W.A.W. (Women+ at Work) explores the history and future of women at work.
W.A.W. Reproduction is an installation work that brings together contemporary stories of reproduction: choices, pre-conception, fertility, infertility, perinatal loss, pregnancy, birth, neonatal loss and childcare.
The work is inspired by ‘Maternity’; a collection of letters by working women, brought together by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1915 and published with the help of Virginia Woolf. These historic letters revealed the previously un-mentionable hardships of maternity for working women as part of an on-going campaign to improve the almost non-existent maternal and infant care available to poorer women at the time.
Through this collection of contemporary stories attention is drawn to the issues that need addressing in 2020, many of which remain unchanged since 1915. Installed within the Council Chamber of the Guildhall, Cambridge, the work offers a direct voice to power as well as offering a point of solidarity to people who often face these issues in isolation.
Much has changed since 1915, not least the changing roles and models of family. And yet, while the availability of free health care through the NHS, improved ante-natal care, and maternity and paternity rights have radically transformed the experience of childbirth, it is the same topics that still present issues for people at work today: silence around pre-conception, miscarriage and still birth, inadequacy of maternity allowance (not covering the additional time required in cases of premature birth / state allowance not covering living costs), the brevity of paternity allowance, mal practice by employers, working culture that supports gender inequality (pay-gap, workload and job design that undermines flexible work) and lack of state / affordable childcare (preventing return to work).
Differing from the collection made in 1915 this contemporary collection welcomed stories from people of any gender identity, men women and non-binary people, and of parenting through birth, adoption, surrogacy, fostering, or special guardianship. In recognition that having children is work, stories were also welcomed from people engaged in paid or unpaid labour. In continuation of the understood need to break the silence around fertility and perinatal loss, as has continued since 1915, and in recognition that the hardest thing about having children is not having or losing them, the project includes issues of pre-conception, fertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death as an extremely important part of this history.
The collected stories were installed so at to offer a quiet and contemplative environment for visitors to sit and read. The stories are presented encased in formal legal dossier offering a presentable work exterior to the personal narratives enclosed. A play area with toys and books was provided in the space for younger visitors and children, pushchairs, breast and bottle feeding were all welcome in the space.
This work was commissioned by Unison Cambridge and South Cambs and supported by a Cambridge City Council Public Art Grant.