Shoulder to Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s

This post was contributed by Charlotte Knowles, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.

Thursday 15th May 2014, Birkbeck Cinema.

This film screening and Q&A, held at the Birkbeck cinema, was the first part of a two day event celebrating Shoulder to Shoulder, a BBC mini series first aired in 1974, which told the story of the early women’s suffrage movement in Britain (1890s-1919). The event began with some reflections from the event organisers on the enduring importance of the series, and a screening of the second episode entitled ‘Annie Kenny’. The episode explored the involvement of northern mill girl Annie Kenny in the suffrage movement, reflecting on the central part the working classes played in obtaining women’s suffrage.

The event enabled reflection on the representation of the historical imagination in the media, as well as considerations of the way in which women’s voices still remain unheard today. The event sought to reconnect women’s voices from across history, exploring the way in which the suffrage movement resonated with issues of second wave feminism in the 1970s when the programme was aired, as well as questions of feminist liberation still alive today.

The episode screening was followed by a Q&A with cast and crew from the original series, chaired by Joan Bakewell. The discussion explored the changing face of the BBC, as well as developments in film and production technique – not all positive. There was keen agreement about the enduring importance of this series, celebrating Shoulder to Shoulder as a key text made for and by women. The fact it has only been aired twice on British television (both screenings taking place in 1974) was lamented, and a rallying cry for the BBC to issue and distribute this landmark series on DVD was endorsed by all.

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Monsters and Phantoms

This post was contributed by Oyedepo Olukotun a student on Birkbeck’s MA History Of Art with Photography.

In Professor T.J. Clark’s talk Was Picasso a Woman? : Reflections on Nude, Green Leaves and Bust hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on Friday June 7 to accompany the launch of his book Picasso And Truth: From Cubism To Guernica, it soon became clear that Picasso was not gender swapping but was casting himself as a woman artistically. Speaking even artistically, in light of statements Clark attributes to Picasso, the notion of the artist as a woman seemed far-fetched. “I would love to paint like a blind man who pictures an arse by the way it feels” or “Like any artist, I am primarily the painter of woman, and for me, woman is essentially a machine for suffering” did not lend credence to Picasso’s case.

Monsters and Phantoms

In light of the above statements Picasso’s terse “I am a woman” is soon sidelined. However, what proceeded to catch my attention in Professor Clark’s talk, which focused on Picasso’s Nude, Green leaves and Bust (1932) and Nude on a Black Sofa (1932), was Clark’s periodical refrain of “monsters and phantoms”. In Lecture 4 of his book, Clark embarks on an analysis of Picasso’s The Painter and His Model (1927) to explore the artist’s fixation with monsters. At a basic level Clark, in his capacity as a social art historian, aims to divorce Picasso’s art, one painting at a time, from a connoisseurial or biographical interpretation.

The transcendental truth that Clark reveals in Picasso’s paintings is the long tradition of art with the objectification of women. That Western art depicts women the way it does is a practice Picasso inherited from a deep-rooted tradition as the British Museum’s Ice Age art: Arrival of the modern mind exhibition has shown us. That this depiction is because he is artistically a woman and Picasso’s sexualised reasons for his stance made for fascinating and revelatory observation in Clark’s talk. Further on Picasso’s stance aligned with his depiction of women as monsters makes for an interesting juxtaposition in Clark’s book and talk.

Women as Monsters

The practice of depicting women as monsters may or may not have began with Picasso however it is not unique to him. In her article The MoMA’s Hot Mamas Carol Duncan points us in the direction of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Willem de Kooning and Robert Heinecken who, among many, depict women as monstrous, grotesque, menacing and castrating. Duncan uses Picasso’s paintings as a prime example of this genre of women deprecating art; this would have met with the approval of the artist who, according to Clark, was concerned with posterity.

Clark, fascinatingly, traces for us the genealogy and journey of Picasso’s monstrous women and sets us up for the excitement of discovering the truth that transcends autobiography in art which would explain the root of the emotion that has led artists to depict women as monsters.

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Using Narratives to Study Social Change

This post was contributed by Nelly Ali, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

“The narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives.” (Barthes)

It is such a great feeling to leave an event and want to tell everyone you meet about what you just heard. The BISR, “Using Narratives to Study Social Change” was one of such events. Chairing was Professor Sasha Roseneil who started with a recollection of the first talk in the late 1980s by Molly Andrews, professor at the University of East London. It was at the end of the talk that I believe everyone in the room could understand Sasha’s words, “I left feeling so inspired, that I too could be and want to be part of the sociology world.”

Professor Andrews started her presentation with a basic conceptual framework; the opening slide was of a photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral, littered with tents and political signs, a sight known to many of us familiar with the Occupy movement in London. From there she said that Occupy was one example (of many) in which the importance of political storytelling was evident, to participants and researchers alike.

Professor Andrews’s talk was split:

  • Part 1:Talking about Politics
  • Part 2: Contested Histories
  • Part 3: Retrospective Memories of a Critical Moment

But it was the political narratives, which Professor Andrews says highlight the complex relationship between micro and macro stories that she is  interested in and for which her research is well known. Professor Andrews generously shares data from her PhD where she interviewed activists who were 75-90 years-old now and by whom she was greatly inspired. She muses at those who had told her she would “grow out of demos”, she laughs saying, “I don’t think so, looking around and often being inspired to see any older people around”. Professor Andrews’s stories of friendships brought about through intensive narrative research were highlighted when she fondly remembers speaking at the funeral of one of the activists she spent a great deal of time with while interviewing.

One of the most incredibly inspiring aspects of this talk, and I am not sure whether this was intended, was that most of this data, was about women who made huge sacrifices for social change and justice. This is always a breath of fresh air where most focus is on men during this time.

During the discussion, the idea of “truth” was bought up, how reliable were these narratives? Professor Andrews reminded us that the meaning of truth is a complex one; the key issue is not one of objectifiable facts, but rather the meaning of a particular story, and why it is being told, in other words, the function of the story. This was excellently illustrated by a recollection of a dream one of her interviewees shared with her. The interviewee told Professor Andrews that when she was deciding to break the law in her protests, she dreamt of holding a heavy tray and as it got heavier, she looked under it and saw hands that were not her own, but instead, big, strong hands and she knew, in her heart that she was doing the right thing. This woman’s powerful narrative used the unreal (the dream) in a retrospective way of explaining what did actually happen; and this is what narrative research was interested in.

Professor Andrews also shared some of the challenges of conducting narrative research. Two examples she gave were 1) the challenge of accepting someone’s perspective on their life and not trying to convince them to see things otherwise; and 2); respecting people you interviewed who shared very different views than your own both during and after the interviews.

One thing Professor Andrews said that I will not forget about this method:  “We don’t sit around the fire telling stories, but we tell them to make change.”

Recommended reading:

  • Andrews, Molly (2008) Shaping History: Narratives of Political Change (Cambridge)
  • Andrews, M (1990/2008) Lifetimes of Commitment (Cambridge)

And forthcoming:

  • Andrews, M. (2013) Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life

More general readers on Narrative Research:

  • Riessman, Catherine Koehler (2008) Narrative methods for the Human Sciences London (Sage)
  • Andrews, M., Squire, C. and M. Tamboukou (eds)(2013)  Doing narrative research Second Edition London (Sage)
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