May 29, 2015

Spare Rib liberated online


A 1972 cover of the magazine. Image via Wikipedia

A 1972 cover of the magazine. Image via Wikipedia

The iconic radical magazine Spare Rib has been preserved in an online archive by the British Library. From yesterday, all 239 issues of the magazine, which charted the women’s liberation movement and ran from 1972-93, became available to access for free on a dedicated website.

Polly Russell, curator of politics and public life at the British Library, told the Guardian:

Funny, irreverent, intelligent and passionate, Spare Rib was a product of its time which is also somehow timeless. Detailed features of feminist issues such as domestic violence and abortion, and news stories about women from the UK and around the world sit side-by-side with articles about hair care [including the unwanted kind], how to put up a shelf and instructions on self-defence.

By making this part of our intellectual heritage available online, we hope it will attract new and returning generations of readers to the magazine for research, inspiration and enjoyment.

The Spare Rib website includes a selection of items from the archive, including original photographs, front covers and a facsimile of Spare Rib’s manifesto. The manifesto begins with sentiments that would not seem out of place on a feminist blog today:

The concept of Women’s Liberation is widely misunderstood, feared and ridiculed. Many women remain isolated and unhappy…We believe that women’s liberation is of vital importance to women now and, intrinsically, to the future of our society.

Writing about the archive in the Guardian, Zoe Williams noted how the Women’s Liberation movement has been given a bad name, and is now seen as a necessary but humourless period in the fight for women’s equality. Looking through the pages of Spare Rib again, Williams found this was not so:

…it is a genuine surprise to discover its lightness, its self-parody, the openness, the warmth, the big-heartedness, the caustic hilarity, the confidence and the robustness. The era, with the magazine as its emblem, has for too long been painted as a necessary but rather joyless, wholemeal staging post on the mountain path to equality. In fact, while there are some recipes that read like a survival guide for a post-nuclear dystopia, the atmosphere is carnivalesque: a thinking person’s carnival, with a real sense of direction.

My browse through the online archive resulted in a similar impression—the front cover headlines in particular show a magazine that wanted to be practical, to empower, and to make women laugh. There’s a ironic humour that underpins many of the headlines:

How about a MALE au pair?

On the boss’s lap for Christmas — back under his thumb next year

Woman’s Role: Shortcut to Madness

Do-It-Yourself Divorce

Goodbye to the CREEPS: Self Defence Six Page Special

Sex—Telepathy doesn’t work

Aside from the articles, the front cover images are still striking today. The Spare Rib covers show all kinds of women: black, white, old, young, pregnant, with a baby in a sling, smiling, frowning, screaming. The discussions around feminism may have progressed but the front covers show us that challenging visual representations of women may be the final, and toughest, frontier.

The co-founder of the magazine, Marsha Rowe, told the Guardian:

It is as if the magazine has been given a new lease of life. By making the magazine freely available over the internet, it can encourage women round the world to act together to change and be a resource in support of their struggle for rights and freedoms.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.