A line drawing of a hand grasping arrows over a map of the British Isles within a female symbol labelled "Wires".

Mapping Spare Rib: how and why?

The Spare Rib map visualises the activities and networks of the women’s movement across two decades. How does it work and what does it show? The team who built the map explain how and why it was made, how the data sample was selected, and the map’s scope and limitations.

One of the many things that made the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) distinct was its structure. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the movement operated through a web of local groups and centres rather than via a single top-down, metropolitan centre run by a core of power-brokers and activists. With hundreds of listings and a dozen or more letters per issue, Spare Rib (1972-1993), Britain’s longest-running feminist magazine, offers a window onto this novel structure. For this reason, we decided to make a map of the movement based on a sample of listings and letters in Spare Rib from every year of its entire run.

Facsimile of Spare Rib manifesto

Spare Rib manifesto

The Spare Rib manifesto, outlining the magazine’s aims.

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The sample

The Spare Rib map represents only a slice of the magazine’s overall content. The map database consists of around 4,500 entries, amounting to about 8% of Spare Rib’s listings and 24% of its letters. We entered all listings and letters from (mostly) June editions of Spare Rib (1972-1993). June was chosen as a month with plenty of activity and, from 1984, was the month during which the International Feminist Book Fair was held. The listings were drawn from a variety of sections, which changed over the course of the magazine, but generally included Shortlist (cultural listings), Odds & Sods (an assortment of reader announcements), Classifieds (where most of the businesses were listed including personal adverts), Pulse, Spare Time, Pride and sometimes News. We also entered all the adverts (from the front to back cover) and letters (any reader address information, and the content and theme of the letter) from each June issue. This data was then supplemented by a further two rounds of letter data gathering from the February and October issues, as there are always fewer letters than listings in any given issue.

Spare Rib letters and listings were sent from and took place in every corner of the UK, from Guernsey to the Outer Hebrides. A significant number of entries give Ireland as their location, and we have included these data points on our map (despite the fact that Ireland is not part of the UK) given the sensitivities to Irish issues within Spare Rib.

The categories and keyword search

All entries were coded so that they could be represented thematically as well as geographically on the Spare Rib map. A category (whittled down from a list of 29 to 14) was assigned to each letter or listing. Deciding on categories which were specific enough to be useful and sufficiently broad to incorporate every letter topic or listing was a challenging process. Most entries have been assigned two or more categories in order to better reflect their often complex and layered themes and content. For instance, WIRES, the WLM’s national information service which produced a twice-monthly newsletter, is categorised as a network, a business, and a publication. A listing or letter which has been assigned three or more categories indicates an activity or service that contributed to the movement in multiple ways. While every effort has been made to ensure that the categories are consistent, the uniqueness of the data they attempt to codify means that these categories often bend and fray.

In addition to the categories, entries have also been tagged with keywords to make the map more searchable. We took the decision not to have ‘identity-based’ categories on the grounds that the map aims to represent the everyday business and activities of the WLM. The keyword search function, however, does enhance the map’s searchability and enables users to construct searches by identity-based categories such as ‘bisexual’ or ‘young feminists’ and for specific topics such as ‘abortion’, ‘motherhood’, or ‘poetry’. For further discussion of the limits and possibilities of the keyword search, see the Guide to using the Spare Rib map.

Spare Rib magazine issue 001

Spare Rib magazine issue 1 p. 1

Front cover of the first issue of Spare Rib.

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Why a map?

We had two goals in tabulating and mapping Spare Rib listings and letters. First, we wanted to offer a fresh grasp on the places and spaces of the WLM and shed new light not only on what the movement was but where and when it was active across the UK. Second, we wanted to investigate Spare Rib, and indeed the movement more broadly, as a site of exchange – figuratively, of course, of ideas and feelings and care, but crucially also economically. In a context of overarching socialist, anti-capitalist feeling, Spare Rib readers, from activists and business-owners to first-time readers, nonetheless used the magazine to buy and sell goods, services, experiences, education, culture, arts, crafts and more. What did they actually want to buy and sell? The listings offer an answer to this question. As for how readers felt about such exchange, including pricing, spending power, questions of income and earnings, and the whole capitalist system, the correspondence pages provide some clues.

But why a map? A map, beautifully presented with interactive elements (the zoom, a time-slider, a range of filters to choose from, a search function) offers an exciting and accessible means for grasping the research potential of Spare Rib as a lens onto key WLM and other related social movement dynamics, geographies and economies. It allows users to explore centre and periphery dynamics, such as that between activity inside and outside of London, and helps to rethink those very terms themselves. It also allows users to see where the activity of the movement took place in relation to where readers lived. And given Spare Rib’s endurance across the most active years of the women’s liberation movement, the map allows us to see how the distribution and type of activity changed over the two-decade run of the magazine.

