So Mayer, one of Raising Films’ co-founders recently interviewed Frances Galt about their new publication Women’s Activism Behind the Screens: Trade Unions and Gender Inequality in the British Film and Television Industries, a look at the history of women’s struggles for equality within unions in the screen industry, to show the lessons of how gender equality has progressed and receded since the 1930s.
Frances Galt is a Teaching Associate in History at Newcastle University and the book draws on a rich blend of archival, oral history, and policy document research, and contains crucial lessons for contemporary activism.
This interview is a deep dive into Frances’ inspiration and approach to research. There’s a wealth of information about the history of activism and it also contains plenty of further reading for those whose interest is piqued.
Pop the kettle on and jump in… Copies of the book can be purchased in a variety of forms via Bristol University Press.
So Mayer: First of all, congratulations on Women’s Activism Behind the Screens! At Raising Films, we’re always excited when we learn more about the historical continuity we’re part of – and saddened by how much is still lost or obscured. Can you tell us a bit about what led you to delve deep into the history of women’s activism in the screen sector unions? Was there a particular moment of encounter or uncovering that inspired you?
Frances Galt: Thanks, that’s lovely to hear! I researched the history of women’s activism in the screen sector unions out of a mixture of personal interest and good timing. I’ve always been interested in women’s trade union activism – how do unions represent ‘women’s issues’? how do women carve out a space to advance their demands within trade unions? – and this is a topic I’ve pursued since my undergraduate degree. My undergraduate dissertation examined equal pay for equal work campaigns during the Second World War while my Masters dissertation explored women’s politicisation during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Shortly after finishing my Masters, all the way back in 2013, I saw an advertisement for PhD funding on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project ‘A History of Women in the British Film and Television Industries: 1933-89’. This project examined women’s work in the British film and television industries, using union documents such as membership forms to do so.
I was particularly inspired to research women’s activism in the screen sector unions by Patterns of Discrimination Against Women in the Film and Television Industries, a ground-breaking report on gender discrimination published by the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) in 1975. The product of a two-year investigation conducted by the union’s Committee on Equality, the report quantified women’s experiences of discrimination and provided an extensive list of recommendations for collective bargaining. For me, this raised so many questions – who campaigned for this report? Were these recommendations put in place? What impact did it have on the union and on the industry?
SM: You draw deeply on the ACTT Committee on Equality minutes, a really important historical resource that had been split across two archives, and hadn’t been accessed or studied in detail before. What was it like when you encountered them? What was the most surprising or galvanising (or depressing) thing you learned?
FG: Exploring the Committee on Equality meeting minutes, correspondence and ephemera was one of the most exciting parts of my research. As you mention, the material was spilt across two sites: BECTU’s Head Office and Feminist Archive North (FAN).
The material held by BECTU was stored in over 100 boxes containing paperwork from the day-to-day administration of the ACTT. This material was not systematically archived, so I searched through every box and came across three files containing meeting minutes, correspondence and ephemera relating to the activity of the Committee on Equality between 1973 and 1977. This material provided an invaluable insight into the Committee’s investigation into gender discrimination (e.g. methods and working practices) and the challenges of implementing the Patterns report’s recommendations (e.g. limited engagement among the membership).
The documents held by FAN cover 1986 to 1990, when women’s representation was formalised into the union structure and the Committee on Equality had been replaced by four General Council committees: Women Members’ Committee, Black Members’ Committee, Committee on Disability and Sexuality Committee. The material on the Women Members’ Committee included meeting minutes, conference reports and newsletters, and revealed, in particular, a hostility towards incorporating sexual politics onto the union agenda.
The most fascinating find was a conflict over the appointment of a researcher for the Patterns report in 1973, detailed in correspondence between the union leadership and women activists. A petition was circulated by women activists when the union’s Finance and General Purposes Committee recommended a male candidate over the Committee on Equality’s female candidate. This conflict is invisible within other archival sources (namely the union journal) but reveals the internal struggle to advance women’s demands and hostility from the union leadership, who described the petition as ‘scurrilous nonsense’. A more detailed discussion of this controversy can be found in my Alphaville article.
SM: It feels like the last five years have seen a real movement in feminist labour scholarship in screen studies and the screen sector, as you mention in your introduction, with Calling the Shots for example. Why do you think it’s happening now? And do you think it will continue?
FG: I think this movement in feminist labour scholarship in screen studies is happening now because of developments within both academia and the screen sector. Scholarship on women’s contribution to the film and television industries initially focused on silent cinema, but in the last decade has increasingly highlighted women’s work in sound cinema and television following the establishment of the Women’s Film and Television History Network – UK/Ireland in 2009.
