Women’s History Month: Spare Rib

It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of Spare Rib. Launched in 1972 it caused an immediate sensation. Newsagents across the country, including WH Smith, refused to stock it. Spare Rib was seen as subversive, as indeed it was – a means of spreading feminist ideas to a wider population of women confined in domesticity, restricted by contemporary social expectations, and cut off from activism for women’s rights. Instead of an innocuous content of romance, domestic tips and beauty advice, unthreatening to the prevailing status quo, Spare Rib was a protest against typical glossy ‘feminine’ women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Elle, and Woman’s Own. “It was startling to realize that we could not buy any publications which discussed what we felt to be vital issues and so Spare Rib is a beginning”. It sprang not only from the underground press of the 1960s, but from a much older tradition of radical progressive journalism, and was unafraid to provide a platform for discussion of taboo issues like women’s sexuality or the reality of domestic violence.

In the first issue, the editorial proclaimed its purpose – to investigate alternatives to traditional gender roles and “to reflect questions, ideas and hope that is growing out of our awareness of ourselves, not as ‘a bunch of women’ but as individuals in our own right.” Yet in spite of hostile retailers and discomfited husbands, the first issue sold out immediately, and it maintained a steady though relatively small circulation of 20,000 a month. It’s estimated that the actual readership was much wider. It was passed around informally and by ‘floating libraries’, so reaching many women unable or wary of buying it themselves. Readers’ letters over the years confirm it as a life-line where they could validate their experience and expectations. This extract from the first anniversary editorial points up its effect on the popular press.

June 1973 Number 12

‘Why is a woman’s point of view important? The press has begun to take up some of the issues previously dismissed as hysterical demands of Women’s Liberation, and has provided coverage of events like the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Bill. However, as long as the newspapers restrict articles for women to a single Women’s Page – a page usually devoted to fashion and food – it is even more important for our news to present the women’s point of view, analysing the significance of events in relation to women’s lives and reporting on our unseen, undiscussed problems.

We are being promised equal opportunity, and equal pay in 1975 but we mustn’t be lulled into complacency – real liberation of women’s minds and bodies has hardly begun. We are not going to let Women’s Liberation be wrapped up in an Anti-Discrimination Bill and forgotten like the vote. We want you to continue sending your advice and ideas, and sharing your experiences with us.’

With a national circulation, Spare Rib is probably the best-known of feminist magazines from the 70s and 80s, but is by no means the only one. There were many other newsletters with a local or regional base from Aberdeen to Brighton, from Cardiff to Newcastle; and from Women’s Aid centres, lesbian groups, disability support groups etc. These were often useful in organising local campaigns, underpinning networks and breaking down isolation. FAN holds a complete run of all Spare Rib issues from 1972 to 1992. We also hold copies of a readers’ survey, conducted in 1974, and files containing correspondence addressed to the Spare Rib collective, between 1976 and 1981.

The Feminist Archive North (FAN) holds a wide variety of material relating to the Women’s Liberation Movement from 1969 to the present. If you would like to visit or donate contact FAN at fa_north@yahoo.co.uk . For further information on the collections see www.feministarchivenorth.org.uk . Fan is located in Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.