The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing (BOWW) explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement [WLM] of the 1970s and 80s.

This three-year research project (2018-2021), generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust, looks at the contrasting histories and fortunes of Virago Press and Spare Rib.

It examines how WLM activists called upon cultural and creative business activities to help promote their aims despite feminists’ general antipathy and sometimes hostility to capitalist methods and ideologies.

The research will unearth activists’ efforts to infuse purpose with profit and to reconcile business and financial imperatives with political, artistic and egalitarian commitments, bringing life to archival treasures at The British Library, including:

  • The Virago archive, containing materials relating to the business of publishing and major women’s writers from Antonia White to Maya Angelou.
  • The recently digitised archive of Spare Rib, which offers unprecedented research potential, and valuable essays locating the magazine in its wider political and historical context.
  • The BL’s extraordinarily rich oral history archive of writers, publishers, editors and book traders as well as Women’s Liberation Movement activists.

Postcard with hand drawn design of the Virago Bookshop, 1985, by kind permission of Virago Press.

Looking beyond the particular stories of Virago and Spare Rib, the research will bring fresh perspectives to the history of feminism, which has previously focused on identities and campaigns, by considering the ways that feminists’ ethical and socialist economic strategies related to creative and entrepreneurial successes.

These two iconic examples of feminist publishing highlight varying approaches to feminist business, which had dramatically contrasting outcomes: Virago has survived, but now operates under the umbrella of Little, Brown & Co; Spare Rib ceased publication in 1993, but its reputation as the longest-running, best-loved feminist magazine is gaining new life online.

The Business of Women’s Words will also explore the business investments and state support behind feminist cultural production and the hidden role of personal and private income, transnational networking, collective ‘crowd sourcing’, unpaid time, labour and care.


Throughout the project, members of the research team will be writing blog articles offering initial interpretations of our research about the business of women’s words.

The blog will also announce details of public engagement events we are planning, so be sure to visit it while you are here.

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  1. […] of digitising Spare Rib magazine in 2015, her ongoing work with academic partners on the Business of Women’s Words project and her role as lead curator for a forthcoming exhibition on the evolution of women’s […]

  2. […] charts UK feminist activism and entrepreneurship across the 1970s-80s. The map was developed by the Business of Women’s Words research team, led by member Professor Margaretta Jolly (University of Sussex), in partnership with […]

BOWW explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s.

© Michael Ann Mullen

Project Partners

University of Sussex

University of Sussex

British Library

British Library

University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

Funded by

Leverhulme Trust

everhulme Trust

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