The AHRC-funded project ‘A History of Women in the British Film and Television Industries: 1933-89’ (2014-17), lead by Melanie Bell and Vicky Ball, studied the economic and creative contribution of women workers to film and television production, including previously overlooked below-the-line roles; while Shelley Cobb and Linda Ruth Williams’ ‘Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK: 2000-15’ (2014-18) provided a statistical analysis of women’s work in key creative roles.
These projects speak to contemporary reports on gender inequality in the screen sector, which reveal the ongoing and entrenched nature of gender discrimination.
SM: Looking over the course of your book, and given what Christine Bond (quoted on p. 189) identifies as the unsustainable cycle of attention and energy leading to small change leading to moving on leading to rollback leading to revisiting the original issue, can you identify any lasting and material positive change across the screen sector for women workers?
FG: Without wanting to sound pessimistic, I think that women activists need to constantly maintain pressure on both the industry and union to achieve and maintain positive change. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the Conservative government’s austerity measures, by the casualisation of the workforce, and now by the Covid-19 pandemic, which undermine moves towards gender equality – this is why the union and campaigning organisations such as Raising Films are so important. To end on a more optimistic note, the presence of women in top roles within the BECTU sector of Prospect, including General Secretary and President, is certainly a positive change.
SM: Because we love our interviews and testimonials, I was really struck by the important presence of four long interviews with Sarah Boston, Sarah Benton, Adele Winston and Christine Bond, screen sector workers who were also significant union activists. Why is oral and informal (particularly first-person) history so important for doing women’s history?
FG: Conducting oral history interviews is one of the most enjoyable parts of my research – the opportunity to meet women involved in activism and hear their first-hand accounts is fascinating, and the interviews offer a wealth of information inaccessible elsewhere. Women’s work and trade union participation has been traditionally obscured in archival sources as a result of gendered attitudes both at the time and within the archiving process, overlooking women’s often low-paid and precarious work. For feminist scholars, oral history offers ‘an invaluable means of generating new insights about women’s experiences of themselves in their worlds’, with the interview process providing women with an ‘opportunity to tell her own stories in her own terms’, as argued by Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack in Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History.
My interviews were particularly valuable in highlighting the emotions and unspoken atmosphere of women’s union activism, and here I will share two examples.
Firstly, Sarah Boston discusses the political context of the 1970s: “we’ve had Paris ’68, we’ve had the Vietnam demonstrations, we’ve had […] all of that feeding in to the early seventies and feminism you know really sparking and all those left-wing groups […] we saw trade unions as the body through which we could best try to change things for women” (interview with author, 7 July 2016).
Here, Boston evokes an atmosphere in which revolutionary change seemed imminent, with trade unions situated as a central driving force in this change. Through Boston’s testimony, we are given a sense of the urgency, excitement and optimism associated with women’s union activism in the 1970s.
However, Boston and Sarah Benton’s testimonies also reveal an atmosphere of hostility towards women activists and their demands within the union, bringing us to my second example.
While the union was committed to gender equality in policy, the reluctance of union officials to discuss women’s demands was palpable, as Boston described: “It’s that sort of thing that you go to the pub […] you’re having drinks, and you just know that they aren’t going to talk to you about women’s rights, that they don’t want to know” (interview with author, 7 July 2016). Similarly, Benton discussed the unwillingness among officials to disrupt their productive relationship with management: “they negotiated in a perfectly amicable way to get more money for the workforce […] they weren’t going to go in and say why don’t you give us a crèche as well, they thought this was silly stuff, they didn’t take it seriously at all” (interview with author, 18 July 2016). Oral history provides a unique opportunity to capture hostility that was implicitly communicated through behaviour.
SM: You quote Kay Mander, who was on the wartime Women’s Committee of ACT, as saying in 1988 that they “weren’t the sort of women who wanted crèches” and so their meetings were “rather vague”. Talk us through all the implications of this as to who was working in the industry, and who was on the committee! Why is organising around childcare provision and support (of all kinds) so crucial for equality in the screen sector?
FG: A short-lived Women’s Committee was established during the Second World War as a strategy to safeguard men’s jobs alongside a number of other measures, including dilution agreements (which stipulated that women performing men’s jobs would be employed on a temporary basis during the war and receive men’s rates). As such, the Women’s Committee was established by the union leadership rather than women’s rank-and-file activism, offering one explanation for its vagueness. While most women entered the film industry through the laboratories during the Second World War, the Committee was made up of production workers (e.g. continuity supervisor, assistant editor); Kay Mander was a documentary film director during the war. By Mander’s account these women were childless and most were unmarried, and so “weren’t the sort of women who wanted crѐches”.
