Re-reading Spare Rib

Spare Rib was a collectively run, feminist monthly magazine published in Britain between 1972 and 1993. Its archive has recently been made available in digitised form by the British Library, so anyone who’s interested can take a look (or indeed read the whole lot, spare-rib-1minus some stuff that isn’t yet available because the project hasn’t been able to locate contributors to get their permission). The Library has also produced a set of accompanying resources (contextualising essays about the magazine, and sets of themed images and articles from it) which I’m sure teachers of women’s/feminist history will find useful.

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the people who gave permission for a contribution to be digitised: I wrote a piece for SR in 1980, while I was still a student, and it was the first piece of writing I ever got paid for. I was also a regular reader in those days (though I hadn’t read it from the beginning, since in 1972 when it launched I was only 13). Later I would join the editorial collective of another feminist magazine, Trouble & Strife, which was founded in 1983 and initially got some technical and practical assistance from SR.  There were lots of feminist magazines around in the 1970s and 80s (Trouble & Strife also has an online archive containing pdfs of its print issues between 1983 and 2002, after which it went online), but in Britain SR was the best-known, the most professional and the most widely read.

Today’s equivalents of these magazines are websites like The F-Word and Everyday Feminism, but if you’re used to looking at those you’ll find SR is a different sort of thing. Partly that’s to do with the visual style: print design is a different art from web design, and you can see that even though the digital format doesn’t fully reproduce the print layout. But it’s also because SR had a different sense of what it was trying to do: it aimed to address a broad cross-section of women, offering an alternative to the standard women’s magazine. Early issues, in particular, contain some elements which are highly reminiscent of a women’s magazine, along with others which remind you more of a leftist/feminist newsletter. A piece with instructions for making your own curtains might sit alongside an article explaining the political situation in Chile, and news about women striking at a factory in Wales might be juxtaposed with a woman’s personal reflections on why she cut her hair short and how it felt.

Since I’m writing in December, I thought I’d illustrate this post with a closer look at issue 89, which came out in December 1979. It opens as usual with a couple of pages of readers’ letters, including this one:

Our school library receives Spare Rib and I read every issue. I have come to the conclusion that I am abnormal. Am I really the only true woman in Britain that enjoys being treated as one? Is it so wrong of me to enjoy wearing pretty, feminine dresses? I enjoy it when a man stands up for me on the bus, or opens a door for me. I feel happy and pleased rather than antagonistic.

Yes of course I believe in equal job opportunities and equal pay, but some jobs are definitely done better by men. You never give the other side to any story.

I definitely want a career, and I would hold back marriage for that purpose, but eventually I look forward to having a home, husband and children to look after.

Yours, [Name] (age 17)

Next there’s an interview with Winona La Duke, a co-founder of Women of All Red Nations (an organisation of American indigenous women), who was in Europe to publicise a campaign against uranium mining on Indian reservations in the US. This is followed by a poem, then a piece by a woman who suffers from severe acne, a section containing short news stories, a short piece of fiction, a longer news article about a demonstration against the Corrie Bill (a proposed law limiting women’s access to abortion), a review of two new collections of women’s songs, and the regular ‘Tooth and Nail’ feature, a round-up of sexist images and advertisements sent in by Another regular section containing notices of upcoming conferences and protests is followed by a feature on women and alcoholism, then a review of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, which had just come to the West End. There’s a long classified ads section, another short story, more reviews (books, TV, theatre), then an article entitled ‘What the education cuts mean to you’ (1979 was the year when Margaret Thatcher came to power).

The final piece in this issue is ‘It’s Trousers Time’, an article about the (then near-universal) ban on girls wearing trousers to school, and how it was being contested. The writer talked to girls at a school which permitted the wearing of trousers in exceptionally cold weather—so long as they were worn with a skirt over the top! This ‘trousers plus skirt’ arrangement was also the way schools often accommodated Muslim girls whose religious norms required their legs to be covered. But the article describes a number of pupil-led protests—starting with petitions, moving on to civil disobedience (mass trouser-wearing on a pre-arranged day—would teachers send 150 girls home?) and sometimes escalating to walk-outs and strikes (in one case the police were called to disperse pupils who were picketing).

