Ursula Owen discusses the popularity of Virago books



Ursula Owen, Founder Director of Virago Press, talks about why feminist presses made such an impact on the publishing industry in the 1970s.

Virago Press – a brief history

In 1972 Carmen Callil conceived the idea of a publisher that spoke directly to ‘52% of the population – women’. The following year Carmen Callil held a board meeting with Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, who had set up the feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1972. An advisory board was formed, which made suggestions and did research for the press. In 1974 Ursula Owen became a founder director of Virago Press, working there for 17 years. She was initially editorial director and later became joint managing director. After working for Virago, Ursula became chief executive of Index on Censorship and founded the Free Word Centre.

Virago’s first publication, in September 1975, was Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village by Mary Chamberlain. Virago has continued to grow in size and renown, and is now famous both in feminist circles and also more broadly in the publishing world.

Women in Publishing

Women in Publishing is a group for women who work in the industry, which started in 1979. It works to ‘promote the status of women in publishing and related trades by helping them to develop their careers’. Ursula Owen was one of the discussion leaders at the first meeting of the organisation.

In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. Do you agree?

What impact do you think the presence of publishers such as Virago or the Women’s Press had on the structure and aims of publishing and literary culture?

Can you think of a book, play or poem that you have read recently, which has made you think in new or radical ways about the relationship between the sexes in today’s world, or in your own life?

Image details
Mary Chamberlain, Fenwomen: A portrait of women in an English village (London: Virago, 1975) © Virago Press
Ursula Owen, Carmen Callil and Harriet Spicer photograph © Ursula Owen
Ursula Owen and Carmen Callil at Virago photograph © Ursula Owen
Virago team photograph © Ursula Owen



You couldn’t have asked for more joyousness or pleasure from people about the existence of Virago. I mean people came up to me all the time. On holiday, you know, I was reading a Virago book, you know, people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s changed my life’. I mean our readers made us really. They’d walk into a bookshop and they’d see Virago books on a shelf – because booksellers were beginning to stock women’s books separately. It started with a list of twelve and the next year was probably twenty-four and the next year was fifty. So we never had that many books and people just would go and ask for the next Virago, especially when the reprints came up. Especially with the classics, but also we did other reprint lists; we did a wonderful traveller’s list which I was in charge of. That was later, and we did a non-fiction; Storm Jameson and Rebecca West. But also the new books, I mean people would say, when’s the next Virago book coming out, when we were doing rather few. So it was extraordinary really. Young women just felt their lives had been changed by it.
Ursula Owen discusses the popularity of Virago books
21 Novemeber 2011 - 16 February 2012
Sound recording
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
© British Library
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British Library

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