The London Women's Film Group was formed in 1972 in response to the seemingly impermeable male-dominated film industry and culture of the time along with the urgently felt need to put women's stories, told by women, on the screen. Made up of a dedicated assortedment of practitioners and theorists, the group produced a variety of films, both individually and collectively, including Women of the Rhondda (1973), Put Yourself in My Place (1974), The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974), and Whose Choice? (1976). The group and its work provided inspiration to one another and to many other women who perceived the lack of feminist expression in film. In this essay, early Film Group member Barbara Evans provides a personal account of the formation and key moments in the evolution of the group.
As I heard this song for the first time in more than forty years, sung over images of a large 1970s women's demonstration in central London, I was overcome with memories. It is the opening scene of The Amazing Equal Pay Show by the London Women's Film Group. The extract I was watching had been included in a 1974 BBC Two Open Door program featuring a discussion with the filmmakers after the completion of the project. I had joined the group not long after it was formed, and the memories of a time when a new and revolutionary world seemed imminently possible—a world based on the principles of social and political equality that we fervently believed we were part of the struggle to realize—were overwhelming.
Late in 1972, a notice in Time Out magazine announcing a meeting of the London Women's Film Group had riveted my attention. Like most of the group members, as I later discovered, I had been part of a women's liberation consciousness-raising group, in my case one formed in Belsize Park in London in 1970. It had had a profound effect on me, and because of this, and my interest in working with film, I was irresistibly drawn to attend the meeting. The possibility of working with other women in the practical, artistic, and hopefully effective medium of film seemed to offer a solution to my quest to find a meaningful application for my evolving feminist politics.
I attended the meeting with some trepidation, fearful that my film experience would be considered too limited, that my feminist politics would be found wanting, or that my status as a latecomer would mark me as an outsider. I needn't have worried. I was warmly welcomed and found myself in a group that was to have a powerful and lasting effect on me.
The catalyst for the group's formation had been an invitation, published by the Belsize Lane Women's Liberation Group, for women to meet to discuss the absence of women in film and television. The call had come from Midge Mackenzie, one of the rare successful women working in film and television at the time and an inspiring figure for many of us. As well as working as a documentary filmmaker, Mackenzie was a writer and script editor on Shoulder to Shoulder, the groundbreaking BBC television series on women's suffrage, broadcast in 1974.2 The call for the meeting included an invitation to a screening of films on women's issues to take place over a weekend at the London International Film School. The films shown included the Liberation Films documentary A Woman's Place (1971) by Sue Crockford, Ellen Adams, and Tony Wickert, a chronicle of the first Women's Liberation Conference held in Oxford in 1970; Women Against the Bill (1972) by Esther Ronay; Kate Millett's Three Lives (1971); and Mackenzie's documentary Women Talking (1970). Approximately fifty women attended the meeting and, after the screenings, some stayed behind to talk. It was out of this event that the London Women's Film Group was formed.
The members of the group had a wide variety of aspirations, but foremost among them was the desire to spread the feminist ideas of the women's liberation movement to wider audiences through film. To do this we considered it necessary to acquire the skills of filmmaking ourselves, strongly believing that women could best learn from one another. As we said in a 1976 statement:
One of the basic precepts of the Women's Liberation Movement was and is that women need to organize separately to develop their own politics…. In a patriarchal society women lack confidence in technical areas, quite apart from the bias in both formal and informal education and actual discrimination in the industry. We wanted to break down the unnecessary mystification that surrounds technical skills, and to do this we particularly wanted to learn [these] technical skills from other women in a supportive situation.
