Disgrace: Art, Feminism and Conservatism

Maisie Allen is a Masters student at King’s, having previously been a Liberal Arts student majoring in English Literature. She is passionate about accessibility within the arts, socialism, feminist podcasts, and her cello.

This year, artist duo and partners, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings created their exhibition Disgrace, which explores the history of feminism in the political right in the UK. Placed in the Arcadia Missa Gallery on Duke Street in Central London, the series of black and white etchings narrate a timeline of British feminism from the Edwardian period until now. When referring to the history of feminism, the narrative of positive empowerment, especially regarding the suffragette movement, often overrides our ability to critically understand the influence of right-wing politics on the earlier movements for gender equality.

However, whilst the etchings in combination with a video detailing Quinlan and Hastings’ research process called Portraits attempt to highlight the shadows of feminism, we would rather forget that little is done to challenge the status quo of conservative feminism that otherwise still exists in today’s British society. References to Theresa May and Priti Patel in their penultimate etching-I’m not a woman I’m a conservative- speak to the frequent distancing of feminism from these figures today and reflect that their policies are deeply harmful towards women and to those already marginalised in both economic and domestic contexts. 

In public history narratives, we often aspire for a story that is neat and tidy, allowing us to see a smooth progression between the binary of good and bad. That way we can look into the past and reflect on how much more awful things used to be even if inequality still persists, albeit manifested in slightly different ways now. The beauty of the Disgrace exhibition is that it does not hold back; it ruthlessly exposes the raw history of 20th century British feminism, leaving room for critical discussions of its chronology and figures once revered who entered the fascist underworld of mid-20th century Britain. Let’s not forget that Marie Stopes, held up as a sexual revolutionary, was a prominent eugenicist and used her teachings of sexual reproduction and pleasure as a platform for her views on racial purity and superiority. The etching Social Hygiene highlighted different aims within the feminist movement and the moral panic surrounding sex work and promiscuity in a way that corresponds with the panic of white bodies being used for sexual purposes, thereby losing its connotations of virginal purity that many middle class women stressed to convey. The eugenics that emerged in these early stages of 20th century conservative feminism were intertwined with the imperial project of the British Empire, something which is often and keenly forgotten. 

The final etching entitled We Will Not be Silenced, however, is one which is at the forefront of many discussions in contemporary circles and reflects the growing trans-exclusion and transphobia spouted from prominent activists in a claim to be advocating for women’s safety. The Othering of the transgender community is not a new phenomenon and the language used in current media and public discourse is deeply reminiscent of how the queer community was treated by conservative social policies, most notably in how under Section 28, teachings of ‘alternative lifestyles’ were banned in schools and educational centres. Often when we revere early waves of feminism, it is women in upper echelons of society who receive the most praise and the most coverage in historical narratives. What Hastings and Quinlan attempt to show in their work is an intersectional critical view of how we should understand feminism and not remove the politicisation that is inherent in these activist movements, and that feminism is for all, not just those who already have access to social and political capital. 

In the guide for the exhibition, writers Ruth Pilston, Lola Olufemi, Akanksha Mehta, and Juliet Jacques take turns in their essays to explore what Disgrace aims to show, and ultimately, how successful it is in doing so. Olufemi’s essay is ultimately the most powerful, writing that “2 white women artists put whiteness on display…they blow those fascists up so big it’s hard not to think of them as monuments” (2021). What would have been refreshing is to see those feminist activists who were never seduced by the visions of right-wing conspiracies, the ones who ran grassroots movements to fight labour oppression and poor conditions, the ones who set up reading groups and community childcare collectives to share the domestic load and spread radical feminist ideas, to be the ones who march against the police and state in the face of state sanctioned violence.

The Disgrace exhibition succeeds in shedding light on feminism’s dark past, but in the end, conservatism often prevails in a society so tied up with neoliberal values and ideals. How feminism is taught through the eyes of history is in desperate need of change, as female emancipation has never been built on those already standing in the sun, but those who have been forced into the shadows by an exclusive elite. 

[Image sourced from Arcadia Missa.]

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