The British Film Institute’s online streaming service, BFI Player, gives anyone with an internet connection an opportunity to go through British archival film and TV footage. I stumbled upon the 14-minute film Working Women, made in 1975 by feminist activists in Newcastle. The film was originally part of a regional television programme, and was made to highlight local support for the Working Women’s Charter, a trade union charter launched in 1974 to achieve equal pay and equal rights for both genders.
The film is a delight to watch as a historical document, but what I am interested in here is the formal tactics the film uses to visualise the city as a space inhabited by women. Although the film is on the face of it not particularly sophisticated, it utilises various techniques to ensure that the visual aspects of the film support the arguments made by voice-over narration. In this way it shows that it can be rewarding to analyse a piece of locally produced reportage in the same way as one would analyse a high-end production.
The first part of Working Women discusses the difficulties women run in to when they try to find employment, and it includes several ‘vox-pops’ with women looking for work. The film opens with several shots of women pushing prams along the streets of Newcastle (see figures 1 and 2).
These shots establish that when the film talks about ‘working women’, it is primarily interested in the plight of working mothers – a division that was arguably less distinct in 1975 than it is today. The start of the film includes a brief historical overview in which the voice-over explains that gender roles and responsibilities only became entrenched in the industrial revolution. The film thus makes a direct link between urbanisation and women becoming responsible for all domestic duties and child rearing. By extension the city is designed to suit the public lives of men and not the domestic existences of women.
Throughout the film, the streets of Newcastle are shown to be almost exclusively populated by women (see figures 3-5).
Figure 3 shows only one man walking down a fairly busy street, that is otherwise full of women. In figure 4, there is a woman in the foreground of the shot, as well as four women walking abreast in the middle of the shot. They take centre-stage, and their formation can be read as a united front. They are, indeed, blocking the path of the man behind them. The framing of these four women serves as a visual metaphor for the film’s argument that women should unite in trade unions to achieve parity with working men. Although the four women in this shot are not characters in the film, and there is no explicit comment made on this framing, the staging of the shot underwrites the message of the film.
These shots show that Newcastle by day is a city almost wholly inhabited by women. This serves as evidence to the film’s argument that whilst men are normally in full-time, permanent work, women struggle to get employment as they are primarily responsible for childcare and housework. Naturally, therefore, men are in their places of work during the day and women are out on the streets. But the absence of men also serves to ensure that the viewer’s attention is not detracted from the stories told by the women that are interviewed for the film. Women are allowed to take centre stage in this film both literally and figuratively.
Working Women only allows men in a role of significance in its final section, when the camera is present at a trade union meeting. This is the only part of the film where men are shown in close-up (figures 6 and 7). As trade union representatives these men are necessary allies in the fight for pay parity and other equal gender rights. The film therefore gives them a voice and visual prominence. The camera privileges those inhabitants of the city that support the film’s argument. However, by allowing these male trade union reps a voice, the women in this final section of the film are immediately in danger of being drowned out. The male voices dominate during the meeting, as the men apparently struggle to understand the women’s viewpoint. Again, this mirrors the political argument that the film is making: although women need male allies to advocate on their behalf within existing power structures, there is a risk that the female perspective is side-lined as a result.
Working Women is a piece made for regional television and probably not produced with the intention to preserve it for posterity. This brief analysis shows that despite the film’s modest budget and aspirations, the formal aspects of the film serve to underscore its arguments. It shows the city to be a space that women must use and navigate, even if it is not built with them in mind.