Campaigns and Spare Rib

Campaigns and Spare Rib

Campaigning was at the heart of Spare Rib’s mission, galvanising the movement to take action and demand better lives for all women. This article looks at some of the key campaigns championed by Spare Rib, which included support for the wives of striking miners; the Greenham Common peace protesters; women in prison; and victims of rape and domestic violence.

Throughout its existence, from 1972 to 1993, Spare Rib bore witness to unprecedented economic, social and cultural change in Britain. It provided an important point of contact where feminists could keep up with events. Reporting on campaigns and protests ranging from rape and domestic violence, through industrial disputes and strikes, the peace movement and the Greenham Common protests, Spare Rib documented this era with immediacy and urgency. The magazine didn’t just report on issues of the day, it actively campaigned for change and encouraged readers to do so too, attending marches and demonstrations and promoting and informing on the where, when and how of feminist activism.

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

A decade of unrest

1970s Britain was characterised by economic crises with disputes between unions and the government and the closure of much of Britain’s manufacturing industries. The miners’ strikes and the three day week, high inflation, unemployment, and nuclear proliferation characterise the collective memory of this era. Many women were affected by or directly involved in the crises and disputes of this period.

Spare Rib reported on many strikes during the 1970s as Britain went through great turmoil with regard to labour relations and its manufacturing economy. Always giving women a voice, the magazine reported on strikes by typists, chambermaids, factory workers and cleaners, to name a few. Many of these strikers were invisible in the mainstream press of the time. Many were ethnic minority women unaccustomed to speaking out and demanding rights.

The strike at the Grunwick film processing laboratories between 1976 and 1978 involved mainly women workers. Jayaben Desai led this group of East African and Asian women workers in a quest to form a union and demand workers’ rights for fair pay and conditions. In what became a cause celebre for the union movement, the dispute involved frequent police violence and a great number of arrests. Many of the striking women were directly affected by the violence, including Desai herself whose foot was run over by the Director’s Jaguar.

Spare Rib magazine issue 061

Spare Rib magazine issue 61 p. 1

Front cover of Issue 61 (August 1977), showing some of the key news events and feminist concerns of the time.

View images from this item  (8)

Usage terms Item 1: Front cover issue 61, Grunwick women
Usage Terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: issue 61 pp 6-8 & p 46, Grunwick Women, by Val Charlton & Bea Campbell; p. 6 Photograph of Jayaben Desai by Caro Webb
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P. 8 4x women at the July 11 mass picket, by Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3: issue 61, pp 19-21 How can we organise against rape, by Jenny Hall
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for How can we organise against rape? Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P 19 Photograph What Justice for Women
Usage terms: © Begonia Tamarit Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 20 Photograph Picketing the Courts
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 21 Germany: Reclaiming the Night by Courage; Who Ruined the Party by Pat Moan;
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Defending Ourselves
Usage terms: © Jill Nicholls Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence  Item 4: issue 61, p. 46 Review by Rosemary Stones, Children’s Rights Workshop, of The “mantlemass” Books by Barbara Willard. 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.

In 1981 a large group of typists, secretaries and machine operators went on strike in Liverpool in a demand for pay and conditions that was equal to their male counterparts working as clerks. Never having gone on strike before, and after 4 months of the dispute, these women were dependent on strike pay and donations to survive. Readers of Spare Rib were invited to send money and messages to the striking women.

Spare Rib magazine issue 113

Spare Rib magazine issue 113 p. 13

News page with articles about women at work and striking women.

View images from this item  (3)

Usage terms Item 1: p 13 Secretaries on Strike by Jan Parker
Usage Terms: © Jan Parker Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
Cartoon, Don’t worry fleas, I’ll soon get rid of this lot by Jayne Spittle
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for this item is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 2: issue 113, pp 52, 53 Old Mistresses: Women, art & ideology by Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

The miners’ wives

Following the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government came to power in Britain, heralding a new era of free market economics, privatisation of state-owned industries, reduced trade-union power and increased home-ownership. One of the defining events of this period was the miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985 and, once again, Spare Rib covered this from the perspective of the women affected by the dispute, while campaigning for their support.