This was at odds with the campaigning focus of women within the wider labour movement at the time, which prioritised childcare facilities. In her interview with the British Entertainment History Project, Mander claims that the women on the Committee “didn’t feel that we were different, we saw no bonus in having a women’s section”, reflecting her attitudes towards feminism at the time of the interview in the 1980s: “Well it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or not. You’re just a person with a certain amount of technical ability, skill, knowledge, imagination which you can apply.”
During the 1970s childcare provision and support became a central demand of women activists in the ACTT, with the Patterns report calling for the provision of childcare facilities within the workplace and at national union meetings. Childcare provision and support are crucial for equality in the screen sector because women bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities, with women facing pay penalties, limited career trajectories and sometimes leaving the industry altogether after having children.
SM: How many, if any, of the discussions you studied or the interviews you carried out talked in-depth about the practicalities of being a mother and/or carer working in the screen sector? Were there any repeated concerns, challenges (or benefits) that leapt out? If not, is it also striking that it was discussed so little?
FG: There was no in-depth discussion of the practicalities of being a mother in the screen sector in my interviews, and this is in part because my research didn’t explicitly focus on the topic. However, some of my interviewees mentioned limitations on their union activity as a result of the practicalities of motherhood. For instance, Christine Bond is a single mother with a disabled daughter, and she discussed the challenges of travelling to meetings in London from Dublin. Bond praises the union for providing childcare support to enable her to attend these meetings but reflects that her caring responsibilities prevented her from standing for another term as president.
SM: Was there a golden age of childcare provision in the industry (we often hear the example of the 1970s and 80s Pebble Mill crèche!). If so, how and when was it achieved? How and why did it get rolled back? Does that relate to the BECTU merger, and also the increasing freelancisation of the industry?
FG: This is a topic I would be really interested in researching further, because the union journals I analysed only provide a glimpse of women’s activism on childcare facilities.
One of the key campaigns the journal reports on is a two-year campaign at the BBC’s Kensington House, which resulted in the introduction of a crèche in 1980. This campaign was organised by a women’s group outside of the industry’s unions, the ACTT and the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staff (ABS), because they doubted the unions’ commitment to negotiating for childcare facilities. Within reports on the Kensington House campaign corresponding campaigns among ACTT members at London Weekend Television (LWT), Thames and Granada London are briefly mentioned but are otherwise absent from the journal.
So, campaigns for childcare facilities are really driven by local groups and shop-level activity rather than the national union. In fact, the demand for crѐches was a controversial one within the ACTT during the 1970s and 1980s; for instance, some members perceived childcare facilities as a threat to their wages.
From the mid-1980s, many of the advancements women activists made during the 1970s and 1980s were rolled back as the ACTT fought for survival in light of an orchestrated attack on the union and industry in the form of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation and the deregulation of the film and television industries.
One survival strategy adopted by trade unions in the 1980s and 1990s was amalgamation, and in 1989 the ACTT voted to merge with the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance (BETA) to form BECTU. The first decade of BECTU’s existence was shaped by financial crisis, which limited its campaigning scope. While campaigns for childcare facilities, among other campaigns, become more visible again in the 2000s, the weaker position of the union and the freelancisation of the industry put up increased barriers to these campaigns.
SM: Who becomes an activist or organiser, and why? Did you observe any particular similarities or trajectories among the women who spoke out and were active in union politics?
FG: Women who became activists or organisers were often politically engaged with a personal commitment to trade unions. For instance, Bessie Bond (ACTT organiser, 1945-61) was an experienced activist in the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union and Communist Party in her home-town of Glasgow before moving to London and becoming involved in the Association of Cine-Technicians (ACT) through her husband, Ralph Bond.
Sarah Boston was involved in the New Left and women’s liberation movement, as well as a member of the London Women’s Film Group, which campaigned for gender equality through the union during the 1970s.
Similarly, Sarah Benton was involved in the women’s liberation movement, establishing two women’s liberation groups at Warwick University and in Sheffield, and was conducting research on the Sheffield labour movement during the 1922 engineering lockout.
Sandra Horne, the ACTT’s first Equality Officer, had a background in industrial relations from both the employers’ and trade unions’ perspective, previously working in the industrial relations departments of manufacturing companies and employers’ federations and as a branch organiser for the National and Local Government Officers’ Association (NALGO).
