Culture, art and the Women's Liberation Movement

Changing cultures and the arts

Feminists of the Women’s Liberation Movement set up theatre companies, film groups, artist collectives and publishing houses that supported campaigns and questioned political culture. Discover the ways in which women’s liberation created change through the power of opinions and ideas.
The Women’s Liberation Movement, like many social movements, was hugely creative. Its artistic and intellectual output was proportionally larger than its policy initiatives, which meant it has arguably been most effective in creating change through the ‘soft power’ of opinion and ideas. This creative work opened the doors of cultural industries to women. Experimental literature, the visual arts, photography, performance, animation, music, theatre, film and sport all played important roles in feminist subcultures and entertainment, and were themselves changed by feminist involvement.

Ursula Owen talks about the popularity of feminist presses

Like the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feminism in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s placed a vital emphasis on cultural battles. Feminists set up theatre companies, film groups, artist collectives and publishing houses that supported campaigns, attempted to change ‘hearts and minds’, and questioned and expanded the political culture of the time.

Some activists thought that too much time was being spent debating culture. They felt that strategic political energy was being diverted into ‘cultural feminism’, with its emphasis on lifestyle, and away from debates around economics or politics. Though these tensions existed, however, even immediately urgent conflicts such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the miners’ strike enlisted women artists, historians, photographers and writers to propagate their cause.

Ellen Malos recalls using humour and satire to disrupt conventional protests and negotations

Today, women occupy more prominent positions in the culture of our society than in the 1970s. 15 out of the 43 Man Booker Prize winners have been women (Hilary Mantel is one of only three people to have won it twice); Elizabeth Price won the Turner Prize in 2012; in 2008 Rebekah Lenkeweicz’s Her Naked Skin, about the militant campaign for the vote, was the first play by a woman to be performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre; and in the 2012 Olympics the female medal-winners including Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and Ellie Simmonds were widely celebrated.

However, debates about the representation of women in arts and culture are still ongoing. For example, when it comes to contentious subjects such as pornography, activists struggle to negotiate the boundaries between freedom of speech and what can be harmful or limiting representations of women and sexual relations. Organisations such as the Alliance for Women in Media and the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation exist to support women in all aspects of culture, and to continue to fight for gender equality. Cultural groups such as Sistershow and Guerilla Girls use humour to expose continued inequalities and to invite action against them.

Sue Lopez discusses her fight to be allowed to play football

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.