We aimed to work collectively; those of us who had worked in the industry were particularly frustrated by the existing division of labour and women's place in the hierarchy…. So our intention was that everybody in the group become familiar with all the stages in the process of making a film, both at the level of technology and the level of ideas.3
Several of the women had worked at the BBC as assistant editors and researchers. I had come to film from working for the Inner London Education Authority, making programs for schools, where I had learned absolutely no technical skills at all, in common with most other women for whom the camera and sound recording equipment were declared out of bounds. In fact, when I later went to the National Film School (now the National Film and Television School), I was told by the head of the equipment room that women could not check out cameras because we would get “hairs in the gate”4 due to our long hair, or because we couldn't carry the “too heavy” equipment (the fact of women being the traditional carriers of babies, laundry and groceries, for example, being conveniently ignored), or because we would generally mishandle the camera and sound equipment. Better leave it in the hands of the men, was the message. Eventually the women had to organize a meeting with the head of the school to demand that film equipment be made available to us equally.
I vividly remember anxious nights with film cameras and Nagra sound recorders, feverishly consulting manuals and practicing techniques, preparing for a film shoot the following day. We shot everything on 16mm film, which demanded a high degree of skill and precision. A far cry from digital production today, a single misstep could fog or scratch the entire film, or wreck the once-in-a-lifetime interview that had so enthralled us. Our system was that once we had learned the basic skills, we would act as mentors, passing our knowledge on to others by working as, for example, a camera or sound assistant to the person we were helping to train. And the system worked. In that secure environment of mutual support, we acquired skills that we might otherwise have had to spend months learning in film school or on the job in the film or television industry—a job that very likely wasn't available to us in those days in any case (fig. 1).
We were committed to sharing skills and understanding the technical aspects of filmmaking not only among ourselves, but also with other women, and as widely as possible. The booklet the group published in 1974, Film Notes, we hoped would help demystify the practical processes of filmmaking (fig. 2). It contained a comprehensive glossary of terms with extensive technical explanations, in straightforward and accessible language. We sold the booklets for the grand sum of 20p a copy.
The group began by teaching one another skills in the production of two films: Bettshanger '72, documenting a miner's wife and her struggles to organize women in her Kentish village, and Serve and Obey (1972), in which young girls discuss their attitudes toward education. The group also acquired films made by members prior to its formation. Linda Dove's Miss/Mrs (1972) looked at the rigid roles in which women were cast. The film features images of women carrying bags, or pushing shopping carts and strollers, with diverse voice-overs discussing attitudes toward the body, equal pay, gender equality, and job-related aspirations. One of my favorite moments comes when one of the women confides that she made Liberace's trousers! Women Against the Bill, made in 1972 by Esther Ronay, documented a discussion among shop stewards about the forthcoming Industrial Relations Bill. Francine Winham's Put Yourself in My Place (1974), for the group a rare fiction piece, was a role-reversal comedy starring Judy Geeson, telling the story of what happens when a couple in a bourgeois marriage swaps roles. Fakenham Film (1972) by Susan Shapiro shows a successful occupation by women workers at a shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk.
The film that has perhaps had the most play over the years was the 1973 documentary Women of the Rhondda by Esther Ronay, Mary Kelly, Mary Capps, Margaret Dickinson, Brigid Segrave, and Susan Shapiro, with camerawork—prior to our acquiring the requisite cinematography skills ourselves—by Humphrey Trevelyan. The film brings a fresh perspective on the miners' strikes of the 1920s and 1930s, with women sharing stories of their personal involvement (fig. 3). It became one of the most effective of the group's films in raising awareness of women's work and the lives of mining communities in general. As Nina Power described it, writing in 2013:
Women of the Rhondda is incredibly subtle and historically significant: here we have a group of second-wave feminist filmmakers attempting to give voice to women who, although politicized by the result of the 1926 General Strike and the solidarity of miners in the Rhondda Valley, nevertheless did not have access to any of the channels of representation that were open to women in the 1970s such as the filmmakers. It has a naturalistic, sparse style, without voice-overs…. What the collective attempts to do in Women of the Rhondda is listen and pay homage to an earlier generation, to pay attention to the hidden role of women in earlier struggles: it is an extremely effective piece of contextual documentary, all the more so for its brevity and lack of pretension.5
An event focused on films by women, programmed by group member Claire Johnston, Laura Mulvey and Lynda Myles, was featured at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1972, and members of the Women's Film Group, at the instigation of Midge Mackenzie, filmed interviews with Johnston and Mulvey, both influential feminist film theorists, for BBC Two's Film Night. Mackenzie was less concerned about feminist film theory at that point than she was about women actually getting their hands on cameras and sound equipment. She had agreed to do the piece for Film Night but wanted women to do the filming. Remarkably, the BBC agreed, but then furnished equipment with which the filmmakers were completely unfamiliar. Fran McLean filmed the piece, with Linda Dove recording sound and Mackenzie directing. McLean recalls: “It came about so quickly—almost spontaneously. Since it was filmed outdoors, we had to duck into the woods in order to go over the equipment, which was then not only very heavy but very complex, particularly when compared to today, before we took up our roles behind the camera.” For their efforts, the filmmakers were paid a total of £70, which went into the coffers of the film group.
