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The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing

Early promotional poster for Virago Press, c. 1975 - by kind permission of Virago Press

The dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement [WLM] of the 1970s and 80s will be told in a major new research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The challenge of achieving profit with purpose will offer unique insights.

The study will look at the contrasting histories and fortunes of Virago Press and Spare Rib and will explore 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.

This groundbreaking account of feminist enterprise and business will be led by Dr Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies in the School of Media and Film and Music at the University of Sussex, Dr Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History at the University of Cambridge and Dr Polly Russell, Lead Curator of Contemporary Politics and Public Life at the British Library. Research Fellows Zoe Strimpel and D-M Withers bring further expertise in feminist and women’s history and culture.

They 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 (bl.uk/spare-rib).
  • The BL’s extraordinarily rich oral history archive of writers, publishers, editors and book traders as well as Women’s Liberation Movement activists.

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.

By focusing on two iconic examples of feminist publishing it will highlight varying approaches to feminist business, and 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.

It 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.

The project will be advised by ethical industry and philanthropic specialists interested in gender, as well as feminist academics and movement participants. This will provide new histories of how political and ethical stances can be reconciled with business practice. It adds an alternative feminist dimension to existing accounts of ‘ethical capitalism’, which have focused on ‘fairtrade’ and justice for developing countries.

The partnership with the British Library will also enable exceptional new public resources, including an interactive map of the WLM using the listings pages of Spare Rib and a learning resource for secondary school students about the history of feminist cultural production.

PI Margaretta Jolly, who leads Cultural and Creative Industries at Sussex, says: “We will benefit from generous funding from The Leverhulme Trust to dig deep and unearth the hidden history of feminist cultural enterprise.

“There has been too little attention given to commerce and business practices within feminism of this period, despite the women’s movement’s commitment to transform both labour relations and cultural representation. Virago Press and Spare Rib – and the many other innovative publishing ventures of the period – dramatically illuminate the dilemmas faced by feminists then and now over how to work within market structures, and challenge or repurpose them for feminist goals.”

CI Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History at the University of Cambridge, says: “We will break new ground in connecting UK feminism with a search for ethical business practice, and help inform contemporary attempts to press for cultural change and equality while also running viable businesses.

“Mapping these creative initiatives in relationship to each other will also bring into focus the richness of the feminist publishing world – its alternative bookshops and bookfairs, pamphlets, posters and badgemaking, and an extraordinary range of periodicals.”

For more information visit www.bl/spare-rib  and www.bl.sisterhood

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By: Rose Tremlett
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2018

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