Hackney Flashers, feminism and art forty years on

The Hackney Flashers campaigned for better childcare provisions. Pic: The Hackney Flashers

The Hackney Flashers campaigned for better childcare provisions. Pic: The Hackney Flashers

Forty years ago the feminist movement was in full swing trying to change women’s unrecognised status at home and at work, while men were still dominating in social, economic and political fields. In 1974 a group of women formed the Hackney Flashers, a collective that produced feminist agitprop (agitation propaganda) material to highlight the role of women as workers and mothers. Nearly half a century later they have called a meeting of generations to discuss the relevance of their activist work today.

The Hackney Flashers Collective was formed during a meeting called by photographers Neil Martinson and the late Jo Spence. The group went on to produce two successful exhibitions and an education pack covering areas of womens work, childcare provisions and representation between 1974 and 1980. Remembering their beginnings, flasher Michael Ann Mullen said: “The Hackney Trades Council was organising an exhibition to celebrate 75 years of its existence. When we pressed them for the name of their exhibition they replied:75 Years of Brotherhood!

Understanding the necessity and the opportunity to finally represent women honestly, the group set out to produce a project involving 240 documentary photographs accompanied by the words of women in their many places of work, in the factories or at home with children. The event opened at Hackney Town Hall on September 25 1975 and paved the way for five more years of feminist activism.

“After the exhibition closed we realised most of the women we photographed had children. We hadn’t thought to ask who cared for them while they worked,” continued Mullen.

“Despite our commitment to equal rights we completely overlooked the need for childcare provision, just as the society in which we lived did. There could not have been a better lesson in how we are shaped by the prevailing male-dominated and capitalist ideology,” she said.

"Who's still holding the baby?". Pic: The Hackney Flashers

“Who’s still holding the baby?”. Pic: The Hackney Flashers

Following this revelation, the collective began to focus their work around childcare provisions, working closely with the Market Nursery in Hackney and shadowing mothers throughout their daily lives. In their 1978 exhibition “Who’s holding the baby?” the Flashers included comparative posters describing 1939’s “official policy” to have full-time nursery provision available for working mothers during the war, and 1978’s “official policy” to cut nursery funding.

Flashers member Sally Greenhill said: “I’m really shocked that the issues that we raised forty years ago are still huge issues today.” Nurseries and childcare are still expensive and remain one of the biggest concerns for working parents. Last year the government even announced that nurseries and childminders in England are to be allowed to care for more children per adult to help cut costs.

Flasher Maggie Murray said that during their second exhibition she often had her one-year-old son with her during discussions with audiences, “to make a point.”

Single mother Tasha Furgis, 29, agrees that childcare is still very much overlooked. She said: “When I work I have to leave my kids with their grandma because the nursery closest to my work is full. How ridiculous is that? It’s expensive to hire a nanny or whatever, and it takes a long time to find not only a place that you trust, but one your child is actually comfortable in. I’d like to see something like [the Hackney Flashers] happen today, I’d probably join in.”

Debate has surrounded the subject of free, or at least more available, childcare for years. The Family and Childcare Trust has recently released a report showing that the lack of childcare is particularly acute in Hackney, where there is “insufficient” childcare for children aged 3-4 and 5-11.

While it certainly appears that the struggle isn’t over, the Flashers are encouraging younger generations to take action and to follow in the footsteps of a group of women who fought for their rights as women, mothers, and citizens.

The Flashers held their 40th anniversary’s celebration at the Chats Palace Arts Centre in Homerton to open up a discussion about modern day feminist activism and recollect their work together with their remaining members. The anniversary also marked the launch of their new website.

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