Currently reading : SPARE RIB: WOMEN’S LIBERATION IN THE UNDERGROUND PRESS
By Julie Bréthous
“For the first time in history, youth had the money and the means to create a culture they could label as their own” – Marsha Rowe, creator of Spare RIB
As society navigated through the 60s, youth culture evolved, finding necessary to express its discontentment towards a white dominated mainstream society that had by too many times showed its flaws. Reflecting on emancipation, the nascent counter-culture of the hippie movement and progressive politic waves of the era, the youth quickly needed a platform to convey its messages, which was found in the NÂ°1 resources for news of the era: the press. The term ‘Underground Press’ was therefore coined to these new types of magazines, not to suggest they were illegal, but to stress out that all these publications stood at the fringe of mainstream press – if not against it. By the end of the decade, 92 publications were to be found in the US, and 89 in Europe. Oz (founded by Richard Neville) was the former Australian, later British, colourful alternative publication that would see Marsha Rowe make her entrance in this peculiar universe. However, her experience at Vogue Australia, as well as her frustration in working in the (so far) male-dominated world of the underground press sparked her will to build a publication that would be created by women, for women: Spare RIB.
Launched on June, 19th 1972, the roots of Spare RIB laid in the Women’s Liberation Movement, which itself started in the US in 1967. At the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, Jo Freeman and Shulamith Firestone found themselves denied the right to a floor discussion by director William F. Pepper : “Move on little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women’s liberation”. This sparked new discussions on feminism throughout the US, notably with Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Group, whose debates would quickly be embraced all over the country and in the western world, especially in the UK which had itself a strong history in feminism. In 1970, the first Women’s Liberation Conference held at the Ruskin College in Oxford, attended by no less than 500 women, laid out the principles of second wave feminism that would notably work on equal pay, equal job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, as well as 24hrs nurseries. These ideas would nurture the creation of Spare RIB, two years later.
Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott founded Spare RIB in 1972 in order to develop a language out of the oppressive standards of the patriarchal society that was denying them equality:
‘We intended no less than to take on the culture of the whole western world. Finding a new language for both image and word to establish women’s changing identity’ Marsha Rowe
Asking right from its first monthly issues ‘what is a liberated woman?’ the publication intended to put the voices of women, of its readers, as the backbone of its discourse. Going opposite from the regular press that would always assume women’s issues were related either to fashion, food or pleasing your man (for the most daring), Spare RIB would permanently be cautious about addressing their reader’s concerns. Always asking them what these were (news, politics, science, health, law, education…), everything women felt interested in would be covered.
‘Spare RIB will be the first national women’s magazine to aim at achieving collective, realistic solutions to women’s problems, to involve women is discussing how we can contribute originally and effectively to society and consciously avoid being elitist and thereby alienating. We do not believe we can do this by pushing a strongly political line, by discussing the obscure dialectic of liberation, or by necessarily avoiding humour’ Spare RIB Manifesto – excerpt
This led the magazine to permanently reassess itself: little after their first year, a full re-organisation was implemented. After 18 issues led by a team organised in a classical hierarchy, Spare RIB’s contributors felt that this structure was the mirror of the very society they were trying to escape from. As such, they decided to break these classical codes and work as a collective, where each participant’s voice would be considered equal, and have and equal weight in the decision making progress.
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
This concept would quickly become central in the building of each issue of the magazine. Its first appearance is to be found in Notes from the Second Year: Women Liberation (1970)’s article ‘The Personal is Political’ by Carol Hanisch. Becoming the core of second wave feminism, it underscores the connections between personal experience and larger political and social structures:
‘One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There is no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution’ Carol Hanisch
If this had been rooted in Spare RIB’s values since its creation, the magazine went to another level of feminism’s understanding by the early 80s, when the domination of white women within the movement and in the editorial team was being questioned. Racism became one of the major topics of this new decade, as the magazine tried to understand to which extent a small group of women could be allowed to talk about one other’s living experience. As such, issue 127 asked ‘how do we create solidarity’ out of women’s differences? The collective was keen on growing out of its own member’s different values and views on the world and feminism, but this was going to be at the cost of numerous arguments that would tear the members of Spare RIB apart… to ultimately make them stronger.
