“I was accused of everything except turning people into frogs!”

Our Principal Library Assistant Lena Munday and our Site Engagement Librarian Donna Ballan reflect on lesbian voices in the collections at WSA Library.

In celebration of LGBT History Month, our exhibition ‘Lesbian Voices’ focused on the presence and representation of gay women across our collections. In particular, it was an opportunity to showcase our collection of Spare Rib magazines.

“Homosexuality is not a crime, a sin or a disease; it need not even be a problem if society did not make it so for many.” Spare Rib, (Issue 50), September 1976. p.8.

 

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Spare Rib, (Issue 50), September 1976

 

Mainstream women’s magazines throughout the last century fed their readers a diet of fashion, advice about relationships with men, and cooking for the family. Spare Rib, in contrast, gave women who did not conform to conventional expectations, or who were in particularly oppressed and underrepresented minorities, a voice. Unlike most contemporary women’s magazines, Spare Rib was written, published and owned by women. This allowed women of all sexualities, ethnic backgrounds, religions and classes to tell their own stories, shape their own narratives and to mobilize as a sex class.

We have in our collection most issues of this Women’s Liberation Movement magazine. The publication ran from 1972 until 1993, and consistently challenged the stereotyping and exploitation of women. Its narrative was socialist in essence, with much emphasis on campaigning for better working conditions, pay, and childcare. It also sought to raise awareness of important social and political issues, such as domestic violence and homophobia. There were adverts for relevant talks and conferences, and the opportunity to connect with other women via listed courses, groups, and events. The motto of the Women’s Movement became “The personal is political”.

“The assumption of the courts and the judges… is that a lesbian cannot by definition be a good mother, so it must always be in the interests of the children to live apart from her.” Spare Rib, (Issue 50), September 1976. p.6.

 

Spare Rib Sept 1976

Spare Rib, (Issue 50), September 1976

 

Spare Rib gave a voice to lesbians, and helped to campaign for women who were suffering discrimination in areas such as housing and childcare due to their sexuality. For example, in January 1977, Spare Rib reported that ‘‘Three appeal judges have given custody of 11 year old twins to their mother who is a lesbian’’. This was a ground-breaking victory, as previously courts had more often than not “taken the view that homosexuality automatically disqualified a mother from caring for her children”.

 

“The myth of lesbians as child molesters is often in evidence and the courts may ask the mother how she will manage if her women friends make sexual advances to her daughters. It is hard to believe that the judge would voice his concern about a woman’s new husband seducing her daughter – though it is far more likely to happen.” Spare Rib, (Issue 50), September 1976. p.8.

 

Similarly, in December 1984, it highlighted the case of Mary Simpson, a lesbian woman from Harrogate who was fighting to keep her council house, and helped to raise money for her to fight her case. These cases were hugely significant for lesbians and all women, yet they weren’t reported in contemporary, traditional women’s magazines.

 

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Spare Rib, (Issue 50), September 1976

 

Spare Rib evolved as a publication in order to fully represent and embody intersectional feminism. For example, it raised the visibility of black women, thanks to emerging writers and activists committed to fighting the oppression of all women. Black, Jewish, and lesbian, Linda Bellos was instrumental in ensuring a strong representation of black lesbian issues after first experiencing Spare Rib as very white and middle class when she arrived as a staff writer in 1981. The covers of Spare Rib spanning three decades show a striking diversity of women.

 

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Given that Spare Rib was created to represent and raise female voices, it is especially significant that the British Library’s Spare Rib digital archive faces a possible suspension*. In line with European copyright law, the British Library digitized every copy of Spare Rib and these are available via the Jisc Journals platform. However, if the UK leaves the European Union without a withdrawal agreement, European copyright laws may no longer apply and legally, the British Library may not be able to maintain the accessibility of the digitized collection, although access to their physical collection, Spare Rib website and articles would remain.

WSA Library represents a diverse range of voices within our collections, including those of lesbians and feminists. These voices may appear in different and new formats, such as zines or online platforms, and often they will challenge or disagree with each other. Spare Rib offers a valuable insight into lesbian voices and female experiences from the past, and these voices and experiences can help us understand what it means to be a woman today.

 

*In addition, see recent discussions on social media and in the Guardian.

For more information about our collections, please see our catalogue or our LibGuides page.

If you would like to view our  Spare Rib collection, please email your request to wsaenqs@soton.ac.uk