Christine Bond, in particular, offers an interesting insight into the trajectories of women activists. In her oral history interview (with author, 19 November 2019) and journal articles, Bond emphasises the support she received from other women, including leading activists Lynn Lloyd and Margaret Watts, who encouraged her to stand for the National Executive Committee (NEC), and the women’s conferences, which gave her the skills and experience to speak out. Therefore, structures, such as women’s committees and women’s conferences, also play an important role in who becomes active in union politics.
SM: Looking at the impact of the Patterns report and its key recommendations (1975), you mention limited engagement by gatekeepers, leading to inertia and slow progress. How do we break through this repeated pattern? Especially as there are so many urgent data-driven reports being produced now, and often ignored in the same way!
FG: In the aftermath of the Patterns report the apathy of the male-dominated union membership and the reluctance of male union officials to negotiate around the report’s demands resulted in inertia and slow progress on gender equality. This was exacerbated by the Committee on Equality’s detachment from the official union structure, which meant that Committee members couldn’t directly propose motions to annual conferences, relying instead on women elected to other committees. My book argues for the value of women’s separate self-organisation through women’s committees and conferences, which is integrated into the formal union structure and has the power to propose policies. During the 1980s, the appointment of an Equality Officer, introduction of annual women’s conferences and establishment of a shop-level Equality Representative role formalised women’s representation and lead to structural gains within the union. Establishing, and maintaining, pressure through women’s organisations that are both separate from and integrated into industry organisations/unions with policy-making powers is one way to break this pattern. However, in light of anti-union legislation and austerity measures, as well as the freelancisation of the screen sector, there needs to be significant structural change in the sector and wider society to truly break through this pattern.
SM: I’m particularly struck by Sarah Boston’s question of “how you get to a real level, you know, real integration” of equalities work into the larger union campaigns and the mainstream of working practice: this feels like a real crunch point that relates back to the gatekeeper issue. How did you see this changing or operating across your research?
FG: Sarah Boston’s reflection on the integration of equalities work within the union is really interesting and reveals the complexity of the issue. Ideally, equalities work should be integrated into larger union campaigns and the mainstream of working practice, but in reality, women’s issues are marginalised within these campaigns without a separate women’s committee/organisation, as my research demonstrates.
This is because of the gendered structures in the union and industry which function to maintain gender discrimination. As discussed above, women made important advancements in the union when women’s separate self-organisation was integrated into the formal union structure during the 1980s. Interestingly, discussion of integration vs. segregation was often used to undermine women’s demands, as male union activists argued that women’s issues should not be confined to women’s committees despite the marginalisation of women’s demands on the wider union agenda.
SM: Why is it so important for us to know the patterns of this history, and what, for you, is the biggest takeaway in terms of strategies we can continue to use, and connections we can continue to make?
FG: Knowing this history is important for two key reasons, it reveals firstly the structures that have maintained gender discrimination in both the screen sector and the labour movement and secondly the strategies adopted by women activists to challenge this discrimination.
As such, one of the biggest takeaways for me is the importance of collective action between feminist organisations and the labour movement. Sarah Boston argues that in the 1970s trade unions were seen as “the place to fight for women” (interview with author, 7 July 2016), and the influence of external feminist organisations, such as the London Women’s Film Group, resulted in significant gains within the union.
As in the 1970s, we should look to build networks between campaign groups and the union.
SM: Was there a particular take-home for you in terms of your own life and work, whether it was self-archiving practices (any advice for Raising Films on how to best archive our work?!), commitment to making change, or telling your own story?
FG: I think there were two things that researching the book really reinforced for me. The first was the extent to which archives on feminist organisations and women’s lives more generally rely on individual women preserving their own collections. For instance, the material on the ACTT’s Women Members’ Committee at Feminist Archive North (mentioned above) was held in the personal collection of Al Garthwaite (chair of the Women Members’ Committee 1989-91) and the Women’s Film, Television and Video Network’s collection donated by Hilary Readman.
So, my advice would be to keep a thorough record of your documentation – meeting minutes, correspondence, newsletters, publications, etc. – for future researchers.
The second was the role trade unions play in both maintaining and challenging gender discrimination, and the importance of trade union membership for women workers – essentially, join a union!
Women’s Activism Behind the Screens: Trade Unions and Gender Inequality in the British Film and Television Industries by Frances Galt can be purchased in a variety of forms via Bristol University Press.
Published Nov 2020
Follow Frances Galt on Twitter
Further listening – Frances is interviewed in the New Books Network podcast