Literature and the Women's Liberation Movement

Feminist literature

The Women’s Liberation Movement both rediscovered and encouraged new female writers. They also took over the means of production by setting up feminist printing houses such as Virago Press. Discover the authors, themes and techniques of 1970s feminism.

The Women’s Liberation Movement opened doors for women in literature. Women’s publishing houses and magazines such as Virago, The Women’s Press and Spare Rib sprang up. Change happened in more complex ways too, through the creation of a new and broader sense of what was culturally valuable. These ideas fuelled and supported literary and aesthetic revolutions among women writers in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, with many now classic texts being created at that time.

Michelene Wandor talks about getting her plays published

Women authors in history

Women have long had a presence in British literature, but this was largely forgotten by the mid-20th century and so had to be recovered. Since the 18th century, for instance, some educated women with dependents wrote to avoid destitution and the workhouse. Aphra Benn (1640–89) was one of the first women writers to earn her living by her pen, opening the door to other professional women writers in the 18th century. Most famously, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and George Eliot shaped 18th- and 19th-century literature, and the opinions of the readers who read their work. It is a sign of the patriarchal society of the time that Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot both used male pseudonyms under which to publish their work: Charlotte Brontë wrote initially as Currer Bell, while George Eliot’s real name was Mary Anne Evans. Female authors such as Virginia Woolf led the way to modernism and the reinvention of the novel in the early 20th century. Woolf famously claimed that a woman needed a room of her own and £500 a year to write. She also suggested that Shakespeare’s sister, if he’d had one, would, like so many women, have been more likely to die in childbirth than become a successful playwright.

Though there have been professional women writers for centuries, women’s writing tended towards specific genres – travel, health, fiction and histories – and this work received comparatively little attention from both men and women. Much research by feminist presses and on the part of feminist historians and writers went into unearthing many lost and forgotten women writers from the past. By the mid- to late 20th century, with increased education and higher standards of living, a broader spectrum of women’s voices began to be heard.

Seizing the means of literary production

The Women’s Liberation Movement, like many social and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, created its own literature and publishing houses. Women learned printing skills so that they could operate the presses in order to create and produce their own work. This was seen as a way of seizing the means of cultural production from the patriarchal state and media. By the late 1980s there were nearly 20 feminist presses worldwide. These were publishers that stated their commitment to publishing feminist and other women’s studies texts, past and present.

Virago Press, founded in 1973, was the most famous feminist press in the UK. It still continues to publish literature by women today. Sheba Feminist Press (founded in 1980) specialised in black and Asian women’s writing. The Onlywomen Press (founded in 1974) and The Women’s Press (founded in 1978) promoted lesbian writing in particular. Feminist Audio Books was set up for women with visual impairments: it ensured that more women were able to access the literature that came out of the liberation movement, either on tape or in a Braille copy.

As well as women’s publishing houses, feminists created radical independent bookshops, magazines and a thriving feminist bookfair scene. Influential were Sisterwise and Silver Moon in London, The Women’s Bookshop and Café Collective in Manchester, News from Nowhere in Liverpool and Womenzone in Edinburgh. These served as lively, informal meeting places where social and cultural events could be held and women (and some men) could socialize, congregate and debate.

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

Themes and styles in women’s writing

Realist fiction, describing women’s lives, work and relationships, was a mainstay of feminist literature produced during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Describing the everyday world of women was a crucial initial task for the WLM – an important step towards detailing the suppressed and unvoiced oppression women experienced in daily life. Margaret Drabble, for example, wrote about single motherhood in The Millstone (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965) and adultery in The Garrick Year (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964), Buchi Emecheta wrote about motherhood and being an immigrant in Britain, and Beryl Bainbridge wrote about being an art student in Liverpool. But women also relished and transformed a wide variety of other styles: Val McDermid wrote detective novels; Ellen Galford wrote historical lesbian fiction; Sheila Rowbotham wrote history; Zoë Fairbairns and Margaret Atwood created dystopian alternative worlds; Jeanette Winterson mixed fairy tale with lesbian coming-out stories; and Angela Carter used magical realism and satire.

The 1970s and ‘80s gave rise to a huge community of women poets. Well-known poets such as Carol Ann Duffy (UK poet laureate since 2009), Jackie Kay, Selima Hill and Grace Nichols were writing a feminist sensibility into poetry, with many others such as Denise Riley, Alison Fell, Mary Dorcey and Liz Lochhead. Writing and poetry groups were formed and anthologies produced. These gathered together the poetry of many women, giving a collective voice to the movement and creating a poetics of women’s experience.

Autobiographies, oral histories, philosophy and storytelling were also fundamentally important to the broadening awareness and increasing volume of women’s voices beyond simply literary spheres. Mary Chamberlain’s Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village (London: Virago Press, 1975) and Amrit Wilson’s Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain (London: Virago Press, 1978), for example, gave voice to often silent, usually marginalised communities of women. Historian Sheila Rowbotham’s book, Hidden From History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), told the story of ordinary women’s lives from the early modern period, while Women, Resistance and Revolution (Allen Lane, 1972) described feminist utopian visions since the Civil War. Through these and other writings, new concepts and fresh ways of speaking and writing about the reality of everyday lives were developed.

Kirsten Hearn talks about her reasons for setting up Feminist Audio Books for women with visual impairments

Journalism

As with many radical movements of the 1970s, newsletters, magazines and posters were produced informally, inexpensively and collectively. These played an essential part in spreading ideas and shaping the community. The best-known feminist publication was Spare Rib, a magazine set up by Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott, which imitated a traditional women’s glossy but with feminist content. Women’s Report and Wires were newsletters that became crucial for networking, and the production of the magazine Shrew put feminist politics into practice with each issue being edited by different collectives. You can hear more about working in the production of radical magazines in Gail Chester's long oral history recording. The Women’s Library and the Feminist Library both hold extensive collections of WLM publications.

Feminist literature and publishing today

Most of the independent feminist bookshops and presses from the 1970s and ‘80s have now closed down, but the production of feminist magazines during the Women’s Liberation Movement anticipated the rise of the ‘zine’ (both in hard copy and online) as a medium through which feminism and new thinking would continue to be communicated and shared. Contemporary feminist bloggers such as Red Chidgey are active alongside writers including Caitlin Moran, Naomi Wolf and Laurie Penny, whose works continue to bring feminism to new audiences through their popular and accessible approach.

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

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