The Virago Story – an interview with Catherine Riley

Earlier in the summer D-M caught up with Catherine Riley whose new book The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon was published this year by Berghahn Books.
Read more ›

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Virago

Feminist Book Fortnight 1984 and 2018: An interview with Jane Anger

Jane Anger is a feminist who has worked in the booktrade for 40 years. She helped found the legendary Silver Moon Bookshop and was an early member of Women in Publishing, a feminist network for women in the book business. This year she is coordinating the revival of an iconic initiative of the 1980s, Feminist Book Fortnight. As she explains:

During the early 80s lots of us within the publishing, bookselling and library worlds worked to counter rampant sexism within our spheres of work and to achieve greater diversity within the trade, whether that was challenging sexist recruitment practices or increasing diversity within children’s books.

Key to that was a network whereby women at Sisterwrite, Compendium and other bookshops worked together to organise the trade-wide Feminist Book Fortnights following the success of the first International Feminist Book Fair in 1984, instigated by Carole Spedding.

BOWW: Why did you feel it important to relaunch FBF? 

Flier for Feminist Book Fortnight 16-30 June 2018At Five Leaves bookshop in Nottingham, where I now work, we noticed a resurgence of interest from customers of all ages, but particularly young people, in feminist issues and books, starting two-three years ago. Critically we also felt that we were facing some of the same issues as in the 80s: lack of diversity of all kinds in children’s books, lack of publishing of women’s books (the VIDA stats bear this out and they also highlight the biases in reviewing – men’s books get reviewed more; women writers reported that they are more likely to get published if they have a male protagonist and so on). So, we chuntered to ourselves, why was there less feminist publishing than in the 80s despite, in technical terms, it never being easier to publish a book?

I puzzled over this with Ross, the owner of Five Leaves, and with feminist friends who had worked in both Sisterwrite and Compendium. So in 2017 Five Leaves organised a day school in Nottingham called Feminist Publishing: Then, Now and In the Future. Some of us laid out copies of feminist books from our personal collections, just to show the very diverse range of books published in the 80s by and about women. After this event Ross and myself discussed relaunching Feminist Book Fortnight. We would not centrally organise events (that would be up to each shop) but we would set it up, provide a website and social media sites, some posters to each shop and the admin to run this side of it.  We’d try it and see how it went.

BOWW: Is the Feminist Book Fortnight aiming to reach new audiences? If so, how?

It’s more a case of connecting audiences. We are finding in the shop, like everywhere, that young people, particularly young feminists, are very active (recent protests against sexual harassment for example).  Young feminists are writing but they are also rediscovering some of the classics, such as by Audre Lorde, recently republished by Silver Press). In addition, there is a widespread debate on social media in terms of who does or doesn’t get published, and reviewed, whether that is women, BAME writers, writers from the North or working-class writers. We wanted to provide a bookshop-based forum in which to continue the diversity debate and to intervene in that debate. We also wanted to generate that intervention from outside London. Basically, we want to keep the pressure on publishers to publish more diversely.

BOWW: Why is there a resurgence of interest in feminism? How different is it to other periods of women’s liberation activism?

This is a personal view – I think the recent stuff around the Harvey Weinstein case, the election of Trump and all he stands for, the surprise rise of Corbyn, as well as the state of UK politics have not only politicised a huge number of young people but have also shone a very bright light on issues of inequality. Whilst the backlash after the 80s sought to kid everyone that ‘we’re all equal now’ this so-called mainstreaming of equality issues has been shown to be a charade and a tick box exercise. Multiple inequalities across intersectional boundaries are being exposed and more understood. The articulation of intersectionalities within the general debate is probably new but it was always understood by, for example, black feminists.

BOWW: Are men interested in contemporary feminism?

Yes. Some. They can speak for themselves.

BOWW: How does the world of digital feminism relate to bookselling?

I’m too busy reading books to read much of the on-line stuff, although I keep in touch with what’s around. Ask someone younger! E.g. the women at Silver Press or 404Ink.

