A woman appears as a red silhouette wrapped in chains and with bold lettering across the bottom of a poster that reads, “FIGHT FOR SAFE, LEGAL ABORTION.” This is not a sign from the recent women’s marches against the new administration; it’s a British poster from 1976 protesting restrictive abortion policies. Designed and printed at the See Red Women’s Workshop in London, this is just one of many screenprint posters made by this group of women between 1974 and 1990, brought to light by the new book See Red Women’s Workshop published by Four Corners Books.
The workshop started in 1974 with a newspaper ad calling for female visual artists “to combat images of the ‘model woman’ which are used to keep women from disputing their secondary status.” A range of women joined See Red, from photographers and filmmakers to illustrators and graphic designers. Over the years, over 40 women worked in the workshop, producing materials for multiple causes including informational posters and pamphlets for the Abortion Law Reform Association, such as the one described earlier, as well as anti-racist posters and Women’s Liberation calendars.
The primary medium was silkscreen. With gender discrimination still prevalent in art schools, one of See Red’s missions was to increase the number of women artists, particularly within the field of silkscreen arts. They would advertise women-only workshops and classes as a means to earn money and spread the craft. They primarily made posters for demonstrations, but over the years, they also took on the cause of racial equality, refugee aid, and abortion law reform. Working alongside women’s centers throughout the city, See Red tapped into the rising feminist and classist awakening.
What’s especially striking about the images collected in this book is the variety of graphic styles — some using blocky, simplified forms and bold letters, others cartoons, while some reproduced photos into a more collaged look. Despite this diversity, the universal author is always See Red Women’s Workshop. The group decided early on that they would maintain collective authorship over all their work as a way to resist patriarchal hierarchies. Over the years their causes and slogans included “So long as women are not free the people are not free”; “Don’t Let the East End Die,” in support of bringing jobs to lower income neighborhoods; and “underneath every woman’s ‘curve’ lies a muscle,” advocating for women’s self-defense classes.
The history of See Red’s struggle to overpower negative images of women in the media and to advocate for equal rights is shockingly relevant now, at a time when once again many women and minorities are raising similar signs above their heads in resistance to current political actions. These images and their messages are just as powerful now as they were 30 or 40 years ago, but they were not always easily conceived. Feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham writes in the forward, “See Red aimed to be clear and wanted to reorient perspectives. Making those posters appear so simple and self-evident must have been agonizingly hard to accomplish.” This remains true now, in the age of 140 characters or less. A brief and well-crafted image and text combination is sometimes the most powerful weapon of resistance.
Below is a sampling of See Red Women’s Workshop posters and their efforts.