Another event that was particularly significant for us was the 1973 season of women's films curated by Claire Johnston at the National Film Theatre in London. The retrospective, featuring films by the directors Dorothy Arzner, Germaine Dulac, Ida Lupino, Maya Deren, and Nelly Kaplan, was for many, in those days before video stores or digital access, the first opportunity to see the works. The critical discussions that followed revolved around issues of feminist politics and aesthetics: Is a film made by a woman necessarily feminist? Can a film made within the dominant mode of production (i.e., capitalist Hollywood) do anything other than reflect the values of the society it comes out of? Is documentary more useful than fiction to the women's movement?6 I was particularly struck by the Argentinian-born, French neo-Surrealist filmmaker Nelly Kaplan, whose films La fiancée du pirate (A Very Curious Girl, 1969) and Papa les petits bateaux (Papa the Little Boats, 1971) were shown. After the screenings, in a small discussion group held in one of the NFT lounges, Kaplan's forthright insights on patriarchal oppression and the role of fantasy in film were fresh, inspiring, and funny.
The first major collective undertaking of the group was the 1974 film The Amazing Equal Pay Show. Strongly influenced by our rising star of feminist theory, Claire Johnston, and ideas in general about women's cinema, we wanted to make a film that would break the boundaries of conventional narrative film. As Johnston made clear in an influential 1973 article:
At this point in time, a strategy should be developed which embraces both the notion of film as a political tool and film as entertainment…. What collective methods … provide is the real possibility of examining how cinema works and how we can best interrogate and demystify the workings of ideology; it will be from these insights that a genuinely revolutionary conception of counter-cinema for the women's struggle will come.7
We were determined to apply these ideas to The Amazing Equal Pay Show. The London-based Women's Street Theatre Group, with whom we had close ties, had written a play about equal pay, and we wanted to incorporate their playfully burlesque but politically astute performances into our film. Inspired by the notion of women's cinema as counter-cinema, we planned to take an overt but hopefully entertaining approach. Brechtian—for want of a better word—in form, the film was a collage of musical numbers, documentary, theatrical parody, and scripted fictional elements, with all the parts played by women.
The film chronicles the daily struggles of the central figure, a working mother, counterposed against the villainous Mystifying Marvel and his sex-object showgirl assistant, Poodle (fig. 4). As well as the personal and domestic challenges faced by women, the film also interrogates the position of women in union and class politics. As Poodle eavesdrops on the overburdened housewife discussing the difficulties and contradictions she faces in her personal and working life, Marvo pulls her away.
You're not taken in by that sob story, are you? The workers in this country are better off than they've ever been. You don't want to worry your pretty little head about it—I take care of that side of things. Come on, Poodle, show us a bit of leg and waggle your bum and cheer us all up…. Just keep that pretty little mouth shut and we'll all be happy.
The play and film were a response to the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which was phased in over a number of years, coming into full force in 1975. Our concern was that the Act would do little to change women's position in industry—that women would still be seen as a pool of cheap labor and their jobs regraded to keep them in lower-paid ghettos. In the film we see Bob, the union convener, attending a women factory workers' meeting, refusing to take up their cause (fig. 5).
I think the only thing left is to strike, and I've asked Bob Smith, our convener, to come along and tell us what sort of support we can expect from the men.
