Violence against women

Rape and violence against women were key themes of women’s liberation. Spare Rib raised awareness of the ineffectiveness of the police and judicial system around securing convictions in cases of rape and domestic violence.

Unlike the majority of mainstream publications running from the 1970s to 1990s Spare Rib took violence against women seriously. For the first time female victims, regardless of class, race, sexuality or ability, had an accessible and sympathetic place to turn to for advice and support. The types of violence against women prevalent and deemed worthy of reporting included domestic abuse, rape and murder.

Domestic abuse

Writers and interviewees who featured in Spare Rib’s articles expressed their outrage that women were blamed for not leaving their abusive male partners and that victims and their children often could not access basic advice and resources for help. To change this, the magazine formed alliances with women’s organisations such as Woman’s Aid, Reclaim the Night, Women against Rape and Rights of Women. Features and news stories in the magazine were often followed by sources of support for women experiencing violence.

Women’s Aid, the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children founded in 1974, was featured often in Spare Rib. The magazine promoted Women’s Aid and other shelters as safe places to go to escape violent partners or family members, also using their ‘Letters’ pages to directly and indirectly advise readers on how to survive and escape violent situations. In the very first issue of Spare Rib one volunteer described the renovation of a house as a Women’s Aid shelter for domestic violence victims. She described the positive impact the shelter had made on women’s lives.

Spare Rib magazine issue 001

Spare Rib magazine issue 1 p. 25

Article about the setting up of Chiswick Women’s Aid in 1971.

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Despite the numbers of women helped in shelters all over the country, overall domestic violence statistics had not much improved as late as the 1990s.  Feminists were still fighting to make people understand that domestic violence is not an isolated problem between two individuals, but a manifestation of the imbalance of power between men and women.

Violence against women remains a persistent problem - a 2014 report published by the Office for National Statistics found that 30% of adult women had experienced some form of domestic violence after the age of 16.

Murder

Whilst a significant number of domestic violence victims are killed by their partners, women working as prostitutes are at much greater risk of death at the hands of men than non-sex working women. Prostitution has always been a central issue to feminists. Many feminists argue that criminalising prostitution creates a negative perception of female sex workers, meaning police are more likely to prosecute than protect.

The case of the Yorkshire Ripper highlighted the vulnerability of prostitutes to male violence and the lack of protection afforded them by the police. Between 1976 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe murdered at least 13 women and attempted to murder seven others. Sutcliffe specifically targeted women across Leeds and Bradford that he believed to be prostitutes, whom ‘God had ordered him to murder’.

The police handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case was heavily criticised by women and feminists. The police questioned Sutcliffe a total of nine times before his eventual arrest and surviving victims who came forward to provide evidence were shown little sympathy and were often disbelieved. Feminists felt this was the result of the sexism endemic to the police force and the anti-woman bias of the media at the time. Spare Rib tracked journalism coverage of the case, reporting that ‘Throughout the hunt for the Ripper the media have consistently made a distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ women, and not to anyone’s surprise, this division is apparent in the prosecution and defence evidence being presented at the trial.’

Spare Rib magazine issue 107

Spare Rib magazine issue 107 Yorkshire Ripper

News story about the trial of Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’.

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Usage terms: Issue 107, p 17, Sutcliffe – it’s women under attack by Dianne Ceresa
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Popular opinion often echoed media representation: that the victims ‘deserved’ or were ‘asking’ to be attacked because of their dress or their occupation, and that they alone were accountable for their safety. Spare Rib reported that Sutcliffe’s friends had admitted to regularly aiding his crimes by driving him to pick up the women he assaulted and murdered: ‘There appears to be a very thin line between the contemptuous attitude held towards women by the Ripper's friends, the prosecution, the press, and that held by Sutcliffe himself.’

Rape

Feminist campaigns against male violence included the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protests. These originated in 1977 as a response to violence against women – women took to the streets at night to protest against violence and rape. Feminists in the 1970s coined the term ‘rape culture’ to describe a society that normalises male sexual violence against women and where victims, not perpetrators, are blamed for sexual assaults.

Spare Rib was a key supporter and promoter of the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protests. In 1978 the magazine reported on the arrests and police brutality that met London’s Halloween ‘Reclaim the Night’ march. Protesters, however, were not easily deterred: in the following years marches across the globe drew thousands of women, who demanded justice for rape victims and addressed the reality that women worldwide fear sexual violence in public places every single day. The popularity of the marches resurged in the 21st century and in 2014 ‘Reclaim the Night’ London celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Spare Rib magazine issue 078

Spare Rib magazine issue 78 p. 9

Article covering events at recent Reclaim the Night marches.

