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 Movements [WLM] of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and their legacies for social movement inspired creative industries today.

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

It examines how 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 unearths 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 magazine Spare Rib, through a pioneering digital map showing a coast-to-coast network of feminist traders, readers and centres.
  • A 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.

The research brings 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.

The Business of Women’s Words also explores 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.

Twitter: @BoWWords

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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 […]

  3. […] reminded of the project I worked on last year, on the relationship between purpose and profit and feminist publishing, and email my former colleagues with snaps of Effe‘s front page from February […]

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