This piece about trousers was just about the only one in the whole issue that made me think ‘yes, the past really is another country’ (not only because the last-ditch defence of school skirts seems so absurd now, but also because of the organised militancy of the school students—very 1970s). The rest of the content seemed depressingly current: this year, 2016, also brought us news stories about indigenous people protesting against the exploitation of their land, women mobilising against threats to their reproductive rights, and feminist campaigns against cuts to public services. And the letter from a young woman who appreciates it when men open doors for her could have been written at any time during the last 50 years. (I expect there will still be women expressing the same sentiments long after I’m dead.)

One more thing about the December 1979 issue: it contains no references to Christmas apart from a couple of ads suggesting you might want to give someone a subscription to the magazine, or a badge with a feminist slogan on it. That certainly sets SR apart from more conventional women’s magazines, whose December issues are invariably full of party-themed fashion and make-up spreads, shopping guides and Christmas cookery features. Feminists have long understood the festive season as a time when women’s work—cleaning, cooking, shopping, body maintenance and emotional labour—is never done. Nevertheless, if you’re celebrating, I hope you have a good one.



Housework: the issue time forgot?

Second wave feminist writing is full of complaints about domestic drudgery. Housework, in all its mind-numbing, unproductive tedium, was at the heart of what Betty Friedan dubbed the ‘problem with no name’. Men’s refusal to do their share (and their endlessly inventive excuses for shirking) were mercilessly skewered in Pat Mainardi’s ‘The politics of housework’. The subject also attracted attention from academic theorists. In 1974 Ann Oakley wrote a groundbreaking book on the sociology of housework; Marxist feminists debated the economic value of women’s unpaid domestic labour, and arguments raged about the proposal, made in 1972 by Mariarosa Dallacosta and Selma James, that women should demand wages for housework.

Today’s feminists seem less exercised by this issue (the web is awash with tips for male allies, but they rarely touch on such mundane topics as noticing when the bin needs houseworkemptying or cleaning the toilet without being asked), but I’m not sure why: it can’t be because the problem has been solved. According to a recent report from the OECD, women around the world continue to spend significantly more time than men on tasks like cooking, cleaning and laundry. The gap is larger in some places than others (in India, where it’s particularly large, men spend an average of 36 minutes a day on domestic tasks, whereas for women the figure is around six hours), and there are also class differences within countries (the poorer the household, the more time women spend on housework). But there is no region and no type of household where domestic labour is equally shared, or where men do more than women—a finding the researchers put down to a combination of ‘discriminatory social institutions’ and ‘stereotypes on gender roles’.

The most radical second wave thinkers were not just critical of the gendered distribution of housework, they were critical of housework itself. Although their politics were different in many ways, both Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis thought housework was soul-crushingly oppressive, not only because it was unpaid (it wasn’t always: as Davis pointed out, doing white families’ housework was a source of income for many Black women), but also because it had no tangible product that the worker could take pride or pleasure in. The meal a woman cooked would be eaten, the floor she cleaned would get dirty, and a few hours later she’d have to do the same thing all over again.

The solution they favoured was to industrialize and mechanize. Angela Davis suggested that

Teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling [with] technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively.

Reading this now is a bit like reading those 1950s predictions that by 2000 we’d all work two days a week and get our nourishment from pills rather than food. Why have our domestic arrangements changed so little—give or take a few labour-saving devices, hardly at all?

In The Dialectic of Sex Shulamith Firestone pondered the failure of various experiments with alternative ways of living, such as the communes of the early Soviet Union and the Israeli kibbutz. She acknowledged that these attempts to collectivize domestic labour were often unpopular with women. On one kibbutz she visited, the women were campaigning to be allowed their own family kitchens in addition to the communal kitchen where most of them (regardless of their skills or preferences) were obliged to work.

