Spare Rib and the underground press

Spare Rib and the underground press

Ground-breaking and subversive, Spare Rib sprang out of the counterculture movements that were active during the 1960s. In this article, co-founder of the magazine, Marsha Rowe talks about Spare Rib’s links with the underground press.

What does Spare Rib have to do with the underground press?

Spare Rib magazine was the sister of the underground press, a term that applies to the 1960s, when an entire generation took direct control of the print communication media. The underground press was not, as its description implies, hidden: its newspapers and magazines were sold and distributed openly. Key to establishing a new youth-led counterculture, the underground press nevertheless reflected the views of its male editors, writers, photographers and illustrators. By the end of the decade, women working in the underground press reacted against this male/female hierarchy. Spare Rib evolved from that rebellion.

How would you characterise the underground press?

The underground press questioned the hierarchical structures of church and state and the educational and government orthodoxies: the entire ‘system’ that let them down. In the spirit of self-reliance, this counterculture created alternatives to what they regarded as the hypocritical, intolerant, materialist and authoritarian mores of the wider society.

That subversive way of looking at the world involved, for many, the use of drugs. ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’, said Timothy Leary. Drugs were illegal but were seen as a way to expand awareness and to enhance ‘peace and love’, the slogan that became associated with ‘hippies’, which was itself a term coined by the establishment press. The counterculture opposed violence, which served as a catchword for all manner of inequalities, of exploitation and alienation.

The underground press published poetry as well as reviews and information about the arts in all its weird and wonderful manifestations. This extended to the music, to the happenings and radical theatre which were an accompaniment to the sixties decade. Issues of the political New Left - the environment, ecology, Black Power and relations within communities, personal fulfilment, children’s rights (children could still be caned at school), pleasure, creativity and sexual freedom - were all part of the mix.

Where was the underground press found?

The underground press was international. Spare Rib was started in London, England, but its roots were also in the Australian counterculture and it had links to the underground press in America.

Why did the underground press emerge at this time?

The 1960s was, for the West, a rich period, when opportunities for employment were many. For the first time in history, youth had the money and the means to create a culture they could label as their own. Teenagers had come into being. And with them, and through them, arrived a new kind of music. But, in that era before the technological revolution that produced the internet, where was the voice of youth in the national press?

In Sydney, Australia, where I was born, some young university students got together with art students, and produced their own magazine, Oz. The first issue came out on April Fool’s Day, 1963 and the magazine lasted until 1969. Sydney back then was conformist and censor-ridden. Racism and intolerance were built into its legal system. The White Australia policy restricted immigration and the Aborigines could not vote. Abortion was illegal and so was homosexuality. Magazines and books and films coming into the country were routinely censored or banned. Oz magazine used satire to target all of these issues. It was fierce, funny and confrontational. It was critical of the government’s decision to send an Australian fighting force to Vietnam, which included conscripting new recruits by a birthday lottery.

Oz had to fight for its freedom. It was twice made the subject of obscenity charges for its satirical stance. The first time the editors agreed to a court fine, the second time, they fought and eventually won their case. Satire and youthful rebellion came at a price. Youth paid its dues and earned its rights.

Aside from Australia where else did the underground press flourish?

This example of a youth magazine published in Australia could be found in a variety of different forms throughout the Western world. Spurred by the need to confront injustice, as with the Civil Rights movement in America, or to dissent, as with the youth who marched against the bomb in Britain, or to express their cultural identity, youth began to produce their own publications. 

The first underground newspaper published in London was IT, which came out in 1966. The following year, Oz magazine was re-created in London by two of the Australians from the original Sydney Oz. Other examples from around the country were the Liverpool Free Press, the Manchester Free Press,  and Brighton Voice. Time Out was started in London as a listings magazine for the counterculture, with a provocative news section.

By 1966 the Underground Press Syndicate was established in the United States. This circulated information to 75 alternative titles in the United States and Canada and 23 throughout Europe. American publications had names such as Berkeley Barb, Dock of the Bay, Middle Earth, Los Angeles Free Press, while those in Europe included Karuna (Denmark), Om (Holland), and Pianeta Fresco (Italy). By the end of the decade a total of 92 alternative publications were listed in the United States and Canada, and 89 in Europe and the rest of the world including the United Kingdom, Australia, Hungary, Denmark, India, Cuba, Jamaica.

How did you become involved with the underground press?

I joined Oz magazine as its secretary in 1964 and then left to work for Vogue Australia in Sydney, learning the ins-and-outs of producing a glossy women’s magazine. Feeling somewhat constricted by the limitations of fashion, I travelled to London in 1969. There I re-joined Oz magazine. In 1971, I was part of the defence team on the infamous Oz obscenity trial for Issue No.28, which had been given over to school-aged children to produce.

In 1971 one of the Oz editors, along with two other men, started Ink, a weekly newspaper intended to bridge the gap between the underground press and the ‘straight’ press. I helped to set up Ink, hired various writers and other staff. Within months I resigned, frustrated by its male dominance. As another woman said that year, ‘With brothers like these, who needs chauvinists’.

In 1970, a South African in London had started another underground newspaper called Friends with the aim of representing the culture ‘that emerged from hippiedom’. It attracted a slightly younger generation of staff, who had come of age during the decade, but it collapsed financially a year later. The staff re-launched the paper as Frendz, one of them reflecting that it ‘projected a movement going completely off its head’.

That could be seen as prescient, in that the steam was going out of the underground press by the end of the 1960s. For many of those involved, there had been too many police persecutions, too many court trials and simply too many financial crises. The underground press had come up against its own limitations within the wider political, economic and social landscape.