Thank you, Helen—girls. I don't know about equal pay, but I'll help you get organized for strike action.
Help us get organized? We want support!
Support for what?
Equal pay, of course!
Equal pay? Equal pay with you lot? You must be joking. Blimey. You're only getting a tenner a week….
Right girls, we're going to have to organize our strike ourselves….The women at Dagenham did it and so can we.
Writing about the film in 2013, Nina Power comments:
It is the collective joy portrayed, the solidarity of those making and performing in the film which lies behind the difficult political portrait. Manipulation of the documentary form through parody and hyperbole means that The Amazing Equal Pay Show is shot through with a kind of gleeful egalitarian unity, a revelation that, in part, frivolity might be a better way to communicate serious, not-usually-seen-as-sexy ideas. Between the solitary male auteur and the single white female of contemporary cinema lies a collective alternative: there are no easy answers to the … questions involving women, work and politics, for example, but there is plenty of reason to continue to try to both pose and answer them in as many different media as possible, and with as much hope and anger as any truly committed group can muster.8
The film took us two years to make, working on weekends and whenever we could squeeze out the time. No one in the group was paid—I don't recall it ever occurring to any of us, in those days, that we shouldn't subsidize much of the expense of making the films out of our own pockets. For The Amazing Equal Pay Show we received a grant of £200 from Camden Council and, in addition to our free labor, the short ends of film left over from other film productions and equipment we begged and borrowed further enhanced the budget. Office premises in Earlham Street and much of our equipment were loaned to us through the generosity and comradeship of the Berwick Street Collective, whose members included Marc Karlin, Humphrey Trevelyan, and James Scott, the makers of the complex and controversial 1975 film The Nightcleaners.9
The Amazing Equal Pay Show was released in 1974, and one of the consequences of the film was that we were asked to appear on an episode of BBC Two's Open Door series. We were all amazed at the invitation, as we seemed such an un-BBC-like cause and cast of characters—in fact, the BBC was one of the targets of our feminist critique—and we were wary of how we would be treated and what we would be allowed to say on camera. But we thought it was worth a try. We prepared a tight and fully rehearsed script that we hoped would thwart any deleterious editing by the venerable, dreaded corporation. As I look at the program today, I am struck by how much of what we were saying then is still relevant today.
Watching the video, I have the uncanny sensation of being thrust back in time with women I came to know so well and with whom I spent such an important part of my life. We all look so young, bathed in a glow of commitment and sincerity. Of the six of us who were included in the program, three are no longer living, and watching them contribute their thoughts and aspirations for women and for film is deeply moving. For, of course, we shared not only the bond of making films together, but also deep bonds of friendship and support. I am impressed, too, by the breadth of our political analysis, which encompassed not just issues around women's representation but union politics and wider class struggles as well. We also managed to get in some important political barbs about the BBC.
Some of us were engaged in fighting for women's issues in the film union, a concerted effort to bring attention to the lack of opportunities for women in the ACTT (the Association of Cinema, Television, and Allied Technicians) and the film industry. Getting up to speak in front of the sea of male union activists, who ranged from celebrated figures of the British documentary movement to hard-core Trotskyite polilticos to seasoned camera grips and feature film producers, was a harrowing experience, but in the end our demands met with success. The groundbreaking document Patterns of Discrimination Against Women in Film and Television Industries, published in 1975, came about in small part as a result of our efforts.