BOWW: What is the place of magazines and pamphlets in feminist bookselling today?

I’m not sure. We do not sell any feminist pamphlets at Five Leaves and few magazines. Perhaps of more importance is social media… feminist blogs, issue based campaigns etc.

BOWW: What has enabled radical and feminist bookselling to survive the economic downturn and online competition in contemporary Britain?

Most of the many radical shops from the 80s did not survive. (The two feminist bookshops, Silver Moon and Sisterwrite are no longer with us.) There are a few notable exceptions. Those that were around at the financial downturn have mostly thrived and experienced an increase in interest and sales in contrast to the corporate retail high street. The sale of e-books plateaued about 3 years ago and since then print sales have increased at a faster rate than e-books.

The book trade generally has made great efforts to campaign around the advantages and pleasures of browsing and buying from real bookshops and of buying local. Many of our customers are active boycotters of Amazon for reasons that we all know about: poor employment practices and treatment of their workers, poor record on paying appropriate levels of tax, poor service. Bookshops, especially independent non-chain bookshops have got better at fast service (we can get most books next day) and are good at responding to the needs within their local area.

BOWW: Would you object to chain, mass market or franchise bookshops promoting Feminist Book Fortnight? (Waterstones, recently sold to new hedgefund-supported owners, for example.)

Anyone who wants to promote feminist books can do so. This particular campaign is aimed at and resourced by small independent bookshops with no massive funds or organisation behind them.  In the past it was the small and independent publishers and bookshops that did the ‘heavy lifting’ on diversity issues in publishing. That absolutely remains the case today.  Furthermore, these independents ‘do diversity’ all year round, not just when there’s a campaign. Chain bookshops get far preferable terms from publishers than independent bookshops despite the ‘indies’ often selling more copies of a title than the chains. Having said that, all actual bricks and mortar bookshops are valuable assets to their communities and we get on well with our neighbours at Waterstones. If they want to organise a campaign they are welcome to do so.

BOWW: Is FBF costly to organise and run? What resources are available to you or others to support it?

We set this up to run as cheaply as possible, but it is not without cost to Five Leaves. Staff at the shop have set up the website, the Facebook page and the Twitter account. Five Leaves pays for my labour in co-ordinating the information to and from the participating bookshops and press enquiries and that is probably averaging out at a day a week.  Five Leaves will also send two free generic posters for FBF to each shop. The owner of Five Leaves offered to meet these costs in the interests of running the fortnight.

BOWW: Does your bookshop support any other publishing calendar events: how useful are they?

Five Leaves runs between 80 and 90 of its own events a year. We have a reputation for innovative book-related events. Many are unlikely to appear elsewhere. These can range from poetry readings, through political discussions to discussions on autism to book groups to fiction readings. We don’t tend to hook in to big author tours; we’re more interested in having interesting discussions within our multigenerational audiences. In addition, we programme the last day of the Lowdham Book Festival.  We run our own Bread and Roses Festival in Nottingham and last year initiated Nottingham’s own Radical Book Fair.

BOWW: The original FBF used to pick a ‘top twenty’ feminist book list. Is there any similar promotional idea now? Have you had any discussions with authors about selection, and the challenges?

No. This would have been too big a job with huge costs.  In addition, there are too many ‘top’ lists around and we prefer the idea of each shop organising its own displays and events.

BOWW: What are your top picks for feminist books you hope we’ll read and buy in June? 

The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write edited by Sabrina Mahfouz

Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

The Production of Money: How to Break the Power of the Bankers by Ann Pettifor

The Inking Woman: 250 Years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain edited by Cath Tate and Nicola Streeten

Your Silence with Not Protect You by Audre Lorde

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini

Also, see books mentioned here, especially the children’s books:

BOWW: Are there any particularly genres you think are popular in feminist reading circles today – have they changed since the 1980s? How do you manage the challenge of ‘packaging’ writers?

