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  • Writer's pictureInvisible Women

Punch In / Out: Double Shift

From 22 September - 13 October, Invisible Women are teaming up with Femspectives to present punch in/out: iterations of labour, a season of online and IRL screenings exploring intersections between work, gender, class and race. Each week we will present a new programme of shorts, features and archive, which has been curated to explore a different theme.

These notes have been written by Kathi Kamleitner (Femspectives) to accompany our Week 1 (Sep 22 - 23) screening: Double Shift.

As a woman who is married and has children, you don’t have a choice.

A Question of Choice, Sheffield Film Coop (1982)


The women interviewed for the Sheffield Film Coop’s documentary A Question of Choice describe having children as something you do, not because you make a conscious decision, but because it is what is expected of you. With the increasing economic pressure of the 1970s and 1980s, these women are no longer “just” homemakers. Their families depend on them to join the workforce and contribute to the household income.

With limited opportunities, they work in low-paid jobs with little security. At home, they are the “family managers”, in charge of housework, childcare and everyone’s schedules.

In short: women work a double shift.

The opening programme of punch in/out: iterations of labour takes this title - “Double Shift” - in order to examine multiple ways in which home and labour intersect. The three films in the programme reflect different aspects of these intersections, many of which came up in our discussions with members of the STUC Women’s Committee. At first glimpse they seem rather separate. Upon closer inspection though, the intricate connections and crossovers between issues like “home-making" and domestic labour, homelessness and community activism become more and more apparent.

“Double Shift” is not only about the double burden many women have faced and are still facing today, but about the “maternal task” of building and shaping communities - inside and outside the domestic four walls.

A Question of Choice (1982)

Credit: Cinenova and Sheffield Film Coop.

The programme begins with A Question of Choice, a short film made by the Sheffield Film Coop. The collective was formed by Christine Bellamy, Jenny Woodley, Gill Booth and Barbara Fowkes who subsequently worked to raise consciousness about issues affecting women at home and at work throughout the 1970s.

The women worked on radio shows as well as broadcast programmes for a local TV station, discussing concerns, such as abortion, childcare, and job opportunities. The collective eventually began making films as their content was pushed to the side by the mainstream media platforms available to them. One of their best known pieces of work is the 1984 film Red Skirts on Clydeside, about the 1915 rent strike in Glasgow.

With A Question of Choice (1982), the collective set out to highlight the lack of choice women have when it comes to their career paths. As one of the women interviewed for the film puts it, “As a woman who is married and has children, you don’t have a choice.”

Without the women doing the double shift, the wheels of the machine - at home and at work - would stop turning.

District Nurse (1952)

Credit: BFI National Archive.

Sarah Erulkar’s District Nurse is an educational documentary sponsored by the British government about the life and duties of a district nurse. The woman we encounter has a fulfilling job and does valuable work - something the women in A Question of Choice couldn’t say of themselves - but she has no family of her own. Instead the entire community is her family, dependent on her care and expertise.

House calls, midwifery, first aid - the district nurse is in charge of the health and wellbeing of her community. The job is demanding and she is always on call, and as such, this profession allows little time for her personal aspirations.

As a district nurse, the woman we meet might not be expected to fulfill the unpaid labour of a mother and homemaker, but her role still involves plenty of unpaid labour of care. She takes children to school or spends time with isolated elderly patients. While these tasks are not strictly part of her job - she is depicted as doing them with joy and ease. The film suggests that it’s simply in her nature to care for others.

There is a scene in which a little girl gives her baby doll a bath. The voice-over states, “she is happiest imitating her mother” - transferring the tasks, if not yet the full responsibility of home making and care labour onto the child. Later the district nurse teaches “mothercraft” lessons to older school girls preparing them for their inevitable role within society and the double shift that awaits them.

Home and Dry? (1987)

Credit: Leeds Animation Workshop.

Home and Dry? is an animated short film made by the Leeds Animation Workshop with financial support from the Greater London Council. The film weaves a rich tapestry from the testimonies from four women in different, yet also similar situations. They share their stories of precarious living situations and indeed different experiences of homelessness. Colourful drawings and animations breathe life into their accounts.

At first, this film seems like an outlier in the programme - talking about people who are without a home, rather than people who are labouring at home.

It shines a light on women who are affected by homelessness, how this affects them and why. The women interviewed for the film raise issues such as the lack of affordable housing, or what actually makes a house a home. But of course, there is a connection between having a home, labour at home and not having a home. One of the women in the film points out, "Once we’ve got a mortgage, we’re less likely to take risks."

Risks, such as leaving a difficult or even dangerous home situation; or going on strike to stand up for their rights as women, labourers and/or tenants. Owning a home can have many implications on your life. But what if you can't stay silent, what if you have to stand up. That home can be taken from you in a heartbeat and you get trapped in a cycle that is hard to escape.

Street 66

Credit: Ako Akingbade and Lux.

It is Ayo Akingbade’s 2018 film Street 66 that closes the quartet. Just like District Nurse it looks at the role women play in their wider communities. Just like Home and Dry? it discusses housing inequality and domestic concerns. Combining these approaches, the film is essentially about the unpaid labour of being a community leader and fighting for a better future.

It tells the story of Theodora Boatemah, a British Ghanaian community activist who spearheaded the regeneration of Angell Town Estate in Brixton, London. When she moved to the estate in the late 1970s, the estate was in a bad state. Families were struggling with social issues, the crime rate was high and the local council did nothing to help.

And so, Boatemah created the Angell Town Community Project. Together with other tenants she campaigned for change and step by step the community took control of their own neighbourhood.

Circling back to the work of the Sheffield Film Co-op and issues discussed in Home and Dry?, the film also brings up memories of other women who organised against homelessnes and housing rights. In a local Glasgow context, there was Mary Barbour who spearheaded the 1915 rent strikes in Glasgow, leading thousands of people (many of whom were women) into a rent strike that went on for months and was eventually successful in capping rents.

After fighting for almost 20 years, in the early 2000s the estate was finally re-developed in a way to better serve the local community. Sadly, Boatemah did not live to see the change - she died in 2001 of a heart attack. But the fruits of her labour live on in the community activism she inspired. And the fight continues as house prices in the area rise relentlessly and force young people who grew up in Brixton to move out.

Although the films in this programme were made many decades ago, our discussion with members of the STUC Women’s Committee made apparent that the same issues repeat themselves with each generation. The fight for choice, for equal opportunities, for appropriate housing and for self-determination continues.

That is until, as a society, we address our priorities and ask ourselves what is more important - building yet another block of luxury flats or eradicating poverty once and for all?

But instead of ending here on an admittedly negative note, let’s think about the solidarity shown by the women in the films. The determination to change things for the better. The many gains and wins they have made, so that we can build upon them and gain and win even more. In the end, “Double Shift” is a programme full of hope, that if we only remember the struggles of the past, there is a chance that we won’t endlessly repeat them.


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