Spare Rib magazine issue 148

Spare Rib magazine issue 148 p. 4

Call from Spare Rib for readers to support Women Against Pit Closures.

View images from this item  (1)

The miners’ strike was a turning point in many working class women’s lives whose capacity for organising and campaigning came to the fore at this time of great strife. Not least among the challenges they faced was the sexism and intransigence of the men in their community.

Spare Rib magazine issue 147

Spare Rib magazine issue 147 p. 6

Article about working class women in mining communities who organised themselves to campaign against pit closures.

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms Item 1: Issue 147, pp 6-8, 26, We’ll be Here Right to the End and After, by Loretta Loach
Usage terms: © Loretta Loach Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 7 photograph Bobby talks about the strike by Raissa Page
Usage terms: © Rachel Page Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 8 cartoon, Women Against Pit Closures: Keeping the Strike from Sinking by Madeline Nunny
Usage terms: © Madeline Goodey Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

Women and peace

In December 1982, 30,000 women formed a human chain around the nuclear base at Greenham Common in Berkshire. The protest against cruise missiles had started just over a year earlier when a group of 36 women from Wales walked 120 miles and chained themselves to the perimeter fence. They were opposed to nuclear power and against NATO’s decision to place cruise missiles at the Greenham Common site. The peace camp that grew out of this action remained at the site for a further 20 years and became emblematic of women’s peace protests of the time.

Spare Rib magazine issue 127

Spare Rib magazine issue 127 p. 19

Article about the protests at Greenham Common.

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms Item 1: issue 127, front cover, photograph of Greenham Common Women by Raissa Page
Usage terms: © Rachel Page Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Items 2, 3, 4: issue 127 p 3, editorial by Sona and Arati; p 17 From Greenham Common to Diego Garcia by Raven; p 18, Greenham Common: Struggling for peace by Roisin Boyd, Jan Parker & Manny; photograph of woman forcibly escorted by two policemen by Maggie Murray; p 19 Greenham Common: Struggling for peace by Jan Parker & Roisin Boyd; photograph of women’s hands linked against Greenham Common fence by Brenda Prince
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items. Photograph of Greenham women sitting down in busy road in front of police motorbikes by Pam Isherwood
Usage terms: © Pam Isherwood Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. 

These were scary times. Relations between the Soviet Union and the West were at an all-time low and nuclear war was a very real threat. Marches, demonstrations and peace camps abounded and campaigns such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) gained support. Coverage of the Greenham protests in Spare Rib sought to put events in a wider context of the global threat of nuclear weapons, running regular news updates, features and analysis of the issues.

Spare Rib magazine issue 127

Spare Rib magazine issue 127 p. 1

Front cover drawing attention to the link between environmental protests around the world.

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms Item 1: issue 127, front cover, photograph of Greenham Common Women by Raissa Page
Usage terms: © Rachel Page Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Items 2, 3, 4: issue 127 p 3, editorial by Sona and Arati; p 17 From Greenham Common to Diego Garcia by Raven; p 18, Greenham Common: Struggling for peace by Roisin Boyd, Jan Parker & Manny; photograph of woman forcibly escorted by two policemen by Maggie Murray; p 19 Greenham Common: Struggling for peace by Jan Parker & Roisin Boyd; photograph of women’s hands linked against Greenham Common fence by Brenda Prince
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items. Photograph of Greenham women sitting down in busy road in front of police motorbikes by Pam Isherwood
Usage terms: © Pam Isherwood Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. 

As with many subjects, the magazine paid testament to the contradictions and complexities of the women’s peace protests. Some felt that the women’s peace movement had replaced women’s liberation. Others felt discomfort that women’s ‘femininity’ as mothers, nurturers and home-makers had made them somehow the natural proponents of the peace movement. In ‘A Black women in the Peace Movement’, Amanda Hassan gives an insider’s perspective of CND.

