in the classed space of the gallery). To fully engage with the exhibition, the viewer has to be an active participant, willing to read, listen and, dare I say, do the math! The format of the catalog (and the exhibition) allows for the data to speak for itself: it is simply re-presented with little commentary. However, there is an implicit narrative; for example, male and female worker data sits alongside one another to illustrate the inequalities at play in the factory. And the viewer is invited to make these associations. 

As active participants within the Artists’ Union, Hunt, Kelly and Harrison did not simply document these facts for interest or simply to produce “art.” They activated women workers within the factory to organize and to join their trade union. Furthermore, the personal relationship to the factory is important because it contrasts a top-down perspective common in social art practice. In this example the workers were from Hunt’s local community and family; Hunt would have had the required pre-existing cultural and social knowledge and cues to engage with the workers. This fact distinguishes this work from contemporaneous practices—such as the Artist Placement Group—and even some contemporary socially-engaged works that attempt to introduce artists into the workplace or communities of which they are not a part. The documentation was produced to inform, and this is where the affective element lies. By producing knowledge, it confirmed what the workers would have suspected or felt. It made visible the daily lived experience of female workers in the factory after the implementation of equal pay, aligning policy with reality. The work was exhibited in the South London Gallery contemporaneous to the research; these were statistics relevant to the time in which it was displayed about work undertaken and the experience of female workers in the nearby borough of Bermondsey. 

“the significance of the artists’ intervention was recognized by factory management when they eventually banned Harrison, Hunt and Kelly from the site.“

The information and knowledge gained from spending time with the exhibition had the potential to be political. It was an exercise in raising awareness of labor that, if a visitor spent time with the exhibition, would hear the voices and see the faces of the workers, they would also read the statistics and the daily routines of the workers. They would, no-doubt, make connections between the daily lives of male and female workers in the factory and, in turn, the inequalities at play. For some, this knowledge would be powerful in raising political awareness of labor inequalities in the UK, despite the new legislation.  We might further deduce that the real audience and beneficiaries were the working-class female workers in the Metal Box Co. factory in the mid-1970s. There are problems with this work being conceived as art as the average gallery-goer in 1975 might not have been the intended audience. The work was concerned with the working conditions and, arguably, the exploitation of working-class women working in industrial production. It further adopted and employed what Benjamin Buchloh termed “the aesthetics of administration” common to conceptual art of the 1970s. However—and this is where the real social consequence of the exhibition lies—the women with whom the artists directly worked in the factory had access to the information produced. It is not coincidental that the artists collated the women’s Trade Union membership figures as part of their analysis. Between 1972 and 1974, the number of women in the Transport & General Workers Union Local membership increased from 33 to 109. During the 1970s trade union power in the UK was still strong. As Kathryn Rattee notes on the Tate’s website: “…the significance of the artists’ intervention was recognized by factory management when they eventually banned Harrison, Hunt and Kelly from the site.” Hunt, Kay and Kelly’s study did what its funders required it to do, that is to “be of benefit to lower-paid sections of the Greater London Community”. In this reading, that objective was aimed at increasing the unionization of women in working in industry in the mid-1970s. Although Women and Work was born out of an engagement with the inequality of women artists—through the association with the Artist’s Union—the information produced goes beyond the scope of art history and engages with the politics of work. The exhibition is testament to the power of information (through the artists’ ultimate removal from the factory by management) and the role that artists can play in engaging a public, in this case, the female factory workers, with politics, the politics of labor.