Changing perspectives and new ideologies

Changing perspectives and new ideologies

Spare Rib documented the evolution of the women’s movement and represented the views of feminists of various ‘strands’. What did it mean to be a radical feminist, or a social feminist in 1980s Britain? And why did feminist ideology split around this time?

Towards the end of the 1970s, the social, cultural and political climate in Britain was shifting. The early optimism of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) gave way to fragmentation and the Movement as a coherent organised entity was now in decline. In spite of this, Spare Rib was firmly established as the voice of feminism and went on to document some key developments in the Movement over the ensuing decade.

The Women’s Liberation Movement had always been characterised by many different viewpoints, or ‘strands’ of feminism. Broadly, socialist feminists saw the oppression of women as part of a larger pattern of exploitation of labour that affects everyone involved in the capitalist system.  They emphasised that capital social relations and the state maintain and perpetuate women’s oppression and that women’s liberation was tied in with that of other oppressed people, including men.

Radical feminists saw patriarchy and male supremacism as the problem. They wanted to overthrow patriarchy by opposing gender stereotypes and challenging the patriarchal basis of social and political structures. Until patriarchy was ended, they argued, women would not be liberated.  Although radical feminists opposed patriarchy, they weren’t necessarily anti- men. They didn’t take the viewpoint that patriarchy and men were inseparable. Of course, many feminists saw themselves as just feminists, and many took on aspects of different strands of feminism. As with many movements that explore and challenge the political and cultural status quo, the WLM is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon.

At the Women’s Liberation Conference in Birmingham in April 1978, fierce confrontations between feminists of differing perspectives signalled an ideological split in the Movement. A strand within the Movement known as revolutionary feminists dominated the plenary session with vociferous arguments that the main priority of the Women’s Movement should be to destroy male supremacy, which they believed to be the basis of women’s oppression.  For them, it was essential that women cut themselves off from men completely. They saw male violence as a manifestation of male supremacy and the only way to overcome this, in their view, was to end patriarchy and for women to take control. Some extremely heated exchanges took place and Spare Rib received many letters about this (letters page: SR No 71; June 1978).  A turning point in the trajectory of the Movement had been reached. While many smaller conferences took place throughout the 1980s, this was the last national Women’s Liberation Conference.

Spare Rib magazine issue 071

Spare Rib magazine issue 71 p. 34

A forum of readers’ letters about the recent Women’s Liberation Conference.

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Usage terms: : Items 1, 2:  Issue 71, pp 26-28 Alexandra Kollantai, by Alix Holt  pp 40-41, Music review of the first women’s Jaxx festival by Val Wilmer; cartoon and illustrations;
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Around the late 1970s, early 1980s, campaigns for improvements in welfare, housing and other issues lost momentum and at a local level, many women’s centres closed down due to funding cutbacks. Many feminists who had been active in the movement up until this point were now frustrated that the bedrock of sexism still existed and that fundamental change was yet to be achieved.  In an attempt to bring more organised clout to their struggles, some joined more organised political organisations such as the Labour Party and other left-wing groups like the Communist Party.

Feminists had never been a strictly homogeneous entity with common experiences, struggles and aims, but it’s fair to say that the perspective of white educated feminists dominated the first decade of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  By the beginning of the 1980s this position was being actively challenged. Working class women, Black women, disabled women, Jewish women, younger, older and lesbian women began to speak out and organise themselves to challenge their own form of oppression. Some saw this as the playing out of the proliferation of identity politics and hierarchies of oppression and this led to great splits and rifts among feminists and within the Spare Rib collective itself.

In August 1982 the magazine published an interview with a Palestinian woman subtitled “If a woman calls herself a feminist she should consciously call herself Anti-Israeli." ('Women speak out against Zionism', August 1982, no.121 pp 22-23). The article prompted an angry response among readers who accused the magazine of taking an anti-Israeli and implicitly anti-Jewish stance ('About Anti-Semitism', Oct 1982 no. 123 pp 20-21; Editorial, Jan 1983, no. 126). By entering into more political debates and being outspoken on many events and issues, the magazine courted controversy which was to continue right through to its end in 1992.

Spare Rib magazine issue 121

Spare Rib magazine issue 121 p. 22 Zionism

Controversial article about feminism, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

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Usage terms: : Issue 121, pp 22, 23 Women speak out against Zionism by Roisin Boyd
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Spare Rib magazine issue 123

Spare Rib magazine issue 123 p. 20

Article in which the London Jewish Lesbian Feminist Group write about their experiences of anti-Semitism.

