Tate Britain presents the Women in Revolt exhibition investigating women’s emancipation and liberation movements

Words Emanuela Zini

Sixty years ago, in her book The Mysticism of Femininity, Betty Friedan meticulously described the image of frustrated housewives around the world who dissolved tranquilliser pills in water at night to anaesthetise their feelings and everything that bubbled up inside. Everything had to be suppressed because screaming, kicking, feeling anger did not make you an attractive woman to men.

Rita McGurn, Untitled Rug and Figures, 1974-1985. Photography by Keith Hunter

Virginia Woolf, some fifty years earlier, wrote in a magazine about the character of Jane Eyre and described her as a woman whose anger corroded her inside: ‘We perceive feminine sourness as the result of oppression, a hidden suffering that burns in her passion’.

Jill Westwood, Potent-Female, 1983. Courtesy Dr Jill Westwood

The need and freedom to express female rage is recounted in an exhibition at the Tate Britain in London that reviews feminist art that played a very important role in the UK between the 1970s and 1990s. The works on display belong to one hundred women artists or women’s collectives in a conversation with each other that expresses the radical and rebellious ideas that were brought into British culture.

Anger is an opposite tool to silence. That silence characterised women’s role in society for years; sadness, apologising, was acceptable, but shouting, being loud, behaving badly and insolently was not contemplated in a woman’s role.

Marian Elliott-Said (A.K.A Poly Styrene), Germ Free Adolenscents, 1977. Courtesy of the Polystyrene Estate and Archive

Screaming with rage, the works exhibited in the gallery belong to a very specific moment in history: to second-wave feminism, situated immediately after the promises of liberation in the 1960s, when women in the 1970s woke up to realise that nothing was going to change in their lives. And this made them impetuous. This is why the women artists on display are rebels and non-conformists, because through art they gave vent to violent and repressed emotions. And often the subjects of their works are themselves, who use their bodies as weapons against sexism, the constriction of the domestic dimension and care.

Gina Birch, still from 3 Minute Scream, 1977 (3) Gina Birch

The image that became the poster for the exhibition is by Gina Birch. It is a still from a video filmed in Super 8 in which the Raincoats singer screams non-stop for three minutes. In the video this is all that happens, her face takes up the whole screen and her open mouth emits shrieks of liberation and sheer contempt. A series of photographs that artist Liz Rideal took of herself in a photo booth depicts her reaching orgasm, a moment that has escaped her control. There is another woman screaming into a monitor, but this time in pain, she is screaming because she is giving birth and, squeal after squeal, we see her giving birth to a baby.
An exhibition that gives a voice and a face to female artists who for a long time did not have space because their works did not meet the usual artistic standards.
Women in Revolt! opened last 7 November and will be on stage until 7 April 2024.

Linder, Untitled, 1977. Printed papers on paper,136 x 210 mm. Purchased 2007 by Tate