Not so much genres as areas of interest: Class, LGBT+, rediscovering black feminist writers, writing by popular younger feminists (eg Caitlin Moran).  Dystopian feminist fiction is having a moment. Performance poetry, often then published.

BOWW: What was the most memorable event of the original FBF for you personally?

The queues of women right down Charing Cross Road to meet Maya Angelou at Silver Moon.  Fabulous. This year, it has already been great to hear other booksellers cheering down the phone when I rang them to ask if they’d be interested in the idea.

BOWW: As a member of the early Women in Publishing group, do you think your subsequent career has been typical of feminist booksellers?

My career since the 80s has probably not been typical of feminist booksellers in that I managed to stay in bookselling. The loss of so many independent bookshops in the 90s and the drastic slashing of book shop staff in the chains in comparison to the 80s means that there are less jobs in bookselling. In addition, bookselling has always been a low paid retail job with very high expectations from customers in terms of knowledge. Bookshop staff are often lower paid than their retails counterparts in supermarkets for example.  Many people could not and cannot now afford to work in or stay in bookselling.

I stayed because I managed to gain and keep for over 10 years a job managing two academic bookshops for Leicester University which owned and ran its own bookshops, meaning that I was better paid then many colleagues in the non-university owned trade. (This is not true for academic chain booksellers, who pay their staff appallingly.) That University closed its last bookshop two years ago. I had already resigned by then, fed up with managerialist corporate culture (a not unusual view for others who ‘grew up’ in the radical trade, used to being able to think for themselves and having their opinions valued) and decided to take a drop in earnings to work part time at Five Leaves because it is a radical bookshop. Five Leaves is unusual in that the owner has always paid the Living Wage (higher than the National Minimum Wage). I am lucky in that currently this works for me.

However, many feminist booksellers did end up working in areas where they could also ‘make a difference’.

Jane’s longer story is recorded, with 29 others, in an important new oral history of Women in Publishing, upon which BOWW will be happily drawing in our research. We thank her and all the others involved for the inspirational revival of Feminist Book Fortnight.

The history of the first International Feminist Book Fair is recounted in BOWW researcher D-M Withers’s book The Feminist Revolution: the Struggle for Women’s Liberation. You can catch D-M in conversation with Sheila Rowbotham on 26 June at Arnolfini, Bristol in a special event organised for Feminist Book Fortnight.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Feminist Bookselling

‘Academic dyke, 25, feminist, non-scene, seeks similar’: Personal Ads in Spare Rib

Spare Rib – the iconic magazine of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, offered a small pleasure to readers looking for ‘love among the small ads’, despite its complex relationship to both advertising and romantic relationships. It started out with a minimal classified section and no personals (SR’s early classified pages ran to about half a page), but by the 1980s the classified section was a double-page spread, with ‘relationships’ the longest and – of course – the most eye-catching category.

The personals of 1970s and 1980s Britain enabled the public pursuit of new forms of relationality – same sex, casual, kink-led and non-monogamous arrangements, for instance. Spare Rib, with its mostly female, relatively radical readership, had an important role to play in this.  Over time Spare Rib’s personals emerged as a service exclusively used by and for bisexual and lesbian women. Unlike City Limits and Time Out, which saw numerous ads from men self-defining as feminist, seeking feminist women, Spare Rib came to run personal adverts by women for women only. In this it offered a highly unique service as a dedicated national, public, print-based forum for lesbians and bisexual women seeking romance or other bonds with women ­– possibly the first and, at the time, the only such forum in Britain.

Although it ran sexually progressive personals with their own coded grammars of queer sexuality (‘Academic dyke, 25, feminist, non-scene, seeks similar’ – SR204, August 1989, p. 62), Spare Rib also reflected the maturation of the business of late 20th century lonely hearts. Many ads deployed what had become fairly universal cadences of the 1980s single, stating professional standing, income, and hobbies/tastes. Sometimes the two modes – queer sexuality on one hand and something approaching the spirit of Thatcherism on the other – were combined to potent effect, as, for instance with a ‘lesbian feminist 34’ of ‘Scotland/London’: ‘Dynamic attractive energetic, solvent professional, witty, adventurous lesbian feminist, 34, seeks her equal’ (SR 185 Dec 1987).

