See Red Women`s Workshop Interview: Suzy Mackie and Pru Stevenson
7 Aug 2013
To coincide with a display (5 December 2012 - 13 January 2013) that looked at the See Red Women's Workshop collective, Student Forum member Seth Pimlott interviewed Suzy Mackie and Pru Stevenson, members of the women's collective which ran from 1974-1990. See Red produced radical yet accessible campaigning designs in their signature raw screen-printed aesthetic, raising awareness of issues spanning from the isolation of mothers and domestic violence, to sexual equality and the media's treatment of women.
Seth Pimlott: Why did you feel you needed to start See Red, and what atmosphere did it bubble out of?
Suzy Mackie: It was 1973-1974, and as young women interested in politics and social issues we became very interested in the women’s liberation movement as it came into being. We were there at the right time in the right place, and we were part of it as well. We used to get Spare Rib, and a much rarer magazine Red Rag. We didn’t go in to create the ideas, we went in to promote the ideas of the women’s movement, to try and make it clear that the personal is political. You couldn’t just go in and do feminist posters then come home and do something completely different, it wasn’t just a job it was a lifestyle. We came to it because we’d done graphics and fine art and felt that we wanted to do something that we knew we could do well, but do it with and for the women’s movement. It was a lot to do with the images of women and the way that women were portrayed in the media - they were very sexist times. That was the norm then, girls did this and boys did that, and things were just starting to be thought about. I always thought of it as propaganda for the women’s movement.
Pru Stevenson: The 1960s were a particularly bad time for women, and womens’ liberation movement grew out of that. The men were going out and doing all sorts of political activities, which we could do to a certain extent, but we were very marginalised and felt displaced within that. That’s when consciousness-raising groups came about because a lot of women were feeling extremely uncomfortable and unhappy about their situation. The men they were living with or had dealings with were not conscious that how you behave in your personal life is a very political thing. We felt we needed to separate ourselves off and meet and talk as women about issues that were important to us, that centered on daily life: looking after children, house work. Those things which a lot of men would say, ‘House work is not important, what I do is, you should do it’. So we did a poster around it.
SM: We did an early poster that had a repeated picture of a woman at home with a baby, and in the last frame there is a picture of a man saying, ‘My wife doesn’t work”, but she’d been working all day.
PS: We were very aware politically, we were involved in occupations, housing, we were part of Marxist reading groups, my husband was part of Hackney music workshop where they played on picket lines. It was exciting times. There were people who came and lived with us, we ate with other people in the street so there were cooking rotas, there were always lots of people and always political discussion going on. The women within that were involved with consciousness-raising groups, so it was a highly charged and a very fantastic time. See Red grew out of that. I was doing posters for the local community, tenants associations and other community groups so it was a natural progression for us to start doing posters around women.
SP: So you’d been living in communes?
SM: There were four of us and a child in south London. Julia (Franco, founder member of SRWW) and I were the two women in the household. All the house work and the childcare - any task - had to be on a rota, equally shared between everyone. We wouldn’t have moved in if it hadn’t been sorted before. I’m not saying that there weren’t issues, which we discussed at house meetings, but there were remarkably few. We were in womens’ consciousness raising group, one of the men in the house was in a mens’ consciousness raising group, I was doing printing in playgrounds with Julia, and other community arts stuff. For me - and it’s hard to describe it in an arty way - it’s about how the way you are seen affects your self esteem. We were seen through the eyes of the media, and we made posters about those stereotypes. It was also to do with sexual politics and relationships. How a male partner can look at woman and have all kinds of preconceived ideas, a conditioning that both men and women had or have. It made personal relationships as unequal as the relationship women had with the state, or employment. So we were interested in that gender divide.
SP: Was there a trigger for setting up See Red?
SM: There was an advert in Red Rag, that said, ‘We are interested in looking at women’s image.. if you’re interested come to the meeting’. At that first meeting was Pru, me, Julia, Michael Land [?] and Jo Spence the photographers, and Christine Roach the illustrator. We discussed ideas around media images of women and oppression, but it wasn’t like ‘Okay we’re doing screen-printing, you go off and do photography’. There was no plan to form a group from this meeting, it just happened. It was a forum for discussion.
PS: So the core who were doing the printmaking were just us three, and we were immediately very active. For those people who worked around visual images this was a natural progression to focus their skills to advance or enhance women’s liberation. The earliest posters were the ‘Protest’ ones.
SM: And ‘My wife doesn’t work’, and ‘A womans’ work is never done’.
PS: One in particular was responding to a radio programme which had a jingle that went, ‘Be young and beautiful if you want be loved’. We were so incensed by that, it was so insidious, the effect the media could have on women who were very isolated and vulnerable.
SM: Julia’s one, ‘Alone we are powerless, together we are strong’, was an early one too.
SP: Following the meeting what were the first steps?