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Around this time, there were great internal struggles within the Spare Rib collective in what was, in many ways, a microcosm of conflicts happening in feminism generally. The collective members discussed, argued, cried and wrote about it all in the magazine. Accusations of racism, heterosexism, anti-semitism and of privilege abounded. In an article called 'Sisterhood… is plain sailing' (SR no. 132 July 1983 pp 24-27), the collective members outline their differing views on the topics raised by the article 'Women Speak out Against Zionism' (SR 121).

Spare Rib magazine issue 132

Spare Rib magazine issue 132 p. 24

Editorial about the collective’s differing views about Zionism and anti-Zionism.

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Committed to fighting oppression of all women, Spare Rib continued to document the struggles, discussions and debates conducted by diverse groups of women.  The February 1982 editorial introduces a series of articles by Kum-Kum Bhavnani about racism in Britain and how this particularly affected Black women. This was a significant time for race politics in Britain: the Brixton riots had occurred in the summer of 1981 and the resulting Scarman report and Nationality Bill came in for some heavy criticism amidst calls of institutionalised racism and imperialism.

Spare Rib magazine issue 115

Spare Rib magazine editorial issue 115

Editorial introducing a series of articles about racism in Britain.

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Spare Rib started to explore the perspective of Black feminists in more detail around this time. It examined Black women’s experiences of institutions, such as the police and NHS, whose behaviour they experienced as inherently racist (Jan 1984, issue 138, p. 6). Examples of appalling human rights abuses against Black people were documented on the news and letters pages of the magazine, as were examples of police brutality. The collective was solid in its stance that racism is a feminist issue in a society where white upper and middle class men have the most power and Black women the least. They also looked more deeply at Black women’s experiences, giving voice to an emerging Black feminist identity.

Spare Rib magazine issue 138

Spare Rib magazine issue 138 p. 6

Article about sexism and racism in the NHS.

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Usage terms: : Issue 138, pp 6-8, p 26, The Racist and Sexist Delivery of the National Health Service--The Experience of Black Women, by Protasia Torkington
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Since its inception Spare Rib had been concerned with issues affecting Black women and women’s struggles around the world. The older collectives published reviews of Black women’s books and there were many internationalist articles. These included reports by Jenny Vaughan on the struggles of Central American women who, exhausted by their daily battles, were keen for her to tell their story. In late 1982 there was a shift in the make-up of the collective when Black women joined and a year later, in October 1983 (issue 135), these women had editorial control in what was a ‘Special Black Women’s Issue’ of the magazine. They describe the challenges faced when representing the diverse viewpoints of Black and third world women and refer to the changes to the collective since they joined as ‘painful’ (Editorial, Oct 1983, issue 135). Also in this edition, an Asian woman doctor talks about her experiences of racism and sexism as she trained to become a doctor in the NHS; three young Black feminists talk about their experiences of racism and sexism in the UK and the particular difficulties experienced by Black lesbians; other articles explore Black and third world women’s experiences around the world and there are reviews of books by Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde and also of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

Spare Rib magazine issue 135

Spare Rib magazine editorial issue 135

Editorial in a special Black women’s issue of Spare Rib, outlining the process of changing the collective to include Black women.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 137

Spare Rib magazine issue 137 p. 3

Editorial about the magazine’s increased coverage for and by Black and ‘Third World’ women.

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By the end of 1983, Spare Rib’s engagement with Black women’s experience had really gained momentum. The editorial of the December 1983 edition (no 137) made it clear that Spare Rib was ‘no longer a white woman’s magazine’. While acknowledging that all issues are relevant to both Black and white women, the collective made a pledge to give exclusive space to Black/third world women. This was an interesting and enlightening time in terms of developments in Black feminism and the debates which divided and defined the Movement at this time played out on the letters pages of Spare Rib in the early 1980s.

Spare Rib magazine collective circa 1986

Spare Rib magazine collective circa 1986

Photograph of the 1986 Spare Rib collective taken on the back fire stairs at the Spare Rib offices at Clerkenwell Close. Back row from left: Grace Evans, Andrea Stuart, Linda Kinneard, Susan Ardill, Barbara Norden. Front row from left: Marcel Farry, Elaine Frere Smith, Tatiana Wahbe.

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  • Louise Kimpton Nye
  • Louise Kimpton Nye is an educator, community worker and writer with an interest in women’s issues and contemporary women’s history. Having volunteered at Spare Rib in 1990-1991, she went on to develop support and education programmes in London for women and children experiencing poverty and isolation. She has taught and managed English for Speakers of Other Languages classes since the early 1990s and has been working on the Spare Rib digitisation project since February 2014.

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