Molly Gorman outlines the legacy of Spare Rib, a Feminist Journal published in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Spare Rib was a hugely successful feminist journal, attracting, at its peak, 30,000 readers a month. The journal was founded by Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, arising out of
second-wave feminism, with its first issue published in 1972. The magazine sought to provide a safe outlet for the discussion of issues that dominated women’s lives, empowering the female presence and shaping new gender narratives in the cultural sphere. Most importantly, the magazine challenged the established gender stereotypes which confined women to the home.
The magazine ceased to be published at the end of the 1990s due to financial reasons. Some writers have also felt that near the end they also lost touch with the women who called themselves feminists. The Women’s Liberation Movement was in demise – their once-potent influence was becoming weak and the magazine was struggling to attract readers. Fewer women felt that they belonged to a movement, and it became clear that a new strand of feminism was needed. However, as of 2015, it has been digitised as part of a project by the British Library and is now accessible online. As the largest circulated feminist Magazine of the time, and as their Letters Pages indicate, women greatly appreciated the sense of Community Spare Rib created.
I came to Spare Rib while doing my research for my dissertation on cultural representations of anorexia in women from the 1970s to the 1990s, and found myself attracted to other articles which could interest and even help modern feminists. The writing often revolved around helping and encouraging women who were facing problems – subjects covered included abortion, contraception, rape, eating disorders, depression, political rights, the pay gap and misogyny in the workplace. Although these articles were written in the late twentieth century, and are framed in the second-wave context of the time, the scope and purpose of the writing is no less relevant to what a lot of women experience today.
Women’s mental health was a big focus for Spare Rib. Due to the neglect of female mental health in the public sphere, Spare Rib began to challenge the idea that women’s mental health issues were products of their failure to accept their ‘defined’ position of domestication and subjugation. When facing mental health issues today, people often feel daunted by the prospect of approaching medical professionals for help. Spare Rib offers relatable content that helps women come to terms with the feelings they may be experiencing, and advice on how to initiate recovery. In May 1983, Ruth Elizabeth published a piece about her personal experience with depression following pressures to exceed at school – a concern relevant to many twenty-first century young people. Elizabeth argues that women need to collectively examine the ‘vulnerable’ parts of themselves in order to find words for their emotions, and effectively explore where their feelings come from. This allows us to understand and help each other, and create positive relationships with others and with ourselves.
Abortion was also often discussed in Spare Rib, as women began to gain control of their bodies from patriarchal politics, medical professionals, and religious ethics. The magazine offered advice, information, and first-hand accounts from women who had been through abortions themselves. One account, describing a single woman’s abortion in 1976, concluded that her decision had changed her life for the better. She believed she had learnt a lot about herself from having to ‘cope with it alone’, realised her need to take control of her own life before considering having children. For anyone considering abortion today, this detailed account offers a source of courage and reassurance that could help them come to a decision.
There are now a number of forums online that enable discussion about these kinds of
experiences. Nonetheless, Spare Rib offers a particular sense of reliability, courage and
strength, as well as showing how the Women’s Liberation Movement played a crucial role in encouraging women to address, voice and challenge prevailing stigmas surrounding their health. We can be inspired by women who struggled with these problems in a tougher social climate and campaigned for many of our rights, and we can learn from their experiences. Spare Rib opened various dialogues surrounding issues intrinsic to women, their rights and their bodies, that aided women’s wellbeing. However, it’s important also to remember that since Spare Rib, feminism has advanced to adopt a multifaceted, inclusive and intersectional outlook. Spare Rib was very much a product of its time, and its writers and audience consisted primarily of white, middle class and heterosexual women, meaning it faces limitations in a modern feminist context.
Ultimately Spare Rib is still valuable. Its sensitive approach to issues that were deemed
unspeakable for women in public remains a model to be emulated. Women today may still feel comforted by the stories shared and therefore feel more confident in approaching the right people for help. By learning about the experiences of these women in the not-so-distant past, the feminist community today can continue to appreciate open discourse whereby we can communicate with and support one another.
Illustrations by Rivka Cocker.