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Usage terms: Items 1, 2, 3 : issue 78 p 9, Male violence female dilemma by Anny B; photograph of violence against protesters by Diane Bailey; poem: Out in the Open by Astra. Issue 78 pp 15-17, Round in a Flat World by Tessa Weare; a poem by Gillian Allnutt. Issue 78 pp 19-21, Don’t you know there’s a war going on? By Eileen Fairweather; photograph of Kathleen Stewart holding a plastic bullet by Newsline; P. 20, 21 photographs by Cass Breen
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Spare Rib magazine issue 175

Spare Rib issue 175 p. 43

Photograph of the first Reclaim the Night march in Soho in 1977.

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Usage terms: Issue 175, p 43, photograph of the first Reclaim the Night march by Val Wilmer
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Spare Rib consistently provided rape victims with a voice by reporting and evaluating accounts of sexual violence. Issue 176 covers the 1986 case of Jill Saward who was at the centre of the notorious Ealing Vicarage rape case. Controversy and national outrage erupted when one of the rapists, Christopher Byrne, was sentenced to five years for burglary but only three for rape. The Judge rationalised that the rape victim’s trauma was 'not so great.'  As with today, conviction rates for rape at the time were low.

Spare Rib magazine issue 176

Spare Rib magazine issue 176 p. 9

Article about the Ealing vicarage rape case and disbelief that the offenders received bigger sentences for burglary than for rape.

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Usage terms: Item 1: issue 176, p 9, Be honest.. does drinking alone make you an alcoholic? by Sue O’Sullivan
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In issue 114 Spare Rib covered the Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) first national conference with reader reviews of the workshops they attended. As one reader asks, ‘Rape in marriage is not a crime. How many of us who came to the workshop knew that?’ WAVAW worked to get marital rape included in the Sexual Offences Act and in 1991 it became illegal for a man to rape his wife in England and Wales.

Spare Rib magazine issue 114

Spare Rib magazine issue 114 p. 14

Report on a conference about violence against women.

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Usage terms: Items 1, 2: issue 114, pp 49-51, No such thing as pain by Ruth Wheeler; illustration of women in hospital by Sue Hillwood-Harris. pp 14, 15, Violence & Sexuality: report from WAVAW conference; Brazil: men's crimes 'of passion' by Brazilian Women's Group In London; Reclaiming Exeter by Exeter Women’s Group; News by Winchester Women’s Liberation Group; Pornography continued by Sheila Jeffreys
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Spare Rib provided readers with information on legal cases and the law as it pertained to rape and violence against women. In issue 20 an article on rape explained that ‘previous convictions cannot be used as evidence in court’ and that ‘the defence have the option to dismiss up to seven jurors if they think they will in any way be prejudiced against the defendant. In rape cases this option is always used to get rid of any women on the jury. As there are usually not more than two this is not difficult.’

Spare Rib magazine issue 020

Spare Rib magazine issue 20 p. 30

Article exploring the myths and realities around the subject of rape.

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Usage terms: Item 1: Issue 20 pp7-9 Don’t get too near the big chakra by Anne Severson
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In issue 78 an article covering the prevalence of sexual assault and the abuse of women’s rights in the war in Northern Ireland, Spare Rib includes a section on ‘What can you do?’ Spare Rib didn’t tell women how to prevent rape by changing their behaviour; it explained how readers could support women by distributing information, organising activist groups and making donations. The feature insists that supporting and obtaining justice for victims is what will truly make a difference in fighting violence against women.

Spare Rib magazine issue 078

Spare Rib magazine issue 78 p. 19

News feature about women’s experiences of the violence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

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Usage terms: Items 1, 2, 3 : issue 78 p 9, Male violence female dilemma by Anny B; photograph of violence against protesters by Diane Bailey; poem: Out in the Open by Astra. Issue 78 pp 15-17, Round in a Flat World by Tessa Weare; a poem by Gillian Allnutt. Issue 78 pp 19-21, Don’t you know there’s a war going on? By Eileen Fairweather; photograph of Kathleen Stewart holding a plastic bullet by Newsline; P. 20, 21 photographs by Cass Breen
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In one of its later issues in 1992, Spare Rib included an article entitled ‘Violence Against Women: What Protection Is There?’ The author explains, ‘If we seriously want to address the root causes of violence against women, then we must go back to the nurseries and the classrooms. Our education programmes must counter the socialisation process which feeds and maintains patriarchy.’ Spare Rib recognised that sexism is engineered rather than innate, and that ending violence against women will be achieved in the same way as winning equality for women worldwide: educating both boys and girls, one mind at a time.

Spare Rib magazine issue 237

Spare Rib magazine issue 237 p. 32

Article about the recommendations of the Domestic Violence Working Party Report published in July 1992.

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Usage terms: Issue 237, pp 32-35, Violence Against Women: What Protection is There? By Jill Radford and Sibusiso Mavolwane.
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  • Aimee Treasure
  • Aimée Treasure works in marketing and writes press material for the Lambeth Green Party in her spare time. She has a BA in Philosophy with Creative Writing and wrote for her student newspaper whilst at university. Due to the lack of strong female fictional characters and role models for young people whilst she was growing up, Aimée has been a feminist since she can remember. She has recently started a blog where she regularly writes about all the media, feminism and food.

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