At the heart of the magazine’s permanent discussion on power and reassessment of domination lies the idea of ownership of the body, which would be thoroughly discussed through the 20 years of its existence. Born out of the sexual revolution, Spare RIB was always keen on giving back to women the body that had forever been possessed by men. Whether challenging the realm of the ‘family’ – where the role of women was limited to those of a wife and mother – or in the 70s on criticizing a culture where the nude was being used as a commercial tool – their idea was to insure that new kinds of oppression were not perpetuated within the pages of the magazine.
SPARE RIB: MAIN ISSUES
As mentioned beforehand, many themes were to be encountered in the pages of the magazine. From everyday make-up and hair routine, to major cultural news, nothing would have been spared by the collective.
However, some issues stayed central;
The representation of women within the creative industry led to numerous articles regarding female musicians. Desperately labelling bands including girls as ‘girl band’, ‘girl-fronted’… mainstream journalists tended to make the female performer an oddity, somebody to look at not as just an artist, but as a female artist. Spare RIB therefore tried to develop new ways of talking about musicians, and wondered many times how bands could perform in a non-sexist way, going out of the traditional gendered performances of the milieu.
Photography was also a major concern of the editorial team, who was very keen on developing new ways of representing women out of the stereotypes of the housewife or sex object. Focusing on the female experience to create them, the photography in Spare RIP wanted to make women’s concerns visible, and framed outside of the male gaze. The many efforts made by the photographers led to the creation of Format, an agency founded by contributors of the magazine in order to promote women’s photography.
Sex and sexuality were always addressed through ‘consciousness raising groups’ organised by the collective in order for women to share personal experience. This helped Spare RIB understanding that their readers had many more stories in common that they would have thought and therefore encouraged women to stop only relying on male doctors to know about their bodies but to trust themselves and the power of dialogue with their peers instead. Spare RIB was encouraging women to take control over their sexuality, to understand their body, in order to reclaim it and fully experience its many pleasures.
‘Wild laughter, solidarity, and empathy helped to negotiate this difficult pathway, whether loving men or loving women, or declining both. Whatever anyone else says, in the Spare RIB days feminists were deadly serious and uproariously funny. They refused unwanted sex. They were consumed with desire. They embraced sex. They revelled in their sexuality and cried in the night when things got tough. All these were in often in flux.’ Sue O’Sullivan, Spare RIB contributor.
But talking about sexuality also meant addressing the difficult topics that are domestic abuse, murder (notably of prostitutes) and rape. Spare RIB never shied away, believing in the power of education and raising one’s consciousness. They would never have encouraged women to change their behaviour to prevent a specific situation. Instead they showed them how to fight ignorance and give a voice to victims in a society where ‘rape culture’ is prominent. The relentless fight of British feminists on the matter notably led to the implementation of a law in 1991 making it illegal for a man to rape his wife in England and Wales.
Spare RIB’s concerns also lied in getting women out of the family scheme as it was constructed during the 50s and early 60s: a place where the patriarch would work and take care of the financial aspects of life while the mother would be imprisoned in between the walls of her home, made to live for her children. The magazine contributed to the feminist claim that the home should not be seen as women’s natural habitat, and therefore actively sought to make people understand that child-care was central to the obtaining of equality. Spare RIB fought for nurseries to be implemented on a 24hrs basis, in order to rid women of the guilt of ‘not taking care’ of their child, and fought for the argument that parents should not be the only references in a child life in order to give them more freedom and the variety of experiences necessary to open its mind and broaden its opinions.
For more than twenty years, Spare RIB has been a wonderful experience for all of its contributors, an eye opener and a companion for its readers. The magazine closely followed the revolutions ongoing in our society and embraced them, without forgetting to be critical towards them, and most importantly towards itself. It knew how to reassess itself, and tried its hardest never to be judgmental, by embracing all of its reader’s points of view. The legacy of Space RIB is still wonderful, not only thanks to the achievements these women have done in their times, but because flipping through its pages (available on the British Library online archives) reminds us how modern all these issues still are, and that the fight for gender equality is, today more than ever, necessary.