A criticism that was often made of the Soviet communes was that they contributed to the rise of totalitarianism by depriving people of ‘the last refuge for intimacy, comfort, privacy, individualism, etc.’ But in Firestone’s view the problem with the communist approach was not its lack of respect for the family as an institution, but its narrowly economic analysis: it ‘drafted women into a male world’ without changing–or even understanding–what was oppressive about the way that world operated.

Because no provision [was] made to re-establish the female element in the outside world, to incorporate the ‘personal’ into the ‘public’, because the female principle [was] minimized or obliterated rather than diffused to humanize the larger society, the result [was] a horror.

Since Firestone wrote, advanced capitalist societies have also drafted more and more women into the workforce without changing the traditional terms of participation. For instance, as Teresa Green noted in her recent post, a ‘standard’ working day continues to be defined on the assumption that someone other than the worker will cook, clean and take care of the children. Women are thus required not only to do their paid jobs, but also to work an unpaid ‘second shift’ at home.

One consequence has been the growth of a global trade in domestic labour: professional women in the rich world sustain careers on the male model by delegating ‘their’ domestic responsibilities to lower-paid cleaners, nannies and carers. The majority of these workers are also female, and in many cases they are migrants from poorer countries (often with children of their own, who have been left in the care of relatives).

Another consequence has been a level of dissatisfaction among women that has led, in some quarters, to a new version of the cult of domesticity which Betty Friedan denounced in 1963. Since the mid-noughties there has been a trend, documented in Emily Matchar’s 2013 book Homeward Bound, for educated middle-class women to turn their backs on the rat-race and seek fulfilment by immersing themselves in home and family life. The women Matchar interviewed really had made domesticity a full-time occupation: they weren’t just doing routine housework, but also home-schooling their kids, growing and preserving their own food, making most of the family’s clothing and relearning old domestic crafts like soap-making and rug-hooking. While only a minority can afford to make this choice, the idea of it clearly appeals to a lot of women–witness the proliferation of blogs, books, TV shows and products (from cupcakes to Cath Kidston) which celebrate it.

This trend underlines Shulamith Firestone’s point that women are not liberated by being drafted into what remains a male-centred and male-dominated world. Joining the paid workforce hasn’t even liberated most women from economic dependence on men, and it certainly hasn’t liberated them from the expectation that they will do a ‘second shift’ at home.

Of course, the new domesticity doesn’t liberate women either. However, as Delilah Campbell commented in a review of Homeward Bound:

The ‘separate spheres’ arrangement, unequal though it is, has some appeal for women living in patriarchal societies. At least it gives them one undisputed sphere of influence, a domain where they can rule without anyone questioning their right to be in charge.

If you can’t avoid being a domestic drudge, it’s rational to prefer an arrangement that gives you maximum control over your own drudgery.

That’s also what the sociologist Ann Oakley found in 1974: while 70% of the women she studied expressed negative attitudes to housework, 50% also said that at least it allowed you to ‘be your own boss’. Maybe that’s why the women of the kibbutz wanted their own kitchens: they weren’t hankering after bourgeois lifestyles, just yearning for some personal autonomy.

It’s not hard to understand why women are reluctant to cede the only sphere where they have an unquestioned ‘right to be in charge’; but as Ann Oakley comments, the result is a vicious circle. By clinging to their authority in the domestic realm women implicitly accept that housework is their responsibility, and that allows men to go on treating it as something they might ‘help with’ if they feel like it. Pat Mainardi urged feminists to resist that idea, and to recognise that ‘participatory democracy begins at home’. Probably with a conversation about who cleans the toilet.


Re-reading feminist utopian fiction

Most of the texts we’ve been reading for the Second Wave course are either academic books and articles, or else they’re political manifestos, polemics and position papers. But the reading list also contains quite a long section devoted to fiction, and it’s not there just for light relief.  Feminist fiction in the 1970s and 80s had important political functions. Writers used it as a vehicle for exploring ideas, creating alternative worlds, documenting women’s life-experiences and reclaiming their forgotten histories. Looking back, I’d say my own feminist education owed as much to the (many) novels I read as to the weightier theoretical tomes.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of feminists if the same had been true for them, and if it had, which novels had made the biggest impression. Everyone’s list was different, but one thing immediately stood out: almost all the lists included at least one story set in an imaginary future or a parallel world.

