Written by The Business of Women's Words team.
Think 1970s UK feminism was a purely metropolitan affair? Ever wondered whether the Women’s Liberation Movement stretched beyond the boundaries of big cities? The new digital map resource at the British Library might have some surprising answers.
Spare Rib cover, Nov 1976, Issue 52 © Michael Ann Mullen
The Spare Rib map is the first digital resource to visualise the networks and activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) across the UK and Ireland. It has been created by the Business of Women’s Words project, a research partnership between the British Library and the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Its data is drawn from Spare Rib (1972-1993), the iconic feminist magazine digitised by the British Library. Based on a sample (around 30%) of Spare Rib’s listings, adverts and letters pages, the map represents a slice of the intense feminist activity that flowered during the magazine’s twenty-year run. What it shows is that the WLM was a truly national movement, with datapoints ranging from the Western Isles of Scotland to Leiston in Suffolk, and from Derry in Ireland to Falmouth in Cornwall.
Snapshot of the Spare Rib map from 1983
The map sheds new light on the structure of the WLM and illuminates its regional centres and hubs, as well as a wider web of more isolated feminist activity. Lancaster, for example, was a regional hub that hosted a number of feminist publications, women’s counselling services, a lesbian helpline and took part in the Feminist Book Fortnight; and Bangor in Wales offered an array of feminist groups, businesses selling feminist postcards, jewellery and shoes, and alternative communal accommodation. The map’s colour-coded categories and symbols visualise the sheer diversity of activities and goods generated by the WLM, from political demonstrations to carpentry workshops to co-operatively produced clothing.
Although the WLM is often thought of as outside capitalist transactions of buying and selling, the map makes clear that Spare Rib, and the movement more broadly, was a site of exchange – personal, ideological, but also commercial. Businesses, from dating agencies to therapists to bookshops and publishers, were a key part of the feminist community and helped to advance the reach of the movement. The extraordinary number of women-only or lesbian B&Bs advertised in Spare Rib in the 1980s, for instance, demonstrate how women-run businesses extended the movement into some of the most rural parts of the UK, from the Lake District to the Isle of Arran, and from Piltown in Ireland to Yelverton in Devon. By drawing on letters as well as listings and adverts sent into Spare Rib, the map visualises not only the nationwide distribution of feminist events, commodities and services, but a network of (often critical) consumers and activists. It charts change over time, revealing the changing priorities and infrastructure of the movement, from consciousness raising groups to women’s centres, feminist businesses and women’s studies courses.
Fully searchable by category, year, keyword and geographical location, the Spare Rib map is a rich interactive resource which opens up new avenues of research for historians of UK and Irish women’s movements across two decades of intense activism.