Spare Rib magazine issue 142

Spare Rib magazine issue 142

Article about a Black woman’s experience of being involved in the peace movement.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Items 1, 2: issue 142, pp 6-8, A Black woman in the peace movement by Amanda Hassan; p 7 cartoon of policemen and women at Greenham by Louise B.
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items.

40 years of women’s prisons

Many of the articles in Spare Rib have resounding significance when we read them some 40 years after their original publication. This is especially true of many of the news items. In the first edition of the magazine, ‘Rapping on Holloway’ outlines a campaign against the proposed rebuilding of Holloway Prison; the campaigners advocate the idea of more humane, community-based alternatives. Here we are, decades after the rebuilding of the prison took place and Holloway is now the largest women’s prison in Europe.

Spare Rib magazine issue 001

Spare Rib magazine issue 1

News item about opposition to the rebuilding of Holloway Prison.

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.

In 2007, The Corston Report Review recommended that the only women in prison should be those very few that commit serious and violent crimes and who present a threat to the public. Most women who commit crimes would be better dealt with in a community setting. Campaigners have made this argument for over 40 years, but in spite of various promises by the government to address the particular needs of women in the penal system, some would argue that little real progress has been made. Spare Rib was deeply concerned with women’s experiences in prison, publishing many articles and news reports on the subject. ‘Inside’, gives a woman’s first-hand account of one woman’s experience of prison life. Maureen Reynolds was one of very few women who had been sent to prison for a violent offence; she attacked her violent husband.

Spare Rib magazine issue 033

Spare Rib magazine issue 33 p. 1

This front cover is typical of the style of Spare Rib during the 1970s. It must have stood out from other women’s magazines of the time both in content and style.

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms Item 1: issue 33, p.1,  front cover
Photograph: Maureen Reynolds, out of prison by Ann Smith
Usage Terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Maureen Reynolds, out of prison. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 2: issue 33, pp 10-13, Sterilisation by Sue O’Sullivan
Usage Terms: © Sue O'Sullivan Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Illustration p 10: position of reproductive system in body by Carole Driver
Usage Terms: © Carole Driver Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Illustration p 11:  standard sterilisation; laparoscopy by Carole Driver
Usage Terms: © Carole Driver Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

The personal is always political

Always keen to foreground political, social and cultural events of the time, Spare Rib’s coverage still went to the heart of women’s personal experience. The magazine related such issues as domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, abortion, inequality at work, pornography, prostitution, family life and childcare from the point of view of ordinary women in Britain and around the world. It is hard to believe that rape in marriage was legal until 1991 in England (1982 in Scotland). Spare Rib documented campaigners’ work to criminalise rape in marriage.

Spare Rib magazine issue 118

Spare Rib magazine issue 118 p. 12

Article about the campaign which sought to make rape in marriage illegal.

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms Items 1, 2, 3: issue 118, p 12, A wife’s right to refuse; p 54, 55 Girls are Powerful by Liz Mackie; pp 22, 23 Who’s birthing the baby – postnatal depression and maternity hospitals by Diane Walters
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items. P 22 Who’s birthing the baby – NHS ombudsman experience by Lesley Saunders
Usage terms: © Lesley Saunders Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; illustration by Christine Tacq, Usage Terms: © Christine Tacq Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Pp 54, 55 Illustrations of ‘Penny Sillin’ and’ I’m afraid working class people have difficulty fitting in here’ by Caroline Jackson, Dianne Ceresa
Usage terms: © Dianne Ceresa Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; © Anita Corbin Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Spare Rib asked questions, challenged and campaigned around the subject of rape, often focusing on individual cases. One campaign centred around the case of the rape and attack of a 17 year old woman by Coldstream Guard, Tom Holdsworth in June 1977. In spite of the viciousness of the attack, Holdsworth was let off amid claims that he was of previously ‘good character’ and that a prison sentence would ‘destroy a promising career’.

