In the summer of 1972, the Women’s Liberation Movement was fighting for social, sexual and reproductive freedom through rallies and marches. The “second wave” of feminism was at its peak and rose to prominence in 1970 after a group dropped flour bombs at the Miss World beauty pageant, emphasizing the objectification of women. In 1972, a strike by a group of female night cleaners in London for better working conditions made the news again in England.
Not surprisingly, not everyone at the time agreed with these women’s claims to equality, and the British and American press often caricatured them as sexless harpies with no humor, hairy legs, bra-burning, opposing marriage, family, and femininity. To counter the noise of such news came the groundbreaking feminist journal Spare Rib.
With its witty coverage and sharp features, the magazine reiterated the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). The magazine supported the campaigns and often exposed women’s experiences of social and cultural sexism. Spare Rib did all this with fascinating journalism and a great sense of humor. The magazine closed in 1993 due to commercial pressures. This year we celebrate 50 years since its first issue and look back at the legacy it left behind for feminist media.
A new kind of feminist journal
The magazine’s founding editors, Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, opposed the sexism and chauvinism of the underground, alternative press, where women were confined to mundane duties and excluded from editorial decision-making.
Women’s printers such as Spare Rib and Virago took a radically different approach to publishing. Women-led editorial boards made it possible to openly discuss previously taboo topics such as the female orgasm and lesbianism long before they became mainstream concerns. Many feminist journals operated collectively, encouraging women to develop their publishing skills in the male-dominated profession.
In form and content, Spare Rib has crossed the boundaries between magazines focusing on home, beauty and lifestyle like Woman’s Own and more overtly political, grassroots media like Shrew or Red Rag. In this way, she emphasized both the personal and political aspects of the feminist movement.
In its early days, Spare Rib partially mimicked traditional women’s magazines, adding articles about cooking, crafts, and DIY, despite a feminist twist and an “I can do it” attitude. However, it was never traditional in terms of its subjects and opinion writings.
Like the Cosmopolitan, which launched in the UK that same year, Spare Rib has never shied away from bringing women’s sexuality to the fore. But unlike Cosmopolitan, it also directly addressed sexism in the UK. Spare Rib’s “news pages” kept feminists informed and interested in current protests, updates and successes. The lively letter pages also encouraged heartfelt reader participation.
For over two decades, Spare Rib has worked relentlessly for social change, researching and raising awareness of serious issues related to women’s mental and physical health. These included women’s sexuality, domestic life, domestic abuse, equal pay, sexism in the workplace, female genital mutilation and the asylum movement (which provides safe shelter for battered women), and more. The growing awareness of these issues today owes much to the campaign work of these second-wave feminist journals.
The magazine had a complex relationship with consumerism, navigating a difficult path between needing ad revenue and rejecting the sexism of the industry at the time. They did this by simply trying to advertise ethical products with subscription ads and their own branded products like the Spare Rib diary.
But it struggled to sustain itself with declining ad sales and subscriptions. In addition, distribution issues and controversy over the magazine’s direction led to the magazine’s death and eventual closure in 1993.
The challenges of representing a movement
From 1982, Spare Rib faced criticism for being too white, middle-class, and London-based. In 1984, a crisis within the editorial collective revealed that many, including women of color, Jewish women, Irish women, lesbians, and more, felt that British feminism as well as Spare Rib did not speak for them or address their private concerns.
While Spare Rib grappled with various identity politics, other feminist magazines addressed different groups directly. Founded through the Socialist Workers Party, Women’s Voice focused on working class women.
Mukti: Asian Women’s Magazine is published in six languages by the Mukti collective and funded by London’s Camden Council. FOWAAD was a national newsletter for women of African and Asian descent. There were also local feminist publications such as the Leeds Women’s Liberation Newsletter that highlighted regional feminist concerns in the UK.
Spare Rib itself has also become much more international in its feminism. Recent research on women’s activism in Britain has found that regional feminism and Spare Rib are broader in their perspective than previously thought.
Innovative, informative, contemporary and political, Spare Rib has educated and politicized its readers, mobilizing and promoting feminism in Britain. On top of that, she helped raise awareness on countless issues by providing women with a voice and a forum to tell their life stories.
Spare Rib’s self-expression and persuasive writing carries her own legacy in feminist media like F-Word, feminist websites like Everyday Sexism, and online blogs like The Vagenda. Because of its place in feminist history, The Spare Rib has become a touchstone for subsequent feminist magazines, and was even an attempt by Guardian journalist Charlotte Raven in 2013 to reinvigorate the Spare Rib itself. Unfortunately that was nothing but Spare Rib’s legacy continues to this day.