A couple of women mentioned a ‘first wave’ example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s all-female utopia Herland, which was originally published in serial form in 1915, and reissued in 1979. Other favourites had been written during the second wave: they included Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Suzy McKee Charnas’s A Walk to the End of the World (1974) and its sequel Motherlines (1981), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979). But by far the most popular novels belonging to this genre (they didn’t just dominate the speculative fiction category, they were the two most frequently-mentioned titles overall) were Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

The ‘woman on the edge of time’ is Connie Ramos, a working class Latina woman who has edgebeen committed to a psychiatric hospital after trying to defend her niece from a violent pimp. She finds she is able to make contact with the future, of which (in time-honoured fashion) there are two different possible versions. The one evoked in most detail is Mattapoisett, a utopian society where women and men live as equals. The other is a nightmare world where the most oppressive elements of Connie’s own society (such as the objectification and prostitution of women) have been taken to even greater extremes.

The book has been reissued this year to mark the fortieth anniversary of its original publication. The Guardian recently published an extract from the author’s introduction, in which Piercy both explains what she was trying to do when she created Mattapoisett—‘I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete’—and considers why fewer feminists today are inventing their own ideal fictional societies. Feminist utopias, she says,

were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.

The optimism of the early second wave was already beginning to fade by the time Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which is unequivocally a dystopia—not so much a call to imagine the ideal feminist future as a wake-up call focusing attention on some alarming developments in the present. Conservatism handmaidhad reasserted itself, with Ronald Reagan elected US president in 1980, and Atwood’s fictional Gilead dramatises the potential consequences of a related political phenomenon, the rise of a militant right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Some of the women who put The Handmaid’s Tale on their lists commented that its dystopian vision seemed even more relevant now than it had been in the 1980s. And indeed, you can’t help feeling that the newly-elected Vice-President of the US would be very much at home in Gilead.

A similar prescience can be discerned in the British writer Zoe Fairbairns’s dystopia Benefits, which imagines a patriarchal government using the machinery of the welfare state to keep women in their place. The book was published in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. It’s not as well-known as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s equally revealing about the mood of the 1980s (and spookily on the money about a lot of what’s happened since).

Feminist utopian fiction was particularly popular during the years of the Anglo-American second wave, but women’s desire to imagine a better world has both a longer history and a wider reach. 51pb9nrvgtl-_sx320_bo1204203200_The tradition begins as early as 1666, with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, in which utopia is ruled by an empress who uses her power to promote peace, tolerance and equality. And not all examples come from Europe and North America: in 1905 (a full decade before Herland), the Bengali writer and social reformer Rokheya Sakhawat Hossein published ‘Sultana’s Dream’, a story set in ‘Ladyland’, which is ruled by women 512huudm8xl-_sx331_bo1204203200_while men are kept in purdah (as one woman explains to a visitor: ‘men, we find, are of rather low morals, and so we do not like dealing with them’).

I expected some women to include some of these books among their favourite second-wave novels, but I’ll admit to being surprised that the two most frequently-mentioned titles were both in the utopia/dystopia category. Evidently they did make a deep impression, and I think Marge Piercy is right about why: one woman who remembered devouring vast quantities of feminist sci-fi said she loved it for ‘that sense that things could be different’. Since visions of the future are always shaped by the author’s present, a lot of the books I’ve mentioned seem dated now; but the best of them still have the power to draw you into their worlds, and to make you think differently about your own.

Postscript: thanks to all the women who answered my question about what feminist fiction had been important to them. FYI here’s a full list of the ten most frequently mentioned titles.

  1. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  4. Margaret Drabble, The Millstone (1965)
  5. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)
  6. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
  7. Kate Millett, Sita (1977)
  8. Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (published in Arabic in 1975, and in English in 1983)
  9. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962)
  10. Marilyn French, The Woman’s Room (1977)

Patriarchy and capitalism: re-reading the debate

In this guest post Teresa Green revisits the arguments made by socialist and radical feminists about the nature of women’s oppression, and considers their relevance for feminists today. 