The listings and letters

The listings element of the map was designed to open up a number of fresh methodological approaches for researchers. One concerns the extent to which businesses, from B&Bs to dating agencies to therapists to bookshops, played a role in the feminist ecosystem. The WLM has generally been thought of as existing somehow outside of the capitalist transactions of services and products, and of buying and selling. Yet as the Spare Rib listings data makes clear, exchange of this nature was a major site of feminist activity, with the movement producing many women-centred businesses. Spare Rib’s adverts – for co-operatively produced, comfortable clothing, or hand-made feminist jewellery – similarly demonstrate the close relationship between feminism and an ethical consumer culture. By visualising the distribution of listings and adverts related to therapy, property, holidays and other services, the map illuminates the location and scope of business in a feminist context.

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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Feminist business has distinctive characteristics – it tends to be small scale, highly localised, affordably priced and often collectively or co-operatively organised. The map shows that a purveyor of makeup based in Huntingdon advertised products ‘made from nature’s own products’ (June 1979). Women could choose from one of many women-only B&Bs such as one in Pembrokeshire (June 1992), while a Birmingham ‘woman counsellor’ with a ‘client-centred approach’ offered ‘fees on a sliding scale’ (June 1987). Sometimes the listings were used to appeal for community support for a business when it could not make ends meet. Horton Women’s Holiday Centre (June 1982) ‘has no money left’ and required volunteers and donations ‘to keep the place going’. See ‘Listings and the Feminist Marketplace in Spare Rib’ by Zoe Strimpel for a more in-depth discussion of Spare Rib as a site of exchange. It is worth noting that Spare Rib sometimes ‘reviewed’ listings that were sent in, critiquing products and services even as they advertised them. In June 1979, for example, Spare Rib list and review a ‘clear, accessible, informative and caringly written’ guide to abortion and contraception in Brighton, which nevertheless has a ‘couple of weak points’.

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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If the listings tell us what products and services the WLM produced, the letters tell us about the consumers of these products and services. Spare Rib’s monthly correspondence section of around 12 letters gives us an indication of the geographical distribution of its readership. You can use the database of over 700 letters to explore a small sample of this readership. Some readers were involved in activism; some were not; many were pro-choice, but some were anti-abortion; some were new to the magazine and the movement; some were regular correspondents. Even more so than the listings, the letters are often heavily laden with emotion (most frequently anger, but also solidarity, criticism, distress and praise). Where the listings convey the positive, active side of the movement, the letters are more likely to convey the problems and difficulties faced by Spare Rib readers. Another way to think about this is that where the letters raise issues and make (often stringent) criticisms, the listings offer solutions to some of these problems. The map brings together the letters and listings, and enables users to ask: How do readers’ locations relate to the hubs of feminist activity? How are the issues and demands they raise met by the services and events? What patterns of consumption and production can be seen? For a lengthier discussion of Spare Rib letters, see ‘Girls are powerful: Young feminists' letters to Spare Rib’ by Eleanor Careless.

Scope and limitations

The scope of the Spare Rib map is limited chiefly by the size of the data sample. What you see represents only a slice of Spare Rib’s letters and listings and should be treated as indicative of trends and patterns within the women’s movement, rather than as definitive. Another limitation when it came to inputting Spare Rib data into the map was that not all letters and listings give locations. This is more of an issue with the letters than the listings, especially letters sent in the late 1980s and 1990s which were often printed without the address of the sender. Letters which discuss traumatic experiences of abuse or discrimination were often sent in anonymously, with no name or address supplied. For some listings without locations but with telephone numbers, we have been able to deduce location from the dialling code. Sometimes the organisers of an event in, say, Sheffield, will be based elsewhere, often in London. For this reason, sometimes an event or activity will be entered twice – once in the location where it took place, and once in the location where it was organised. There are also a number of letters and listings sent from international locations, from Malaysia to Ramallah, but these fall outside the remit of this map.

What follows is a simple example of the utility and limitations of conceptualising the WLM through a map. Take the category ‘Books & Publications’. It includes everything to do with books or publications and their making, from manuals to Feminist Book Fortnight events. Selecting this category enables you to see at once the sheer frenzy of publication – from manuals, conference proceedings to tracts, booklets, journals, catalogues, books of poetry and fiction – that emerged from, sustained and powered the movement. Taken altogether, this set of points on the map alone represents a major feature of the movement, revealing the forms it took and the venues and locations in which it flourished, and enables researchers to build on previous scholarship on WLM, writing and publishing in a novel way.

However, listings for the Feminist Book Fortnight do not paint an entirely accurate picture of the distribution of events, due to the changing nature of Spare Rib listings over time. The early Spare Rib Feminist Book Fortnight listings are organised by location, but from 1988, as the event expands, the listings are organised by date (meaning host venues are listed repeatedly across several pages). Compiling the later listings by location proved unworkable, as some venues hosted a large number of events, and trying to point map users to the correct Spare Rib pages for each event became unwieldy (where events hosted by the same venue are listed on the same page, these have been compiled). We therefore decided to follow the magazine’s own listings structure, despite its inconsistencies, which means that the varying density of Feminist Book Fortnight events over the years may not be entirely representative.

