Print, purpose and profit: Women in publishing

Women involved in the publishing trade write an appealing chapter in the history of women’s work. Margaretta Jolly explores their stories and the barriers that women’s movements have mobilised to confront.

The establishment of the network Women in Publishing (WiP) in 1979 exemplifies the power of collective action. Publishing and associated trades provided commercial opportunities to activists and women who love working with words. From the 1980s, there was a growing network of women's bookshops, such as Silver Moon Bookshop in London’s Charing Cross, Sisterwrite in north London, Lavender Menace in Edinburgh, In Other Words in Plymouth and Liverpool’s News from Nowhere. Alongside shopping for the latest feminist publications and merchandise, these were wellsprings for activism, readings, performances, information and gossip.

Presses, print shops and publishing houses also proliferated in the period known for its so-called ‘second wave’ women’s movements. The legendary Virago was established by Carmen Callil in 1973, and at least 30 other feminist publishing houses, lists, typesetters and distributors operated, including Stramullion in Edinburgh, Falling Wall in Bristol, Arlen House in Dublin and Moss Side Community Press in Manchester.

Feminist print

Historically, women in print have contended with two major challenges: the lack of opportunity to learn industry skills and a scarcity of business capital. To help women manage all aspects of the publishing industry, idealistic entrepreneurs and editors began to upskill themselves.

Harriet Spicer's notes on how to run a publishing company

Harriet Spicer's notes on how to run a publishing company, the notes are split into a grid with titles such as casting, pricing, negotiating, design, paper etc.

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Raising sufficient capital was another problem. Although women ran printshops as early as the 16th century, printing, publishing and selling enterprises were then small commercial outfits; moreover, such women were typically widows who had inherited a father's or husband’s business, or worked in convents. Women were also encased in hardening ideologies, relegated to a separate sphere from men, in the home and motherhood, and were subject to legal restrictions on entering a profession, owning property and receiving equal pay.

From this context, came the Victoria Press, launched in London in 1860. Its mission was to promote women’s right to skilled, decently paid employment. Founder Emily Faithfull, with other activists, trained women as compositors, despite resistance by men in union and trade bodies. The Press printed The English Woman’s Journal, considered the first British feminist periodical, edited by activist-poet Bessie Rayner Parkes. Its networks also encompassed The Victoria Magazine, and the Victorian Debating Society, power-houses of early feminism. Supportive men and investors constituted further vital nodes of influence around the Press.

Women compositors at The Victoria Press printing office, 1861

Illustration of workers at the printing office of The Victoria Press. They are composing blocks of text ready for printing.

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The campaign for women’s right to vote was also supported by Faithfull and her associates’ next venture, the Women’s Printing Society, which published the National Society for Women’s Suffrage reports between 1889 and 1900, and a feminist weekly, the Women’s Penny Paper. A particularly delightful production was The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book (1914), compiled by Aubrey Dowson. Playful and practical, it included a ‘Recipe for Cooking and Preserving a Good Suffrage Speaker’ by Alys Pearsall Smith.

At least 12 pro-suffrage printing presses were operating at the height of the campaign, including the Women’s Social and Political Union’s Woman’s Press, established by the Pankhursts. Their newspaper Votes for Women, alongside a chain of WSPU shops and branded goods, acted as fundraiser, recruiting centre and skill-sharing opportunity.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 13

Cartoon captioned 'Magna Carta' in publication Votes for women. The cartoon depicts the Barons, who are wearing chainmail, presenting the Magna Carta to King John who is wearing a crown and seated on a throne

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The WSPU also inspired the Women’s Indian Association’s journal, the Stri Dharma in Madras, a pro-Indian nationalist feminist voice, edited by Irish nationalist Margaret Cousins and Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy.

Women-led printing and publishing businesses also intersected with aesthetic revolution. The Cuala Press, which ran from 1908 to 1946, was original in uniting a women-led private press with the causes of Irish independence. Developing out of an Irish arts and crafts centre near Dublin run by Elizabeth and Susan Mary Yeats (sisters of the poet William Butler Yeats) and friend Evelyn Gleeson, it supported the Celtic Revival. Notably, Elizabeth Yeats had trained at the Women’s Printing Society.

The Hogarth Press, while not a feminist publisher per se, was still the joint vision of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and supported experimental modernists, including Katherine Mansfield, Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell, the latter two as designers and illustrators. Hogarth was modelled on the Omega arts and crafts workshop, with a mission to unite design, fine art and humane commerce. It started as a subscription-based enterprise, run from the Woolf’s dining room on a hand-press, but as Virginia gained mainstream success as a writer, it expanded, became profitable and survives as an imprint of Chatto & Windus today.

