In these times of internet and social media when feminism, it seems, is suddenly everywhere, it’s hard to imagine just how important a publication like Spare Rib was as a source of feminist connection and hope.
In fact, the magazine was considered so threatening when it launched in 1972 that British newsagent chain WHSmith refused to stock it. Instead, it was at first circulated through women’s groups and radical bookshops: in my case the now defunct Mushroom Books in Nottingham, to where I would make a three hour round trip by bus.
The world of a working-class teenage girl in the 80s could seem like a very small and frightening one, dominated by sexualised images of women:
- In my dad’s News of the World (also now gloriously defunct);
- In the experience of constant street harassment (no Everyday Sexism Project to provide succour and solidarity);
- In the anodyne gyrations of Legs & Co on Top of the Pops.
The only alternative was women’s magazines, which might talk about equality but whose homogenous images of women seemed to tell a different story. It felt, intuitively, that these apparently aspirational and celebratory images concealed something hateful; Spare Rib showed us we were not alone, that other women felt the same way and – crucially – were prepared to make something different.
Spare Rib digitised
So to encounter Spare Rib today, in a shiny new digital format, is like meeting an old friend. But this is anything but a nostalgia trip.
It’s impossible to do justice to the importance of such a vast archive of British feminism in a few short words: Spare Rib is packed with content, reflecting the urgency and vitality of the women’s movement.
Although the style and some of the language may have changed, what’s striking is how much of this content could have been written yesterday. Issues of violence, poverty, reproductive rights and social inequality continue to disproportionately affect women and minorities. Vital services, such as education and the arts, are still under threat.
Apart from the enduring nature of these concerns, one of the most striking things is how intersectional Spare Rib’s feminism is: women are never assumed to be a single category: race, disability, lesbian experience and class politics permeate its pages.
Celebrating women’s power
In particular, its celebration of women’s power is energising. Forget the bloodless goals of ‘choice’ and ‘equality’ offered to us by neoliberal capitalism. The women writing in Spare Rib wanted more: they wanted liberation.
Take the magazine’s approach to issues of body image - for example, in a 1987 interview with NHS pioneer Barbara Burford, who says ‘I always liked the idea of women being big: I see that as powerful and pleasurable’. Speaking of how it feels to be the object of a hostile gaze as a fat black lesbian she says: ‘what I would like is for all fat women to be able to meet someone who finds them desirable and not think - because of all the internalised negative messages of a lifetime - that that person is a freak to desire someone fat. I have come across that syndrome and it is a vicious one. How dare they deny us and cause us to deny ourselves sustenance and pleasure?’
At a time when fat women’s bodies are still stigmatised, this uncompromising advocacy for pleasure is inspiring.
Rendering women visible
Elsewhere, the magazine celebrated women’s art and activism and turned a fiercely critical gaze on the male-dominated nature of social and educational institutions.
As a 1981 article on women’s art by Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker put it, the aim was (and still is) to produce a culture for women and also to intervene against a culture that renders them invisible as creators. The magazine itself is a showcase of women’s creative and technical powers.
Spare Rib folded in 1993, a victim of the backlash against feminism and the political lurch to the right sweeping the global north. But for 21 years it helped define the voice of the feminist movement and that voice – witty, clever, passionate and uncompromising - rings through feminist journalism, activism and academia today.
In today’s remix feminist culture, where feminist ideas are being taken up and put to use in new and exciting ways, this archive matters.
Browse Spare Rib issues
The British Library now hosts a curated Spare Rib website featuring 300 pages from the magazine’s archive as well as articles but academics, former contributors and activists. The entire collection of 239 editions has been digitised and is now available to browse on Jisc's Journal Archives web pages.