PS: We started off in a squat in Camden Road in ‘74. I knew the woman who lived in the flat above it and it had a shop front, while we were printing in the back with extremely basic equipment. We were all hard up and we did it two or three days a week with part-time jobs, except with Julia who had just had a baby. We didn’t have much to do with the squat, and treated it as a temporary space. One of the reasons we left the first squat was that we displayed some of the earlier posters in the shop window and overnight we got a brick through it. We actually had quite a lot of that over time. Later on we were attacked by the National Front, (reading from article in Outright we wrote at the time): ‘Violence has been much in our lives recently. We have been stickered by the National front. Then we got threatening phone calls and last bank holiday we were broken into and vandalised. They smashed the door in, poured ink over machinery, stole equipment, cut telephone wires and pissed over the mail. We see these attacks on us as part of a growing trend from the extreme right who now see women’s organisations as sufficient threat as to want to intimidate and attack us. These attacks drain our finances and our energy, but we’re not going to see six years of women’s work destroyed..” In a way it was great that we were seen as sufficiently threatening, that they couldn’t just dismiss us but wanted to destroy us.
SM: Although we would always get portrayed negatively in the mainstream media, there was this alternative press that was always supportive.
PS: We then went in to another squat just off South Lambeth Rd which was in a basement and extremely unhealthy. When we moved into Iliffe yard, which was the final place, that was completely derelict. We needed a ladder to get into it, there was no plumbing, no electrics, nothing.
SM: We learnt to plumb, do the electricity, everything, on a point of principle. We had someone from Lambeth Women’s Workshop which centered on carpentry and construction work to teach us.
PS: There were a lot of women’s groups like that around then, doing car maintenance or woodwork.
SM: I remember at one point going to three groups a week. It was very much of the time wasn’t it?
PS: With See Red, various print places were closing down so we were able to get hold of printing tables, a drying rack, and things like that.
SM: To start with we didn’t have proper printing tables - we used to carry around wooden frames, stretch them ourselves, and take them home at night to paint the resist on for the designs. You can tell from the posters what was done before we had a darkroom.
PS: But we were very particular about the quality. So anything that was out of register, or had a blob of paint which shouldn’t have been there, or hadn’t printed properly was rejected. It was important to us that it was always good quality because we were open to being mocked or seen as amateurish if what we were producing wasn’t of a high standard.
SM: If we were discussing these interesting ideas in the women’s movement, but we were doing a crap poster then we would feel that we were letting it all down. Do you remember lining up after we’d done the first or second colour using masking tape? Hours spent getting the register absolutely perfect.
PS: It was absolutely, really, really important that they looked good. Given the very basic equipment we had I think it was remarkable.
PS: We kept a daily diary and the women wrote down what they had done and what needed to be done. It would say things like, “Sue here then Magdalena came in unexpectedly. We tried to print off the Maggie (Margaret Thatcher) Poster. Hopeless - wasn’t printing properly. Eventually after many attempts at cleaning the screen, the letters of See Red etc. started coming away. So Sharon came in and said she thought it was that we hadn’t screen washed the screen before Susie put the film on it'. They were notes to each other so we always knew what was going on.
SM: We were thorough.
PS: And well organised. I think that is what kept us going for so long. A lot of other places folded. We realised early on that organisation was important. There was always the need to have someone who has an overall view of things, and Sarah was very well organised. I think we all were, but Sarah lived and breathed it. We had financial sales going, the buying of equipment, the calendar to keep going, different women coming in and their different expectations. There was a lot to think about and we were well organised, I think otherwise we would have fallen out.
SM: The other telling thing from another entry into the diary on Thursday the 11th, “10 times girls are powerful, 10 times Thatcher, 10 times YBA wife, going to the poster shop on Chalk farm Road". That was regular – how often we sold to book shops, print shops, alternative shops, all over England and abroad. We sold posters globally, and we sent them in cardboard tubes that we had picked up from the back of a wholesale fabric manufacturers at the back of East St market. So we went global, posting things to China, Australia, but also very local.
PS: Schools and colleges as well. We did a big mail-order.
SP: You would sell posters at conferences and other events as well?
PS: We would often take the coach up to Manchester or Birmingham for Womens Conferences with all our posters and have a big trestle table where we would set up shop. we would run workshops on ‘Print your own poster’, as well as selling loads of posters and getting ideas and feedback from the women there. They were amazingly wonderful times actually, really exciting. The difficulty for us was that we never made any money. It wasn’t the aim, but we were all pretty hard up.
SM: We were living in collective households so wages were shared. In some small part that kept us going. We used the local whole foods collective in Brixton - we tried to live it really, as well as having a really good time. Some of us took part-time jobs - I worked part-time for ILEA as an arts and crafts youth worker - to supplement working at SR.
