“We called it women’s liberation. It didn’t become feminist for years.”
England, June 1972 and, at rrp seventeen and a half pence, Spare Rib was born. Born from two sprightly young journalists, Rosie Boycott and co-editor Marsha Rowe’s passionate desires to reach out to women, challenge the quid pro quo, socially accepted norms of the time to bring equality, something from the underground of the newspaper world to the forefront where it belongs, in my view.
In 1972 the biggest-selling British women’s magazine was Women’s Own. A beautifully stereotypical kitchen-based glossy alongside Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan until in June of that year when Spare Rib arrived.
The title itself came perhaps unsurprisingly from a meeting between the co-founders in a Chinese restaurant. The key purpose Spare Rib served to honour is, in my humble view, equality rights for women. The name itself gets, if a little shaky, attributed to a male. With a first front cover entitled ‘The Days Women Rock The World’ Kate Heburn, as the publication’s first Art Director, openly recounted, “It’s not pompous, it’s not straight. It is radical but it is clear.” As the Suffragettes did for asserting the rights of women to have a vote, Rosie, Marsha, Kate and all at Spare Rib did to reclaim (or is that claim?) the rights of women to be treated as the strong, independent-minded, intelligent and equal members of society they had hitherto (may still fight to flourish as) been supressed from being.
In the 1970’s, a women had to re-apply for her job if she got married and it was still legal to sack a women if she fell pregnant. Ramifications of this law are still felt today in terms of a woman’s chances at career progression and indeed unequal pay scales for doing the same job as a man are still prevalent. Writer, journalist and broadcaster the late Jill Tweedie recounts a women working in Fleet Street journalism during the 1970’s was “attacked on their looks, on their age. . . ” Elvino’s Wine Bar, a Fleet Street watering hole, would not allow women to buy their own drinks at the bar.
Marsha Rowe says of Spare Rib, “It became seen as the public face of the Women’s [Liberation] Movement . . . autonomy was a vital issue.” And so the fight to flourish through Spare Rib grew to have a circulation figure of between 20,000 and 40,000 depending on the estimates you take.
As Mary Berry was doing at this time, and continues to do for the empowerment of women to step away from the kitchen sink, Spare Rib strove, and arguably achieved, the ends to empower women to read and embrace a publication which did not play to the stereotypical ‘women in the home’, ‘at the kitchen sink’, ‘slaving over a hot stove’ archetypical, socially-accepted role of women during the 1970’s in England. It gave women a lifeline to be themselves, flying against what they were taught at school and beyond as to what a woman’s role in society should be. In short, it became a publication marking, in my humble view, the beginning of a progression in literary history to recognise women’s interests and desires as individuals and not necessarily just as mothers, wives and homemakers.
Marsha Rowe openly recounts “We began it as the alternative news magazine for women.” Spoken from the lips of the original ‘Spare Ribber’, Marsha encapsulates in this statement, for me at least, the mood of the country at this time towards what a woman should be. More specifically, what a woman ‘should’ be reading. Did anyone mention ‘chick flick’ and romance novels? I dare not. Far be it for me to criticise, and I wouldn’t, the time-served and engaging publications previously mentioned as they are designed and reach out to interests, crossing in the 21st Century boundaries of sex. This written, Britain during the 1970’s was indeed ready for a Spare Rib.
With feminist icons like Jane Fonda and Angela Davies in full support, Spare Rib reached out to what was missing in the news trade: a publication of empowerment and interest to a target market of women by women for women. Complete with a Men’s page “… a joke on the tokenism of women’s pages in national newspapers…” Rowe recounts in forthright and typically whimsical fashion.
The woman behind the women, Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott, as with their culture- shifting work on Spare Rib, have and continue to stand at the forefront of their profession. Marsha as a continuously published author, Rosie as Chair of London Food Board continues to inspire not just women but society in general. Marsha charged to improve the health of those living in London. One may arguably see similes with dear young thing Jamie Oliver’s succinct charge with improving the health of schoolchildren. Yes but Rosie was doing this years ago.
Rosie is the original female broadsheet editor. She was the first British female daily newspaper editor on the Independent on Sunday, followed by the Independent, Esquire and Daily Express. Developing during 2012, Capital Growth to grow your own vegetables, continuing the pathway instigated by Mary Berry, spearheaded by Rosie, taken up by Jamie.
December 1972’s Christmas edition featured on the front cover a young John Cleese. “At Spare Rib we were always concerned about our dialogue with readers.” Dialogue marking a socially evolving culture shift reaffirmed by 1975’s release of Faulty Towers, playing Britain’s television screens until 1979. Featuring Cleese as the somewhat downtrodden husband to the headstrong, no-nonsense Sybil, played beautifully by Prunella Scales. Plainly I surmise a long overdue caricatured culture shift was afoot. Arguably spearheaded by Spare Rib some years earlier. Put these two challenging of societies quid pro quos together and surely then you have the beginning of a positive movement?
“I think the reason it lasted was because actually its cause was a true cause and its cause was a needed cause and it arrived in the world at the right time…we were there.” Rosie Boycott.