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 readers.page-1 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.