Domestic dynamics: Spare Rib, the family and the home

What is the impact of raising children in a nuclear family? Should domestic labour be shared equally between men and women? Does marriage and family life make women financially dependent on their husbands? This article explores Spare Rib’s examination of the politics of traditional domestic roles.

A woman’s place?

The demands of the family and domestic life have concerned feminists for generations. Since the industrial revolution, marriage and the family have been central to patriarchal society. Until the latter part of the 20th century it was widely accepted that the heterosexual family unit was the best structure within which to raise children. It also provided a productive and compliant male workforce which was able to meet the burgeoning demands of a modern industrialised society.

At the centre of this domestic sphere (and essential to it) was the housewife. In the 1950s and 60s, marriage, a home and family were understood as the ideal that everyone should strive for. By the 1970s, however, feminists had started to argue that the family structure was fraught with inequality and inherently oppressive to women. They worked to raise awareness that women’s position in society as wives and mothers was dictated by political and cultural factors rather than biological difference. They sought to explode the myth that home and family was a woman’s natural habitat. Many of these debates were recounted in the pages of Spare Rib.

Spare Rib magazine issue 026

Spare Rib magazine issue 26 p. 1

Front cover of issue 26 showing illustration of a woman hanging a sheet on a washing line.

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In the 1970s, feminists raised concerns that marriage and the family kept women financially dependent on their husbands and that this made them vulnerable. It was usually men who earned money and controlled household finances. The equilibrium of the family depended on the woman accepting this inequality. Feminists argued that men were socially conditioned to be initiators or aggressors while women were expected to be passive and accepting: not only were many women economically dependent, but they were expected to subjugate themselves to their husbands emotionally and sexually. Moreover, with little or no financial security of her own, it would have been extremely difficult for a woman to break away from an unhappy or abusive relationship.

Whether they were working class or middle class, and whether they engaged in paid work outside the home or not, women of the 1970s would have carried out many hours of unpaid labour in the home in the form of housework and childcare. Feminists found this situation unacceptable and started to make demands which would both raise the status of the work done in the home and provide alternatives to the domestic status quo. In 1972 Selma James set up the Wages for Housework Campaign. She argued that western capitalist economies are dependent on women’s unpaid labour and that governments should recognise this work as part of their GNP and pay women a wage for this work.

Spare Rib magazine issue 180

Spare Rib magazine issue 180 p. 44

Article about the wages for housework campaign with a photograph of campaigners.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 26 p. 9

Article exploring the social history of housework.

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By the late 1970s to 1980s, some men were starting to acknowledge they needed to share responsibility for housework and childcare. Yet for many, the home became a battleground in which the division of labour was fiercely fought. Spare Rib often focused on the personal experiences of individual women, using personal testimony – and humour - as a powerful means of making a political point.

Spare Rib magazine issue 122

Spare Rib magazine issue 122 p. 1

Front cover drawing attention to the fact that men were slow to take up the challenge of sharing childcare.

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Mainstream women’s magazines of the time sold millions of copies on the basis they somehow had the answers to all the problems a woman could possibly have, if she could just put her own needs in the background and focus on being a better wife, cook and mother. But Spare Rib offered an alternative perspective on women’s lives as wives and mothers, questioning the validity of marriage and drawing attention to the fundamental flaws of the conventional family structure. It stood up for women’s rights in the case of domestic violence and divorce and championed the rights of lesbian mothers.

Spare Rib magazine issue 005

Spare Rib magazine issue 5 p. 10

Article questioning whether the traditional family structure is effective.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 045

Spare Rib magazine issue 45 p. 6

Article about one woman’s experience of trying to share domestic tasks with her husband.

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Who’s holding the baby?

Free 24-hour childcare was one of the original 4 ‘demands’ made at the first UK Women’s Liberation Conference in February 1971. Feminists saw childcare as central to the issue of women gaining equality in society. Until children started school at the age of five, the burden of their care and welfare fell squarely on the mother’s shoulders. Many women chose to work or had to work for financial reasons but provision for pre-school children and for after-school care of older children was woefully inadequate during the 1970s. In spite of resistance to their demands and some complex logistical and financial challenges, one particular group of women in north London persisted and, in May 1971, the first council-funded childcare centre was set up in a converted house in Dartmouth Park Hill, Highgate. In a compelling article from the time, ‘Not so much a day nursery’, the group outline their aims and ideologies.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 17 p. 33

Article about the setting up of the first council-funded childcare centre which opened in north London in December 1972.

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Childcare was an important issue for feminists because many mothers had to work to make ends meet. But there were also ideological reasons for their demands for childcare. They felt that women were unfairly dumped with the responsibility of caring for children. Society created myths around motherhood and domesticity to justify this and to make women feel guilty for wanting an alternative to the status quo. It was not just the well-being of women that concerned feminists of the time, throughout the 1970s they persistently questioned the validity of the conventional family unit as the best place for children to grow up. If it was repressive for the mother, they argued, it was likely to be repressive and potentially suffocating for the child as well.

Feminists challenged the accepted norm that children should have one sole female carer, ideally the mother, and that this role was biologically determined. This article, written in 1973, challenges the accepted wisdom that children would suffer irreparable emotional damage if they were separated from their mother. It questions the notion that only the mother can fulfil a child’s needs and explores alternatives to the conventional family unit.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 14 p. 15

Article challenging conventional ideas on mothering and the effects of so-called ‘maternal deprivation’.

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By the late 1970s, the traditional family unit was under stress as more women were entering the workforce and divorce rates were increasing dramatically, resulting in a rise in single-parent families. Feminists were concerned with the practical impact these changes had on women’s lives while also questioning the role the family structure played in oppressing women and children. Alongside debates about marriage and the family sprang further discussion and experimentation around alternatives to the conventional family unit. Many believed that children should have a wide range of adults to relate to, not just their parents, and that women should no longer be defined by their caring role. One way in which this could be achieved was through collective childcare.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 35 p. 1

Front cover of issue 35, May 1975, showing children growing up in a commune.

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This could involve several adults, both parents and non-parents, and children living together under one roof sharing childcare and domestic responsibilities. In a series of articles in 1978, ‘Changing Childcare’ (issues 66, 67 and 68), Marsha Rowe focuses on collective households. In issue 66, she talks to women who are not parents themselves but who choose to live in collective households. She also looks at a two families who set up a 24 hour creche which operated between the two households.

Spare Rib magazine issue 066

Spare Rib magazine issue 66 p. 14

Article exploring alternatives to the family for bringing up children in the 1970s.

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Questioning the connections between women, family and domesticity and attempting to find new ways of imagining family, kinship and community were central to many of the discussions and debates found in the pages of Spare Rib.

  • 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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