These ventures were unusual, niche, and overshadowed by male-led enterprises; they were also, mostly the result of intellectual elites raising capital from private income or investors. Although the vote had been won for all by 1928, women remained typically employed rather than employers.

Feminist purpose

The Women’s Liberation Movement and Civil Rights activists emerging in the 1960s understood that a cultural and economic revolution was still necessary. Publishing was a frontline tool for getting messages out, a means for women to acquire skills, a home for women-centred culture and a way to earn a living whilst rethinking business and capitalism.

Spare Rib magazine (SR) led the way here. Launched in 1972 by Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott, it aimed to tempt women away from commercial women’s magazines with a product which would be zesty and comfy enough to compete. Features ranged from women’s inequality, to sex work, ecology, beauty and health. SR sometimes managed a 20,000 print run and endured until 1993. It had also experimented with management processes, becoming a collective and co-operative, diversifying its editorial staff, doing regional special issues and creating some beloved spin-off products, including tea towels and a diary featuring a menstrual calendar tracker.

Photograph of Spare Rib collective members by Martin Ward

Spare Rib office

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Virago Press was directly inspired by SR. Its first catalogue announced: ‘There is a specialist publishing imprint for almost everything, except for 52% of the population – women. An exciting new imprint for both sexes in a changing world’.[3] One of its iconic innovations was its Modern Classics list. This reissued out of print, ‘forgotten’ women’s writing in beautiful editions that were a resounding success.

Virago’s Modern Classics’ model has been taken up by many others, such as Omenala Press’s republication of Buchi Emecheta’s work, bringing to a new generation an outstanding Black British and Nigerian feminist author from the period.

qually, feminist editors, agents, distributors, accountants, designers, marketeers, salespeople, investors, managers and publishers must also be recognised for their support for new writing, from international journalism in Outwrite, to poetry by Sheba, feminist sci-fi in the Women’s Press and Women’s Studies by Pandora. These products reshaped the educational curriculum, the idea of tradition and the nature of imagination, voice, genre, shopping and pleasure all in one.

In uncovering the infrastructure which supported this cultural shift, Feminist Audio Books (FAB) deserves mention. Kirsten Hearn, of Sisters Against Disablement, explained that women with visual impairments often waited years for access to the ideas and literatures of the women’s movements. Spare Rib, for example, could not be provided in audio form until FAB taped it in 1982, showing the vital role which the book and magazine trade could play – and where it really mattered to make it work for all.

Feminist profit

While women had made gains – not least in being able to secure loans in their own names after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act – they still had only a tiny toehold in the mainstream business world, especially women from minority ethnic or working-class backgrounds. Publishing was notorious for its cultural exclusivity, and its personal and informal edge could work against those not connected into its networks.

Margaret Busby, co-founder of Allison & Busby in 1967 and the youngest and first Black woman director, also founded Greater Access to Publishing to accelerate inclusion of BME women in the industry in 1987, with Lennie Goodings of Virago and Ros de Lanerolle of the Women’s Press. But nearly 30 years later, Busby despaired at having to keep repeating the same messages: Black women are still under-represented in the trade.[6]

Economic inequality is cited as a root cause. As Eileen Cadman, Gail Chester and Agnes Pivot opined in the 1980s in Rolling Our Own: Women as Printers, Publishers and Distributors:

Feminist publishing … seems to epitomise most clearly the problems and choices which face feminists confronted with a society which is both patriarchal and capitalistic. (p. 29)

What responses then did such idealistic entrepreneurs make? There was a classic choice between ‘liberal feminist’ tactics of demanding an equal playing field, and the more ambitious, but less winnable approaches of socialist, radical, or Black autonomous feminisms. In practical terms, women found different ways to balance means and ends.

The Women’s Press operated with backing from an existing publishing house, as did Pandora. Others have made good cases for receiving grants and subsidies, including Honno and Sheba, sometimes on the grounds of under-representation of certain groups, cultures or languages. A third approach is to cross-subsidise or partner. Bogle L’Ouverture, a women-led Black Power press, leaned on community and diasporic networks. Onlywomen Press set itself up as a combined printing press and publishers on the model of the Victoria Press, and championed its lesbian feminist working methods as complementary to its publications as expressions of autonomy.

But none of these models spared these publishers from the ongoing challenges of satisfying investors and maintaining financial viability. Lilian Mohin, Onlywomen’s director, felt she worked on a razor’s edge between feminism as a business and lesbian feminism as a voluntary or unpaid activity.[7] In contrast, Gail Rebuck, a member of WiP, became CEO of Random House UK in 1991, and now champions equal opportunities as a member of the House of Lords.[8] But Random House, now owned by the largest trade publishing group in the world, is a very different operation from working in independent feminist business contexts.