Histories of the second wave often distinguish between radical feminist political currents that gave primacy to sex-based oppression, and Marxist or socialist currents that put class antagonism first. However, it wasn’t always as polarized as this implies. Socialist feminists like Zillah Eisenstein argued that the oppressive structures of capitalism and patriarchy should be analysed as mutually reinforcing, with neither taking priority over the other. Capitalism reinforces male supremacy, and male supremacy serves the interests of capitalism (which benefits both directly from the undervaluing of women’s paid labour and indirectly from their unpaid domestic and caring labour).

But as Christine Delphy pointed out, this kind of analysis does not tell us everything about women’s situation as an oppressed class. The male wage labourer and the unwaged housewife are not in the same position. While the working man depends on the market, the housewife is dependent on an individual man. As a wage earner he can increase his earnings by doing more work or a different kind of work. By contrast,

The services which a married woman provides…are not fixed: they depend on the will of the employer, the husband… the support furnished does not depend on the work done by the wife, but on the wealth and good will of her husband.

That a woman doesn’t simply become a member of her husband’s class on marriage is made obvious by looking at what happens after divorce; more often than not, women’s financial position deteriorates sharply, while men’s wealth tends to increase. Roxanne Dunbar made the same point in 1970:

For women who are supported by and gain the status of their husbands, working class status is always a potential threat, if they do not perform their wifely duties properly.

These arguments about women’s position as economically dependent housewives might seem outdated in an era when far more married women work for wages outside the home. But the social theorist Ulrich Beck argues that the traditional gender system has shaped the current form of capitalism. Wage labour presupposes unpaid housework. The standard ‘working day’ presupposes that someone is at home filling the gap between wages and food on the table; it is, roughly, the number of hours that one can work so long as someone else is at home cooking, cleaning, and looking after the kids (for free). And crisis results, according to Beck, when this working standard is extended to women as well as men.

Where men and women have to and want to lead an economically independent existence, this can occur neither in the traditional role assignments of the nuclear family, nor in the institutional structures of professional work, social laws, city planning, schools, and so on, which presuppose precisely the traditional image of the nuclear family with its gender status foundations.

Many countries have tried to mitigate the results of the crisis by offering parents more leave, more nursery school places (at the cost of a chunk of their income) or more ‘part-time’ and ‘flexible’ work (at the cost of a chunk of their income). But these solutions fail to recognise the fundamental point that ‘full time’ work assumes inequality. The structure of capitalism rests on this division, and that structure itself has to be tackled. As Beck says, ‘The equality of men and women cannot be accomplished through the institutional structures that are connected by design to inequality’. The structure of the working day under capitalism needs re-working precisely because it both rests on and reinforces inequality between men and women.

Does this mean socialist feminism is the way forward? Maybe not: according to Catharine MacKinnon:

Most attempts at synthesis [between feminism and Marxism] attempt to integrate or explain the appeal of feminism by incorporating issues feminism identifies as central—the family, housework, sexuality, reproduction, socialization, personal life—within an essentially unchanged Marxian analysis.

Women’s liberation becomes an aspect of the class struggle, and women are reduced to categories like ‘women workers’ or simply ‘the family’.

MacKinnon also notes that sexuality is treated as if there was no difference in its social meaning for men and women. We might be able to analyse women’s sexual objectification, or rape culture, through a socialist feminist lens, arguing that these phenomena reinforce heterosexuality and the nuclear family and so help to reproduce the primary unit for consumption. However, this kind of analysis abstracts away from the fact that the primary beneficiaries are the men who consume women’s bodies.

Women’s oppression is located not just in the structure of institutions, but in their everyday interactions with men. Emphasizing the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy interact risks shifting the focus too much onto institutions, with too little attention to men’s behaviour. So, while socialist feminist critique is necessary in tackling certain areas of women’s oppression, in other areas I think we need to recognise that the problem is primarily misogyny, reinforced by capitalism or otherwise.