Spare Rib was not always as lesbian-oriented as it became in the 1980s; and its early foray into the personals even included the odd advert from a man – a fact which could easily become politicised. One such advert, from 1974, yielded a particularly strong response from a reader who felt that Spare Rib was no space to promote men’s sexual appetites, since these could be construed as sexually oppressive to women.  Thus Marie Peyton, of Winchester, wrote in response to a man who had advertised for a younger woman that she felt ‘both extremely disgusted and depressed’ that SR had printed a personal from a man seeking a ‘sexual partner’ much younger than him. This had run counter to her expectations that Spare Rib offer women a ‘a new deal’ (SR 21, March 1974, p. 3). The reader went on to infer that if he’s retired ‘he will, at least, be 55 years, even assuming that he was allowed early retirement by his employer. The chances are 90-1 however that he is over 60. Why should a man of over 60 be encouraged to seek a women [sic] 20 to 25 years his junior in age, ie young enough to be his daughter?’ The reader noted that clinics were packed with depressed women over 40 who are considered ‘sexually finished’ and yet here was SR encouraging the circumstances leading to this state of affairs. She concluded by saying that she expected these kinds of ads to appear in magazines ‘like the National Advertiser and Time Out but I thought the purpose of your magazine was to clear people’s minds of the traditional prejudices against women, including middle-aged women, surely?’

Spare Rib actually offered a reply to this reader, showing that no detail or tension in its relationship to paid advertisements was too small for consideration.  ‘We agree that this advertisement helps to perpetuate the idea that women are finished after the age of 40, but’, it added somewhat gnomically, ‘[we] feel that it’s no use replacing one rule with a similar ’. Tensions around age and sex in men’s personals were not revisited as the adverts settled into a predominantly same-sex (female) register – the few adverts from men that did appear avoided parading such traditional sexual sensibilities.

Dating Agencies

Gayway and Matchmaker ads in SR 39

Spare Rib’s encounter with the world of personal advertising also featured an additional component that was more pronounced in the magazine’s earlier years – display ads from dating services, preceding in some cases the arrival of personal ads. Thus the classified section of SR10 (May 1973) had no personals, but it did include an advert for a matchmaker called Contacts Unlimited, which described itself as a ‘Dating Service that always pays personal attention to selecting dates that really appreciate you and your scene.’  Other matchmakers also seemed to fit sexually progressive orientation of the magazine, such as Genda and Gayway. Genda, presumably a play on an open-ended notion of ‘gender’, possibly fused with ‘agenda’, said it was ‘for sound dating’. It was also part of the rising tide of technologically-elevated services – in this case voice recordings. ‘No hang-ups,’ the Genda ad read. ‘You don’t have to SPEAK. Just listen to the tape. Hear the voices of others like you, looking for friendship’.  This technological innovation prefigured the 1980s and 1990s which witnessed the rise of video dating, and later the turn to digital platforms for dating services.