What did the underground press have to do with the women’s Movement?

By the end of the 60s other dissident voices were making themselves heard. At first a whisper, then loud and angry, came the sound of women talking. Women all over the country were beginning to ask why they were underpaid at work, and loaded with all of the caring, cleaning and cooking responsibilities in the home. A woman could not buy a car or obtain a mortgage without a man’s signature. While some women went on strike for equal pay, at home women’s domestic contribution was seen as ‘natural’, tangled up with love and maternity.

Shrew magazine July 1971

Shrew magazine 1971

Illustration from a 1971 issue of Shrew magazine which draws attention to the social conditioning of girls and women.

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Shrew magazine 1976

Shrew magazine 1976

Front cover of Shrew magazine in autumn 1976.

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Shrew magazine October 1970

Shrew magazine 1970

Front cover of the October 1970 edition of Shrew magazine.

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By 1969, there were three women’s groups who met in London to talk about these issues. They published Shrew, a stenciled magazine. Each month a different women’s group took responsibility for putting out the next Shrew.

The women’s movement was expanding rapidly. By February 1971 Shrew listed 12 women’s groups. By the end of that year the number had leapt to 50. However, neither Shrew nor any of the small feminist journals that started in the early 1970s, such as Red Rag, were designed to reach mass outlets around the country.

The male Oz editors responded to the new feminism by asking Germaine Greer to produce an issue of Oz. Published in 1971, it extolled the power of the female libido. I thought it amusing, but it did nothing to lift me out of the confines of my own feminine isolation. That year Frendz newspaper produced a women’s issue, and, that too, seemed like a one-off.

Red Rag magazine issue 5

Red Rag magazine 1973 issue 5

Front cover of issue 5 of Red Rag magazine.

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Red Rag magazine issue 3

Red Rag magazine 1973

Front and back cover of issue 3 of Red Rag magazine.

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How did Spare Rib first come about?

Everything changed for me when Louise Ferrier, who had helped on Oz magazine, and I called a meeting of women who worked on the underground press. We crowded together in the basement flat where I lived with Louise and we talked. During the meeting it became obvious that we, the women, did all the work in keeping the magazines and newspapers running, and that we had no editorial say. Our personal lives were marked by the many difficulties we encountered as sexually emancipated women. Contraception, abortion, having babies who had been adopted, none of this was trouble-free. However alternative our life style might be, we still did the domestic duties for men and children at home. The conversation whirled around the room, and was a turning point for several there. 

Many of us in that era had internalized the notion of women as secondary to men. We had to ask ourselves, why? We examined the world around us to see where inequality and discrimination lay. We looked within ourselves to question the conventions by which we, as women, undervalued ourselves. We found that we could use our personal experience as a political resource.

At the third meeting of women in the underground press, I suggested that we start our own magazine. Rosie Boycott, who had discovered a taste for journalism after going to work at Frendz earlier that year, agreed to join me, and stayed for eighteen months.

What was Spare Rib trying to achieve?

When I scribbled down in my diary a list of what I envisaged the contents of Spare Rib would be, foremost among them was a news section.

It is astonishing to look back at the extent to which women were excluded from positions of power and marginalized from public life at that time. So-called women’s interests were covered by a single ‘women’s page’ in daily newspapers. Women were not expected to be seriously interested in the daily news. As the Women in Media group commented in their critique of the television industry in 1972, ‘Apparently news doesn’t concern women’.

The aim of Spare Rib was to reach out to all women. Therefore it had to be on the newsstands. It would carry radical content within the traditional women’s magazine format. We intended no less than to take on the culture of the whole Western world. Finding a new language for both image and word to establish women’s changing identity.

Facsimile of Spare Rib manifesto

Spare Rib manifesto

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

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How was Spare Rib funded?

It was through my involvement in the Australian counter culture in London that we were able to raise most of the funding. Some friends and family were generous. Ink was closing down, and we inherited some of its equipment. From the art colleges, from underground press colleagues, through advertising and through other women we knew, Rosie and I found our office and our initial staff of four. I sought out contacts in the early women’s groups to contribute to the magazine and found other women writers through my work for a literary agent. We commissioned sympathetic journalists as well as friends to produce articles. For photographers, illustrators and cartoonists, we and the art directors turned to people we knew. Six months after announcing our intention, we published the first Spare Rib on 19 June, 1972. In the forthcoming years we had to face our own financial crises. The resourcefulness of very many women made it possible to continue.

By 1973 the magazine had inspired Carmen Callil, another Australian, whom I had met through Ink, to emulate our efforts within the world of book publishing. Initially called Spare Rib Books, then re- named as Virago, this became the esteemed and long lasting women’s publishing company. Further women’s publishing houses were to follow, including the Women’s Press, and Sheba. All of these ventures brought into the world a dazzling multitude of mighty and varied women’s voices.

Spare Rib was a success. It made a difference.

  • Marsha Rowe
  • Marsha Rowe was assistant co-founder of Ink newspaper, the co-founder of Spare Rib magazine and co-founding director of Virago. She was fiction editor at Serpent’s Tail and ran a life-writing course (Your Life’s Word). As free-lance commissioning editor/author, her publications include Spare Rib Reader Penguin 1982, Sacred Space Serpent’s Tail 1992, Infidelity Chatto & Windus 1993 and, as co-author, Characters of Fitzrovia, Dennis/Chatto/Pimlico 2001/2. She is currently writing a memoir spanning 1964-1974, from Oz magazine, Sydney, Australia to Spare Rib, London, UK.

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