“Write your way to success!” is the slogan of an advert carried by Time and Tide in a February 1929 issue, and this sentiment has been carried upon the tide of feminist publishing across a century since. From the resurgence of feminist magazines published in association with the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the 1970s, titles including Spare Rib (1972-1993) and Women’s Voice (1972-1982), to the digital age of feminist magazines such as gal-dem (2015-present) The Vagenda (2012-2015) and Black Ballad (2014-present), feminists have always been concerned with the political act of getting women writing, corresponding, and liberated.
But how do feminist magazines themselves facilitate these conversations? This was the overarching question posed at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham for a Feminist Book Fortnight event “The Tide Comes in: Feminist Magazines, Past and Present” on 24 May 2022.
Dr Catherine Clay (Nottingham Trent University) was joined in conversation with Dr Laurel Forster (University of Portsmouth) and Dr Joanne Hollows (independent writer and researcher), to discuss the histories of feminist magazines and their place in political dissemination and debate. Their conversation illuminated the fascinating ways that feminist magazines have reshaped feminism for successive generations.
The parallels between generational iterations of feminist magazines became immediately apparent as Catherine, Joanne and Laurel spoke. The feminists who ran these periodical enterprises showed concern with the success of their magazines, placing a personal stake in them in financial and material ways. Lady Rhondda, owner-editor of Time and Tide, effectively bankrolled this magazine, while Spare Rib received financial help from its wealthy contributors and friends. Magazines such as Shrew (1969-1978) and Shocking Pink (1980-1992) were produced in a DIY aesthetic, often running out of contributors’ kitchens.
Yet, the ways magazines kept themselves afloat were, at times, in contradiction with the content they were circulating. We can see ads in Time and Tide for corset belts as well as for feminist campaign meetings, and ads for feminine beauty products contrasted against the latest feminist book titles promoted by Spare Rib. Over time, and after criticism, Spare Rib would move away from advertisements for products of feminine consumption, but it did not stop advertising altogether. As Joanne put it, using an illustrated advert of a WLM knitting pattern and an anecdote about Spare Rib diaries to emphasise her point, feminist magazines sold a “feminist lifestyle” over a “feminine” one.
Levelling the playing field in employment has been a long-running concern for the feminist magazine. In February 1921 Time and Tide printed the manifesto of the “Six Point Group” which declared among its objectives “equal pay” and “equal opportunity” between women and men in professional environments. The second wave magazines, too, saw women seeking a stake in women led businesses as a means of fiscal equality. These magazines gave women skills and identities as workers and, crucially, as writers. Magazines across feminist history sought articles from unknown voices, as well as from experienced journalists; the everywoman was encouraged to become a writer and to “write her way to success”.
What I found most engaging in the conversation between Catherine, Joanne, and Laurel was the importance of correspondence to all generations of magazine. Readers of Time and Tide debated feminist issues in the magazine’s correspondence columns and, engaging with contemporary literary culture, demanded more book reviews. The correspondence pages of second wave magazines were spaces where women would write in and parley with one another, fostering communities and engaging with debates. Mail art of the female body and sexuality was circulated to readers and designed to be posted on. Feminist consciousness was raised by encouraging women to enter a writing, debating community.
Important, too, was the conversation held about who these magazines were for, which spoke to the questions raised in the second wave regarding the various forms of class, gender, and racially based oppressions. Joanne and Laurel touched upon the reparations the larger magazines tried to make on pages and payrolls, as well as magazines created specifically for Black and Asian identities, such as Mukti (1983-1987) which was funded by Camden council and printed in six different languages. Moving into the contemporary feminist moment, where intersecting oppressions are now assumed in our feminist consciousness and the voices of Black and Asian women are amplified, we can see these changes reflected in digital magazine cultures in magazines like gal-dem and Burnt Roti (2016-present). Contemporary magazines face new challenges in financing, subscription models, and Twitter politics. Still, the importance of getting women’s voices heard through writing remains, and the parameters in which women get to speak is rightfully expanding.
In response to a question at the conclusion of the event, which asked about what lessons we could learn from past magazines, the speakers advocated that we need to start talking to each other again. Perhaps this is where the new era of feminist magazines can turn the tide?
By Annabel Wearring-Smith
Annabel Wearring-Smith is a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham. She is researching the social and publishing networks of the Virago Press (1975-). Annabel’s research blog is available at https://publishher.wordpress.com/