Others advertisers such as the well-established company Dateline, and to a lesser extent, the smaller-scale Matchmaker, were heteronormative or at best sexually neutral services. Despite their technologically advanced nimbleness in offering computerised matchmaking, these companies did not significantly innovate in their approach to fit the Spare Rib readership. Matchmaker placed small ads headlining the question, ‘Bored?’ Catering to a neo-liberal-style desire for instant gratification, the company promised to find readers ‘someone special right now’ as well as offering free horoscopes and free membership of a ‘travel and social club’ (e.g. SR 35, May 1975, inside cover). It also specified that it offered only ‘contacts of the opposite sex’. Dateline was owned by John Patterson, a libertarian Thatcherite with limited taste for the sexual politics and ‘excesses’ of ‘women’s lib’ (Strimpel 2017). The largest advert Dateline placed in Spare Rib, at half a page, ran with a banner that screamed, ‘WANTED: 1,000 Unmarried readers. Free computer test to find your perfect partner’ (SR 27, inside cover). Dateline, as I have reflected on elsewhere, was less interested in selling heteronormative sexuality than in selling its method. While it was clearly catering to singles keen on the traditional end of marriage (or at least who saw themselves as ‘unmarried’), it didn’t specify ‘opposite sex’ matching. Rather, Dateline was using the ‘great god computer’ to capitalise on new ‘modern’ discourses around psychology and personal growth: ‘using modern psychology, sociology and computer sciences, the computer will meticulously compare your personality profile with those of over 78,000 people, detail by detail’. (Strimpel 2017; SR 27, inside cover).

Spare Rib’s lack of appetite for such advertisers was made clear in page-settings such as that of SR27’s inside cover, when a no doubt costly half-page ad for Dateline was placed under none other than an ad for Lee Comer’s excoriation of the married state: her book Wedlocked Women.

It was Gayway dating service that had the strongest presence in Spare Rib from the start, paving the way for the distinctive character of the lesbian-centric personals that would feature in the 1980s. The personals brought together two disparate but interconnected themes in the business and content of Spare Rib: first, the commercial imperative to make money as ethically as possible, and second, the handling and – with possible revenue in mind – the mediating of romantic relationships. Romantic relationships and the numerous oppressions encoded within them were at the core of the women’s movement from the start, mostly in relation to men. By the time Spare Rib entered its middle phase in the 1980s, the frame had shifted, and so had the readership, towards a sexual culture that omitted men altogether.


Further reading

Harry Cocks (2004), ‘Peril in the Personals: The Dangers and Pleasures of Classified Advertising in Early Twentieth-Century Britain’, Media History, 10 (1), pp. 3-16: 1.

Harry Cocks, Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column (London: Random House, 2009)

John Cockburn, Lonely Hearts: Love Among the Small Ads (London: Guild, 1988)

Zoe Strimpel (2017), ‘Computer dating in the 1970s: Dateline and the making of the modern British single’, Contemporary British History (published online).

Zoe Strimpel (2017), ’In Solitary Pursuit: Singles, Sex War and the Search For Love, 1977-1983′, Cultural and Social History (online).





Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Spare Rib

Researching Feminist Business – D-M

The first women’s liberation movement (WLM) activist I interviewed was the proprietor of a small business. In 2009 I met Caroline Hutton who ran Women’s Revolutions Per Minute (WRPM) as a sole trader from the late 1970s-1990s.

Early in our interview I remember feeling a bit surprised when Hutton talked about the feminist music distribution company as a business.

Now, this may strike the reader as an admission of my startling ignorance about the ‘real world’. Yet it is worth stopping to consider why I could assume the WRPM was something other than a business.

Margaretta Jolly outlines in Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement: 1968-present, her forthcoming study of feminism and everyday life, that the prevailing common sense about the UK women’s liberation movement is that business, quite simply, had nothing to do with it.

Protests? Yes. Anti-capitalist sentiments? Certainly. But business? This seems almost totally at odds with the ethos of a revolutionary social movement that prided itself on resistance to economic, social and cultural injustices, doesn’t it?

It is, undoubtedly, anachronistic to view the enormous range of cultural, economic and social experiments generated within the WLM as ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘enterprises’ or ‘businesses’ within the terms of today’s common sense. In 2018 these economic and social practices have been indelibly shaped through the interlocking forces of Thatcherism, neoliberalism, the New Right, the New Left, globalisation, financialisation and digitalisation.

Yet, as Jolly notes, we need only look askance at the archives of the WLM to find that ‘business elements’, as well as actual businesses, shaped a range of social, economic and cultural projects created within and around the movement. [1]

These ‘elements’ were incredibly diverse, but are all the outcome of women’s increased access to, and participation in, public life from the 1970s onwards.