At the end of 1974, with the completion of The Amazing Equal Pay Show, we received a small grant from the British Film Institute, and at the beginning of 1975 we began scripting Whose Choice?, released the following year. The film dealt with abortion and contraception, focusing on a woman's right to choose, in response to the threatened attempt to amend the Abortion Act of 1967. Rather than make a straightforward documentary, we decided to weave a fictional story based on a variety of real-life experiences of women who had undergone the difficult and emotional decision of whether or not to have an abortion. The hybrid combination of documentary footage, fictional narrative, and printed informational text, although fairly commonplace now, was quite radical at the time. Annette Kuhn, writing in Red Rag in 1976, observed:
The new film from the London Women's Film Group continues—but with rather different strategies—the questioning of dominant approaches to political film which was begun in The Amazing Equal Pay Show. What the two films have in common is an attempt to break with the “realist” documentary conventions operating in most political films, the effect being to place the spectator in an active, questioning relationship with the film and its “message.”10
This approach gave the film an alternative edge that some viewers found difficult. Women in the Sheffield Film Co-op, another women's film group, had also made a film about abortion, taking a very different, more traditional documentary approach. One of the members, in an interview in 1996, insisted that women who saw both films preferred theirs—that our use of experimental techniques was confusing to audiences and undermined their appreciation of the film, pinning the problem on what she described as an excessive emphasis on formalism and structures at the British Film Institute in London, which she believed had unduly influenced our aesthetic choices.11 We would have been shocked to hear that opinion at the time, as we never believed we were acting at the aesthetic behest of any bureaucratic institution, whether it was the ACTT, the BBC, or the BFI! On the issue of difficulty, Annette Kuhn pointed out:
Given that most people are caught up in this passive film-spectator relationship, it is possible that Whose Choice? might be thought a difficult film. If difficulty is taken to mean obscurity, this is certainly not the case. Its message is clear. Any “difficulty” must lie in the unaccustomed openness of the film: that is, in offering for question its filmic strategies, it also engages the spectator in active consideration of the issues it addresses. In this case, it is “political” in many more ways than the kind of political cinema it implicitly questions.12
Initially we distributed our work through alternative channels. Borrowing a 16mm projector and speakers, our intention was to show the films in factories, at meetings, to women's groups, and in people's homes to spark discussion on questions of women's work, equality, women's health, body image, union activities, and other issues that were so crucially important to us. Ultimately, though, the difficulties of distribution coupled with the fact that many of us were working at other jobs, with little time to organize the complicated business of exhibition, meant that the task became too onerous for us to continue. We handed over distribution to our friends at the Other Cinema, where the films remained until that organization closed and its collection was transferred to the BFI, where, ironically but perhaps fittingly, our work is now housed.
In 1976 the group commenced work on another ambitious project, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair. We received a BFI production grant for the project, “the first large amount given to a group of women to write and produce a feature-length film.”13 Thematically, the ideas behind the film seemed a logical transition from the group's previous work, but the feature-length fiction form, combined with superb animation by the Swedish artist Åsa Sjöström, marked a radical stylistic departure. The filmmakers felt that fiction and fantasy were ways to connect with the unconscious, referencing Bruno Bettelheim and his work on fairy tales. The filmmakers, in a written statement, observed:
In many ways, Rapunzel is a development of Whose Choice?, except that the film addresses itself to the much more abstract issues being discussed by feminists: how women receive ideas about themselves and their sexuality in a patriarchy…. [The film], by dissecting, re-telling, and re-interpreting the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, attempts to bring out not only the symbolism of the story but to transform it.14
Rapunzel was initiated as a London Women's Film Group film, but, although it was completed as such, in fact only three of the members—Susan Shapiro, Francine Winham, and Esther Ronay—were closely involved in its production.
In 1977 the London Women's Film Group ceased to formally exist. It had been in operation since 1972, largely consisting of the same group of women. The reasons for its demise were varied. Some of us moved away, and others could no longer manage the workload without pay. Some had demanding full-time jobs, and some went off to film school. The initial aim of being open to all women had withered, and the group became more exclusive and inaccessible to newcomers. The members got involved in other organizations such as the British Newsreel Collective, or the Independent Filmmakers Association, lobbying for Channel 4. Lack of time and other commitments meant there was less energy available to fulfill the demands that devoting oneself so wholeheartedly and exclusively to the group had entailed. And perhaps some of the reasons for the group's formation in 1972 were no longer felt as urgently by 1977 as more women—although still too few—were finding ways of making films. But for me the legacies of the London Women's Film Group live on in the bonds of friendship that remain, a continuing dedication to women and cinema, and the knowledge that our activities helped pave the way for other women to take up filmmaking, both as individuals and collectively, with results that are still apparent today.