Introduction: Spare Rib - the first nine years

So what was women’s liberation and why was it needed? How did Spare Rib differ from other women’s magazines of the 1970s? This article looks at the first nine years of Spare Rib; how it began, its readership and the topics it covered.

Spare Rib was the most significant magazine of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain of the 1970s and 80s. The trajectory of Spare Rib charted the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement and as a consequence is of interest to feminist historians, academics and activists and to those studying social movements and media history.

Spare Rib magazine issue 001

Spare Rib magazine issue 1 p. 1

Front cover of the first issue of Spare Rib.

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms: Item 1: front cover issue 1
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: Editorial, Spare Rib issue 1 p. 3
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Editorial introducing the magazine. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 3: News Story: Rapping on Holloway by Caroline Younger  Issue 1 p. 9
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Rapping on Holloway. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.
Photograph of Holloway Prison by Bob Mazzer.Usage Terms: © Bob Mazzer Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 4: The First Cow on Chiswick High Road issue 1 p. 25 - 26
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for The First Cow on Chiswick High Road. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Background and early Spare Rib 1972-1981

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 2015

Spare Rib was born out of the underground press of the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time when women’s liberation was starting to gain momentum in the UK. Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, founders of Spare Rib, were alarmed that the male-dominated mainstream press so often failed to examine the stereotyping and exploitation of women. They took up the challenge of creating a regular monthly magazine that would be by women for women. An alternative to typical women’s magazines of the day which focused on beauty, romance and the domestic sphere, the aim of Spare Rib was to reach out to women from all backgrounds, to raise awareness of inequalities and to challenge traditional perceptions and representations of gender.  


Facsimile of Spare Rib manifesto

Spare Rib manifesto

The Spare Rib manifesto, outlining the magazine’s aims.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms: Usage terms: Facsimile of Spare Rib manifesto © Marsha Rowe Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

At this time, women were starting to question their position and role in society. Women all over the country were beginning to ask why they were underpaid at work and loaded with all of the caring, cleaning and cooking responsibilities in the home. A woman could not buy a car or obtain a mortgage without a man’s signature. While some women went on strike for equal pay, at home women’s domestic contribution was seen as ‘natural’, tangled up with love and maternity. They were starting to express a new consciousness and to demand new rights and freedoms. It was in this context that the first Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970 heralded the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain. The time was ripe for a new platform for the movement and on 19 June, 1972, the first edition of Spare Rib hit the newsstands.

Spare Rib magazine issue 001

Spare Rib magazine editorial issue 1

Editorial in the first issue of Spare Rib setting out the magazine’s aims.

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms: Item 1: front cover issue 1
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: Editorial, Spare Rib issue 1 p. 3
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Editorial introducing the magazine. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 3: News Story: Rapping on Holloway by Caroline Younger  Issue 1 p. 9
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Rapping on Holloway. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.
Photograph of Holloway Prison by Bob Mazzer.Usage Terms: © Bob Mazzer Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 4: The First Cow on Chiswick High Road issue 1 p. 25 - 26
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for The First Cow on Chiswick High Road. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

The first issue of Spare Rib (In July 1972) includes a page of letters in response the question What is a liberated woman? News stories cover issues such as making vasectomies free on the NHS and women cleaners’ pay. Detailed features on feminist history sit alongside articles about hair care (including the unwanted kind) and how to put up a shelf while, in a strand called ‘Man’s World’, George Best shares his thoughts on women and the Liberation Movement and John Peel extols the virtues of beauty pageants (rather alarmingly, Peel regularly judged such contests during the 70s). Early editions of Spare Rib include features by such big-name contributors as Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Kate Millet. There was fiction by Margaret Drabble, Edna O’Brien, Fay Weldon and Eva Figes.

Photograph of Spare Rib collective members on a march by Jill Posener

Spare Rib magazine on a demonstration march

Photograph of Spare Rib collective members on a march, clockwise from left: Ruthie Petrie, Rosie Parker, Sue O’Sullivan.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms: Usage terms: © Jill Posener Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

In its 12th edition (June 1973), the team at Spare Rib announced some changes to the magazine. In the editorial they reminded readers of the magazine’s importance at a time when women were fighting for equal opportunity and equal pay. They criticised the mainstream press which ‘restricts articles for women to a single Women’s Page – a page usually devoted to fashion and food’ and were keen to ‘analyse the significance of events in relation to women’s lives and (report) on our unseen, undiscussed problems’. From this point on, the magazine greatly increased its news coverage, created columns on science, health, law and education and expanded the letters page.

Another major change occurred with the 18th issue. Up to that point, the magazine had been run on a hierarchical basis, with paid writers contributing articles and with an editorial team taking charge. However, the idea of working in non-hierarchical structures was important within the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole and it was at this time that the magazine became a collective. Many alternative and feminist organisations ran on the collective model at this time, with the ideal that all work would be shared equally among the collective members who would also have equal weight in the decision-making process.

Around 1974-75, the Spare Rib collective made an active decision to break down the barriers between reader and magazine. This took the form of longer editorials and letters pages with more dialogue between readers and the collective. The events pages were expanded and became an established platform and point of contact for the Women’s Movement. There were fewer pieces by big name writers of the time and more first-hand accounts by ‘normal’ women. The notion that ‘the personal is political’ had become central to the debates and discussions that played out in the pages of Spare Rib at this time. In what had become an overall more political magazine, gone were articles about unwanted hair, the benefits of having a male au pair and suburban sex; in place of these articles there was more coverage of issues such as violence against women, equal pay and lesbian politics. There were interviews with women factory workers and union leaders and far more international coverage with articles on women in China and other developing countries.

This shift in focus provoked some hostility among commentators and readers of Spare Rib. The magazine was accused of being ‘depressing’ and ‘anti men’. An editorial which extended over two issues, April and May 1975, responded to these accusations eloquently. It declared that Spare Rib was not anti-men, but anti-subordination of women, and put the case clearly on the importance of bringing about political and social change. Spare Rib also took the stand that women had the right to define their own sexuality and this included challenging the repression of lesbians. The editorials of issues 34 and 35 (April and May 1975) firmly align the Spare Rib collective with a socialist feminist perspective.

Spare Rib magazine issue 034

Spare Rib magazine issue 34 p. 8

In this editorial, Ann Scott makes a compelling argument for the urgency of women’s liberation.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms: Issue 34 p. 8, Why is your magazine so depressing?
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for 'Why is your magazine so depressing?'. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Spare Rib magazine issue 035

Spare Rib magazine issue 35 p. 6

Part two of an editorial looking at some frequently asked questions about women’s liberation (for part one see issue 34, April 1975).

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms: Item 1: issue 35, p 1 front cover: Photograph of Polly, George and Billy at Laurieston Hall Commune by Alice
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for this item. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 2: issue 35, p 6 Why is your magazine so depressing? By Ann Scott
Usage terms: © Ann Scott Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

In spite of criticism, by the end of the 1970s, circulation of Spare Rib had grown significantly. The magazine was consolidating and confirming its position as the major feminist publication of the time which was easily available to a wide readership. Around the time of the magazine’s 100th issue in November 1980, the collective reviewed their aims. In 1981, in the Afterword to the Spare Rib Reader, the collective said that Spare Rib should

be challenging in content yet accessible in its form and available in every newsagent...Spare Rib aims to reflect women's lives in all their diverse situations so that they can recognize themselves in its pages. This is done by making the magazine a vehicle for their writing and their images. Most of all, Spare Rib aims to bring women together and support them in taking control of their lives.

  • 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.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.