Feminist collectives

Feminist collectives

Spare Rib lived and breathed its feminist politics. Eschewing hierarchical working practices which it saw as patriarchal, the magazine organised itself as a collective. This article explores what this meant in practice and some of the pros and cons of working collectively.

Feminist collectives grew out of the counter-culture movements of the 1960s when there were wide-ranging challenges to the established order of things. Around the time of Spare Rib, from the early 70s through to the 90s, the collective was a model which many new organisations adopted.  Springing from the idealism and grass-roots socialism abounding at the time, collectives offered a fresh, non-hierarchical way of working where all members of an organisation were equal. For feminists, this offered a tangible way of challenging established patriarchal structures, with the aim of making more women’s voices heard. Many women’s collectives came out of, or collaborated with community organisations to provide a platform for excluded women, working class women, black women, lesbian women, older women, single mothers and more.  

Spare Rib magazine issue 200

Spare Rib issue 200 editorial

The editorial in Spare Rib issue 200, April 1989.

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Usage terms Issue 200, pp 44,45, Female mutilation: unsettled issues by Graham Efua; photograph of Awa Thiam from Senegal by Ahmed Sheif
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So how did a feminist collective work in practice?

The ideal of the collective was that there were no managers, or layers of management; all work would be shared equally among the collective members. In the case of a feminist magazine this could be anything from copy typing and making the tea to working on design and layout or interviewing high-profile contributors. All members would have an equal chance to learn about all aspects of the work and would have equal weight in the decision-making process. Collective members could be paid or unpaid and, in many organisations, there was a combination of paid and voluntary collective members, all with the same say in how things were run. Spare Rib was one of a number of women’s collectives during the 70s and 80s and one of a number of feminist magazines which were run as collectives. Others included Scarlet Woman, Catcall, Outwrite, Red Rag and Wires in Britain, and Off Our Backs in the US.

So what was it like working in a collective?

It was probably intensely satisfying and deeply frustrating in equal measure. The scope for all members to be involved at all levels of the operation offered great variety and opportunity to gain new skills and develop one’s creativity. Indeed, many women who spent their formative years working for feminist collectives during the 1970s and 80s went on to have high-flying careers in more hierarchically run contexts such as politics, publishing and the arts. Some have commented on how their early experiences of working in collectives gave them the resilience and ability to fit into any organisation, often at a high level. A major frustration for some collective members was the issue of recognising and acknowledging expertise among the team; you could work with the organisation for years and know it inside out, but still have no more recognition or responsibility than a relative newcomer. The collective model was not well-known for praising the achievements of the individual and this may have been disheartening at times.

Spare Rib magazine issue 032

Spare Rib magazine issue 32 p. 4

Editorial outlining the reasons and practicalities of working as a collective.

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Usage terms Issue 32 pp 4,5, How and why does Spare Rib work as a collective by Marsha Rowe
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What happened to collectives?

It is fair to say that feminist collectives as campaigning bodies within Britain were at their peak during the 1970s and 80s. Women had been galvanised by the Women’s Liberation Movement and organised themselves locally through groups and women’s centres, and nationally through the Women’s Liberation Conferences and via Spare Rib magazine.  But by the end of the 1980s, things had really shifted in Britain both culturally and socially. Collectives had flourished on the back of the post-war consensus and the anti-establishment movements of the 1960s but there was change on many fronts around this time. The 1980s brought a general decline in radicalism, recession had hit and, with the project that was to become known as Thatcherism firmly taking root, there was a fundamental shift away from the collective in favour of a new individualism. In the late 1980s and early 90s, feminist collectives like Spare Rib gradually declined, but many of the ideas and principles that had been developed in these organisations were taken up by voluntary organisations which continued much of the grass-roots campaigning and support work by and for women during this period. 

It would be wrong to say that feminist collectives are now dead and buried, though – far from it. Many feminist organisations are run on collective principals both in Britain and around the world. The internet has provided a means of communication which those setting up and running feminist collectives from the 1970s to 1990s could only have dreamt of. Feminist collectives are using the internet successfully as a platform to inform, campaign and organise. When you browse these sites and blogs, you get a sense that there is a real appetite for fundamental change in the world order with regard to women’s experience and women’s rights. These are really exciting times for women’s collective action. The internet has provided the scope for feminist activism and consciousness-raising to really go global. 

Photograph taken outside the Spare Rib collective’s offices in Clerkenwell Close

Outside Spare Rib magazine's offices

Photograph of Spare Rib Collective members outside the Spare Rib offices after a delivery of magazines has been received. Women from left to right: unknown; Lorie Karlin; Louise Williamson; Jan Parker; unknown; Roisin Boyd; Ruthi e Petrie.

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Inside the Spare Rib office at Clerkenwell circa 1978

Spare Rib office

Photograph of the Spare Rib offices in Clerkenwell circa 1978.

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  • 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.