Such dilemmas – and the challenge of finding an authentic, ethical way of selling and making – remain unsolved. Magazine publishing especially has been devastated by digital economies, in which advertising revenue – including from the public and radical sectors – has dried up. Even Teen Vogue, ‘the young person’s guide to conquering (and saving) the world’, has been unable to maintain its print edition. Good Housekeeping, nearing its centenary, is profitable as a private company cross-subsidised by a laboratory which tests beauty and home products for clients.

The 21st century has brought new turbulence for book publishers: the closure or merging of small presses, the digital undercutting of print, yet profits rising for multinational conglomerates and a proliferation of new online enterprises and initiatives. Star writers triumph in unprecedented bidding wars, whilst most creatives hardly make a living.

But this paradoxical economic scene has driven new business models, including specialist literary festivals, bookfairs and prizes, crowd-funding, social-media marketing and freemium deals. The crowd-funded Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a surprise best-seller taken up by Penguin; Gal-Dem’s intersectional online magazine and events; the Guilty Feminist podcast; Dialogue and Cassava Republic books; Margaret Busby’s scholarship-enabling New Daughters of Africa (Myriad Editions);  and the less visible but equally important work of Turnaround Distributors and ‘slow economy’ feminist librarians – these are all to watch, learn from and do business with.

The brave and creative struggle to make profit serve purpose continues, with feminists in the vanguard.

Further Reading

The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing. This research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is led by Margaretta Jolly at the University of Sussex, in partnership with the University of Cambridge and the British Library.

Bradley, Sue, The British Book Trade: An Oral History (London: British Library, 2008)

Cadman, Eileen, Chester, Gail, & Pivot, Agnes, Rolling Our Own: Women as Printers, Publishers and Distributors (London: Minority Press, 1981)

Clay, Catherine, DiCenzo, Maria, Green, Barbara, & Hackney, Fiona (eds), Women's Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918–1939: The Interwar Period (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

Ellams, Inua, ‘How Do We Stop UK Publishing Being So Posh and White?’ The Guardian, 11 December 2015

Delap, Lucy, ‘Feminist Bookshops, Reading Cultures and the Women’s Liberation Movement in Great Britain, c. 1974–2000’, History Workshop Journal, 81(1) (2016), pp. 171–96.

Goodings, Lennie, A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2020)

Ireland, Philippa, Material Factors Affecting the Publication of Black British Fiction (Open University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2010)

Murray, Simone, ‘“Deeds and Words”: The Woman's Press and the Politics of Print’, Women: A Cultural Review, 11(3) (2000), pp. 197–222.

Murray, Simone, Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics (London: Pluto, 2004)

Rendall, Jane, ‘“A Moral Engine”? Feminism, Liberalism and the English Woman’s Journal’, in J. Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women's Politics, 1800–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), pp. 112–38.

Taylor, Helen, Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Thompson, John B., Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Polity, 2012)

Tusan, Michelle Elizabeth, ‘Writing Stri Dharma: International Feminism, Nationalist Politics, and Women's Press Advocacy in Late Colonial India’, Women's History Review, 12(4) (2003), pp. 623–49.

Sutherland, Catherine, ‘Women Printers’, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 8 March 2016 from <https://magdlibs.com/2016/03/08/women-printers/>

Wilson, Nicola, & Battershill, Claire (eds), Virginia Woolf and the World of Books (South Carolina: Clemson University Press, 2018)

Withers, D-M, ‘Enterprising Women: Independence, Finance and Virago Press, c. 1976–93’, Twentieth Century British History (2019). DOI: 10.1093/tcbh/hwz044


[1] Sutherland, Catherine, ‘Women Printers’. Retrieved 8 March 2016 from <https://magdlibs.com/2016/03/08/women-printers/>

[2] British Library item: Mss Eur F341/182.

[3] Cited in Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.13.

[4] Busby, cited in Ellams.

[6] 15 October 1993, letter from Lilian Mohin, 6OWP/2 Folder 5, The Women’s Library @ LSE.

[7] <https://www.womeninpublishinghistory.org.uk/content/category/interviewees/gail-rebuck>

[8] <https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem138501.html>

Banner: © Harriet Spicer

Article text © Margaretta Jolly

  • Margaretta Jolly
  • Dr Margaretta Jolly is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. She is and author of Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement 1968–present (2019). She directed ‘Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project’ with The British Library 2010–2013 and 'The Business of Women’s Words' with the British Library 2017–2021.

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