For more examples of possible map searches, see the Guide to using the Spare Rib map.

Technical development

This section will describe the overall approach to developing the Spare Rib map implementation, and motivations behind various technical choices. The Spare Rib map has been implemented using free and open source software and will be released under an open source licence. We believe using and contributing to open source software is broadly in keeping with feminist traditions such as transparency, accessibility, and collective work.

There are perhaps a dozen viable open source mapping frameworks which could have been used to implement the Spare Rib map. Of these, we chose Leaflet JS for several reasons:

  • mature and well supported, e.g. is known to run on all modern browsers
  • thorough documentation
  • good extensibility
  • large number of readily available plug-ins
  • active developer community
  • good fit with basic requirements (e.g. 3D rendering not required, etc.)
  • mobile friendly.

In particular, the range of plug-ins allows for the appearance, behaviour and function of the map to be customised ‘off the shelf’, and when ad-hoc interventions are required the active developer community can provide invaluable support to achieve desired outcomes. As such, the overall functionality of the map results from a combination several plug-ins, which are either configured or modified to suit the specific requirements of the Spare Rib map. The following plug-ins were used to meet the requirements of the four core areas of functionality:

  1. The timeline: Leaflet TimelineMoment.jsEasyButton
  2. Category selection: Tag Filter ButtonHTML Legend
  3. Search function: SearchFuse.js
  4. Entry rendering: Marker ClusterBeautifyMarkerFont Awesome

The only plug-in which required significant modification was Leaflet search. Several of the default user interaction behaviours resulted in unacceptable levels of surprise for the user. Essentially, the user query input and query results would disappear when they should persist and pressing ‘Enter’ would select a result instead of running the query. Both of these behaviours have been superseded by patching the plug-in source code.

Geo Coding and Timeline

Two methods are used to determine candidate geographical co-ordinates of the Spare Rib letters and listings; primarily by post code if available (a few by telephone area code), and secondarily by using the Nominatim service provide by Open Street Maps. The Nominatim service resolves a written place name to a candidate co-ordinate. We use these co-ordinates directly when they fall within a bounding box of the UK. However if a resulting co-ordinate falls outside of that box we resubmit the location string with the term “United Kingdom” appended to bias Nominatim towards a UK result. This helps mitigate against place name ambiguity, for example, the many UK place names which also correspond to places in the USA.

Entries are grouped on the timeline by the year of publication. Since the data sample is drawn from only three months of each year, grouping data by year rather than month provides a more representative visualisation of the fluctuating number of letters and listings over time.

Labour and archive

This technical development required approximately 330 hours to undertake and required development expertise, here provided by Simon Wibberley, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. Sourcing, conceptualising, inputting and cleaning the data took BOWW Research Fellows well over six months’ full-time work.

The spreadsheet and coding used to make this map have been deposited in the British Library Research Repository. The code developed to enable Leaflet ‘search’ has been deposited in GitHub public software repository for anyone to use.

Disclaimer

Although great care has been taken to make the map as consistent and accurate as possible, errors may remain. We will continue to update the map until 1 May 2021 to resolve any issues. If you notice any errors on the map, please email learning@bl.uk.

  • Eleanor Careless
  • Dr Eleanor Careless is a Research Fellow for the Leverhulme-funded project The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, based at the University of Sussex and partnered with the British Library. She specialises in twentieth-century poetry, the history of the prison and the feminist avant-garde. Recent publications include ‘Anna Mendelssohn, Jennifer Moxley and the Transnational Carceral Poetics of the 1990s’ in College Literature (2020); ‘Art made me thin: Work in the Poetry and Prison Writing of Anna Mendelssohn’ in Poetry and Work (Palgrave, 2019); and a prize-winning essay, ‘Muriel Rukeyser and the Security of the Imagination: Poetry and Propaganda in 1940s America’, in Modernist Cultures (2019). She is co-editor of a special issue on Anna Mendelssohn for the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry.

  • Zoe Strimpel
  • Dr Zoe Strimpel is a cultural and social historian of modern Britain. Her research focuses on the norms governing gender, romance in intimacy were rewritten in the 1970s and 1980s. She is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and a regular contributor to the Spectator and Unherd. She is the author of What The Hell Is He Thinking? All The Questions You've Ever Asked About Men Answered (2010), The Man Diet: One Woman's Quest to End Bad Romance (2012) and Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of 'the Single' (2020).

  • Simon Wibberley
  • Simon Wibberley built the software for the Spare Rib digital map. He is a lead developer in the Text Analytics Group of Informatics at the University of Sussex and a member of the Sussex Humanities Lab. He specialises in computational social science by creating researcher focused tools to aid analysis of large volumes of text.