SP: What about the principles of collective work and organisation - how were work and responsiblities shared equally?
SM: A lot of male artist friends used to ask ,“How do you actually do it? How do you all design something? Surely somebody must hold the pencil?” Of course, they were artists with a capital A. They could not understand working collectively on an idea before putting it onto paper, then putting sketches down and someone else adding a bit, someone taking it home and bringing it back. Someone would come along to the group with an idea, put it to the group and we would discuss it. There wasn’t a fixed structure to how we worked, it was a more natural process.
PS: We had weekly meetings where we would discuss new ideas, and we were very conscious of nobody dominating the discussions and everybody having a say. We’d all come from an art school background. I was at St Martin’s where it was very male dominated - the tutors were male, and women were in the minority. The men were doing these huge canvas paintings and we were squeezed out. So we wanted to work in a very different way which was much more to do with sharing skills and being thoughtful one-to-one and more respectful of each other. That’s not to say that we didn’t have arguments, but we never fell out. They could often be heated, but that was healthy.
SP: A lot of the posters engaged with a particular political struggle beyond the UK, for example, ‘’Solidarity with women’s struggles all over the world”. Could someone outside the group propose an idea for a poster?
PS: We relied on other people for ideas. It was vitally important for us that women with different experiences from different backgrounds came in and talked to us about struggles they were interested in and their life experiences. We could then enable them, or help to produce posters that were important for them. This was crucial because white middle-class experience is extremely limited. The poster, “March on National Womens’ Day”, with the pictures of women from different parts of the world was an important one to do alongside the posters that dealt with more specific issues. Soon after we moved to Iliffe yard ( date?) and had a proper workshop social services started referring people to work with us. It was out there that women could come for a number of weeks and it was like coming to an adult education class.
SM: Passing on skills was really important. It was not hard, any woman could do it, and that’s why we did the poster, “How to screen-print”. We also had an apprenticeship scheme.
Women could learn the technical side of things - how to print - but often it is hard to come up with a visual argument.
SM: And that’s where we facilitated. Our work at conferences often involved getting women to make paper stencils and then stick them on the screens that we had, and we would do that in quite large groups.
PS: The poster, 'Support our sisters in Armagh jail', and the poster dealing with women’s struggle in South America were initiated by Jeanette and Magdalena - a Chilean woman and a Colombian woman, both political refugees. They were a response to a particular political concern of a woman who had come to the group. We were criticised at one point of being negative, so the ‘Miss March’, the ‘Carnival’ poster and ‘Girls are Powerful’ were a response to that.
SM: There was the ‘Alternative alphabet’ poster as well, which was for nursery groups. So we were making posters for different age groups, with different women from different parts of the community.
PS: Shall we talk about about the Margaret Thatcher one, which we made in about 1980?
SM: We had her spotted since the days of ‘Maggie Thatcher milk snatcher’, when she was a minister of education. We asked Conservative central office, ‘Could we have a picture of our great leader’ pretending we were big fans. They dutifully sent us a really high quality photograph! Maggie Thatcher and the Tories were introducing a lot of legislation that was going to harm a lot of people. We put all of that in the picture frame: closures, freezes, pensions cuts, benefits cut, hospitals and NHS decimated, and those numbers and figures from that time. But just having all that information on the wall would be a bit miserable, so we wanted to make it punchy and provocative and hopefully memorable. So in the poster, in response to ‘My message to the women of Britain’ she is saying “Tough”, basically you’re fucked, forget it, I’m not even listening. This was an especially popular poster.
PS: One of the strengths of our posters is that they are humorous - which makes them more accessible. It was important that they shouldn’t put women off and that people could identify with them. So if you have something like (Pen Daltons’ Poster), ‘Castrate on Demand’, for a lot of women that was so extreme and nothing to do with their lives. Most women could identify with nearly all of our posters. “YBA wife?” is funny, yet it is asking what kind of life do you have as a stereotypical wife.
SP: Jess Baines said there were a fantastic debates about which images of a women you would use.
SM: The question was how can one image of a woman represent all women? I remember Spare Rib asking us to do a cover using an image of a woman - to which our reply was which one? We were trying to talk to as many people as possible, people who might not describe themselves as feminists, just to get an idea planted and make people think and question The women’s movement wasn’t exclusively one kind of woman - even if it tended to be white middle-class particularly at the start - it spread. When GLC started funding community projects they often funded women’s groups. There was a time when there seemed to be women’s centres nearly everywhere. Starting from being a bit unusual, these idea really flowed across society. We reckon that about 36 women came through See Red over the years.
Postscript: Suzy left See Red in 1981 to study community work, and Pru left in 1983. The collective continued with GLC funding til 1990 and, though no new See Red designs were produced after 1984, they maintained the circulation of the original See Red posters as well as designing and printing for women's groups and campaigns.
© seth pimlott, 2016.