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Ms Understood: Women's Liberation in 1970s Britain
Exhibition Review by Mary Brodbin, December 2009
Women's Library, London Metropolitan University
This exhibition celebrating 40 years of the Women's Liberation Movement is showing at the Women's Library in Whitechapel, London.
There is a short description of life for women before the 1960s which touches on the Suffragettes. But after this we are hurled into an exciting display of posters, photos and video clips of the demos and pickets which set off in 1970 with a conference at Ruskin College, Oxford. 300 women were expected at the conference, but double that number turned up, with the men running the creche.
The four key demands were for equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, free 24-hour nurseries and equal pay.
The most headline-grabbing event was a demo staged at the 1970 Miss World Contest. Watched by millions on TV, demonstrators threw flour and stink bombs. They also heckled comedian Bob Hope who retorted, "Pretty girls don't have these problems."
There is wonderful footage of the first women's liberation march the following year, as 4,000 women made their way to Trafalgar Square. One woman, parodying Miss World (complete with tiara) is wheeled along in a cage, surrounded by women dancing and singing along to "Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved".
There is a film called At 40 which interviews women living in Oxford today. They point out that they are still looking for primary care for children, how there is even greater pressure to look a certain way and how if you don't have children you are seen as not fulfilling your natural destiny.
There is a wall for people to leave comments and also a free newspaper which includes 11 full-size colour posters from the time.
What makes a visit there even more interesting is another exhibition in the foyer of two important strikes that affected women, particularly Asian women.
One was the two-year strike for union recognition at the photo processing laboratory at Grunwick in 1976. There was massive solidarity picketing but as time went on the TUC and APEX union retreated from mass picketing and withdrew their support.
The other was the strike at airline catering company Gate Gourmet in 2005. This strike, once again, was sold out by the union bureaucracy.
For me the message rings out that both men and women should stick together and mistrust the union bureaucracy - not because they are men!
The strike I was involved in was Wapping in 1986 when I worked on Fleet Street.
Sogat union members were sold out by our own general secretary, Brenda Dean. Now Baroness Dean of Thornton le Fylde, she was richly rewarded for her services to the establishment.
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