Spare Rib magazine issue 061

Spare Rib magazine issue 61 p. 19

Article about a Coldstream Guard, convicted of sexual assault, who was freed on appeal.

View images from this item  (8)

Usage terms Item 1: Front cover issue 61, Grunwick women
Usage Terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: issue 61 pp 6-8 & p 46, Grunwick Women, by Val Charlton & Bea Campbell; p. 6 Photograph of Jayaben Desai by Caro Webb
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P. 8 4x women at the July 11 mass picket, by Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3: issue 61, pp 19-21 How can we organise against rape, by Jenny Hall
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for How can we organise against rape? Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P 19 Photograph What Justice for Women
Usage terms: © Begonia Tamarit Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 20 Photograph Picketing the Courts
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 21 Germany: Reclaiming the Night by Courage; Who Ruined the Party by Pat Moan;
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Defending Ourselves
Usage terms: © Jill Nicholls Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence  Item 4: issue 61, p. 46 Review by Rosemary Stones, Children’s Rights Workshop, of The “mantlemass” Books by Barbara Willard. 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.

The cases of Karanjit Ahluwalia, Amelia Rossiter and Sara Thornton make for poignant reading. All three women were convicted of murdering their husbands, following years of violence, rape and psychological torture. Articles in Spare Rib about these cases reveal the double standard at work in the British justice system whereby a man who murders his wife is described as a ‘long suffering husband’ yet a woman who kills in self-defence is denied justice. Sara Thornton resorted to a hunger strike after her appeal was rejected. She was eventually freed in 1996 after a retrial. Karanjit Aluwalia’s was the first case that Southall Black Sisters supported and campaigned about. She was also freed.

Spare Rib magazine issue 227

Spare Rib magazine issue 227 p 36

News story about Sarah Thornton and Karanjit Ahluwalia who were imprisoned for murdering their violent husbands.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Issue 227, pp 36-37, Self-Defence is no Offence by Annie Blue and Hilary McCollum; photographs of Sarah Thornton and Karanjit Ahluwalia; A Carnival Under Siege by Pauline Henderson.
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items.

Spare Rib fought for the rights of women experiencing oppression in all its forms. Articles and letters on lesbian mothers and lesbians in custody and women’s experience of poverty and the government cuts in the 1970s and 80s linked to some key campaigns of the time.

Spare Rib magazine issue 118

Spare Rib magazine issue 118 p. 49

Letters page with several responses to a previous feature on lesbians.

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms Items 1, 2, 3: issue 118, p 12, A wife’s right to refuse; p 54, 55 Girls are Powerful by Liz Mackie; pp 22, 23 Who’s birthing the baby – postnatal depression and maternity hospitals by Diane Walters
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items. P 22 Who’s birthing the baby – NHS ombudsman experience by Lesley Saunders
Usage terms: © Lesley Saunders Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; illustration by Christine Tacq, Usage Terms: © Christine Tacq Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Pp 54, 55 Illustrations of ‘Penny Sillin’ and’ I’m afraid working class people have difficulty fitting in here’ by Caroline Jackson, Dianne Ceresa
Usage terms: © Dianne Ceresa Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; © Anita Corbin Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Whether it was reporting strikes, rape cases, murder trials, peace demo’s or demands for work paid at a fair wage, affordable childcare and safe streets, Spare Rib was never the casual bystander. Campaigning was at the heart of Spare Rib’s mission, galvanising the movement to take action and demand better lives for all women.

Spare Rib magazine issue 119

Spare Rib magazine issue 119 p. 14

Advertisement and articles about the Women’s Rights Festival and Demonstration on 5th June 1982.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Issue 119 p 15, Official & unofficial – women in the union; Don’t just celebrate – protest,  by Rachel Lever
Usage terms: © Rachel Lever Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

  • Louise Kimpton Nye
  • Louise Kimpton Nye is a researcher and writer in the British Library learning team. Before working at the Library, she was a teacher and manager in adult and community education.

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