Women Hold Up Half the Sky


Arts & Culture

See Red Women’s Workshop, Women’s Day March (detail), 1975.


A calendar for 1977 by the British art collective See Red Women’s Workshop shows the month of February as a chutes-and-ladders-type “game for working women.” Wealthy daddies and husbands can help the player swiftly advance, but the game’s hazards are many: “Careers officer suggests domestic science,” “Trouble finding nursery—needs part-time work,” “Shopping in lunch hour, housework in evening—exhausted.” Even the end of the game is booby-trapped: “Over 40, promotion given to younger man.”

The other months in the calendar spin out the game’s thematic pitfalls: racism, sexual orientation, housework drudgery, social-service cuts. August exhorts women of different ethnicities to unite and organize against the National Front. November excoriates the discomfort inherent in beauty regimens—girdles, waxing, heels. September revises a child’s primer so that Jane thinks, “Stuff this! It’s about time I got myself out these sexist books and started giving girls an example of all the other things we can do!”

Jane’s purposeful finger to the patriarchy embodies the aim of See Red. In 1974, a group of women answered an ad calling for those in the visual arts to gather to help promote the women’s liberation movement and counter the prevailing negative images of women in advertising and the media. Like many women at the time, the members of See Red were disillusioned with the Left; the story they relate is an old one: “We found ourselves marginalized within these campaigns and were expected to stay in the background, keep quiet and make the tea.” The members worked collectively and non-hierarchically: from idea to concept to design to production, decisions and process were undertaken as a group. Notably, the new book See Red Women’s Workshop: Feminist Posters 1974–1990 lists no authors in the front matter, and the essay detailing the group’s history is written in the first-person plural.

See Red’s first commission came in 1975—to design a poster for the first International Women’s Day March, that year. The holiday has its origins in the United States: in honor of the New York City garment-worker’s strike in 1908, the Socialist Party celebrated the first National Women’s Day in February 1909. But socialism was an unwelcome import, a signifier of industrial and social revolt, and as Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, “Certain kinds of resistance … could not be tolerated.” (Zinn also cites the mass deportation of noncitizen immigrants in 1919 and 1920 on the belief that, “as a matter of self-preservation, this was a natural right of the government”; Zinn’s history is always timely.) For the women of See Red, communal working methods were not only essential to the success of the group—the desire to be inclusive of a variety of issues, concerns, and experiences—but also reflected their daily lives, the shared households they lived in and the group nature of their struggle. As they write in the book, “The themes we worked on were our lives, and the commitment kept us going.”

An early poster, from 1974, depicts some fifty women in various roles: as wife, girlfriend, mother; out to dinner, shopping, entertaining—always glamorous and carefree. At the bottom is the handwritten question WHICH ONE ARE YOU? The poster reproduces a page from a Letraset art sheet, which was used by graphic designers in need of stock images. “We just added the question,” the book’s authors write, “as we didn’t recognize these representations of ourselves in these images.” See Red made buttons that announced, WE DON’T JUST WANT MORE CAKE, WE WANT THE BLOODY BAKERY and, on the occasion of the Queen’s twenty-fifth anniversary, STUFF THE JUBILEE. At the time of Lady Diana Spencer’s marriage to Prince Charles, they launched a “Don’t Do It, Di” campaign. A calendar page features a “Spot the Dyke Competition” (“Which are the seven lesbians at the bus stop?”) and a drawing of Joseph, loafing outside the stable, announcing, “Three more for supper, Mary.”

See Red at their workshop in Iliffe Yard, London. Photo by Angela Phillips, for Spare Rib.

The group disbanded in 1990, but in its sixteen years of activity, they counted more than forty women as members, many of whom later pursued careers in advocacy, art, and policy making. They produced countless pieces of activist art: calendars, lithograph posters, illustrations, information booklets, flyers, and placards. They endured windows smashed by the National Front, work spaces without plumbing or heating, a paucity of supplies and funding, and Margaret Thatcher. But they were never short on sisterhood. If that sounds corny, think of how the embattled term feminist has lately come to resemble a totaled car: too wrecked to save. Maybe this is the moment to remember what we—women—have in common and to begin from there.


Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.

All images © See Red Women’s Workshop