The social worlds that emerged around women’s activisms in the 1970s and 1980s teem with examples of how women gained access to technical and economic knowledge which they used to reconfigure the organisation of society. These ‘enterprises’ ranged in size and purpose, from small group empowerment to international trade and exchange. Yet an ethos permeated throughout: a desire to change society and women’s place within it.

Some set up women-centred building companies like Barbara Jones’s Straw Works, or manual and technical labour training services, like the East Leeds Women’s Workshop which equipped working class, Black, Asian and disabled women with skills they could subsequently use in the labour market. Others, like Fakenham Enterprises, were one of many Worker Co-operatives established to resist redundancy amid the industrial crises that hit Britain in the early 1970s. With an all women workforce, the action at Fakenham sparked the imagination of WLM activists, who expressed their solidarity in awareness raising films made by the London Women’s Film Group or by ordering products made in the factory.

There was also the See Red Women’s Workshop, a collectively run silk-screen printing business that produced many iconic and eye-catching feminist posters. More modestly, members of the Fabulous Dirt Sisters took advantage of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, introduced in 1981 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to support small businesses, to sustain their musical careers. And, of course, there were the numerous businesses engaged with producing women’s words for the marketplace – Sheba Feminist Press, Outwrite, Onlywomen Press – that form the central focus of our new research project.

Economic, cultural and social independence

The question of women’s economic, social and cultural independence was rigorously scrutinised within the WLM. These concerns were enshrined in the movement’s 5th demand – Legal and Financial Independence for All Women – and the ‘YBA Wife’ campaigns that accompanied it.

Why did such issues become the focus of feminist activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s? This was a historical moment shaped by a cluster of legal and technological changes that increased the possibility of women’s social independence. The contraceptive pill enabled women to decide when and if they were to have children – a genuine historical first – and changes to marriage and divorce laws made it easier for couples to separate if a relationship was unsatisfying at best, abusive at worst.

Nevertheless, these legal and social changes unfolded within a society that was rigidly structured by cultural attitudes embedded in the post-War welfare regime. At the core of the Beveridge Report – currently the subject of some reflection as we mark 75 years since its publication – were some undeniably conservative ideas. To summarise broadly: the ideal, economically productive household unit was to be a couple with a main ‘breadwinner’ (normally the man) who would have a partner that stays at home to raise children (normally the woman). She might work part-time but will not depend on her own wages. She did not need to, the logic followed, because everything was to be provided by her male partner.

In the late 1960s – and arguably still today – the labour market was structured by the assumption that women are economically dependent on men. While it became practically possible for women to make more exact reproductive choices and leave marriages and retain a degree of financial independence, substantial social mobility was difficult because the labour market offered little more than part-time or low-waged, full-time work.

In response to these constraints, activists in and around the women’s liberation movement not only fought for equal pay for work of equal value – important as this was. They also created numerous opportunities for women to assert and seize cultural, social, technological and, yes, economic independence.

By working together and establishing independent ventures, women bypassed some of the restrictions that arise when working for someone else – in this case ‘the Man’ in its totemic, patriarchal sense – whose structures offered nothing but the shoddy terms and conditions of de-skilled, low waged work, and female economic dependency.

The specific ways activists experimented with organisational practices to realise economic self-determination is one of the many questions we will explore in our new research project, The Business of Women’s Words. Ostensibly focused on the iconic cultural institutions of the WLM – Virago and Spare Rib – our enquiries will be situated within the structural and everyday economic realities activists and business women struggled against, and sought to transform.

We are likely to be challenged and surprised by what we encounter, much as I was when I spoke with Hutton, nearly a decade ago.


[1] Margaretta Jolly (2019) Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement: 1968-present, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Feminist Business

Sign up to The Business of Women's Words mailing list

* = required field

powered by MailChimp!