Explore Two Centuries of Independent Feminist Press

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Gillian Murphy

The English Woman's Journal (1858)Original Source: LSE Library

LSE Curator Gillian Murphy on the magazines created by the women's movement

Independent feminist periodicals have been a staple of the women’s movement since the 19th century, and show women writing for women in a variety of different ways. This overview of those publications draws on the work of David Doughan - a former librarian at the Women’s Library - and Denise Sanchez, authors of Feminist Periodicals, 1855-1984: Annotated Critical Bibliography of British, Irish, Commonwealth and International Titles.

Examples of feminist journalism in the early 19th century include Eliza Sharples Carlile’s Isis (1832) and Eliza Cook’s Journal (1849-1854); however, feminist publishing really began with the monthly English Woman’s Journal (1858-1864), edited by Bessie Rayner Parkes and Barbara Bodichon. This began as a general literary magazine with a feminist bias, but quickly became a feminist magazine with some literary contributions. It featured regular articles on topics such as education, employment, married women’s property rights, and women’s emigration. The subject of women’s suffrage was mentioned in its final issue.

The English Woman's Journal (From the collection of LSE Library)

Its successor, The Englishwoman’s Review, was a current-awareness quarterly for the women’s movement, edited by Helen Blackburn from 1886 to 1899. Broader feminist issues were now also addressed by Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press, most notably the Victoria Magazine (1863-1880).

The first specialized British suffrage periodical, containing lots of campaign information, was Lydia Becker’s Women’s Suffrage Journal (1870-1890). It did also feature other contemporary feminist issues, such as married women’s property rights. The Shield (1870-1970) was a contemporary feminist paper with a single agenda: the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which made it legal to subject women to degrading genital examinations if they were suspected (with no evidence required) of working as prostitutes. The Shield continued as a feminist voice in the social purity movement, becoming the organ of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene.

The Shield (1869) by National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases ActsOriginal Source: LSE Library

The Shield, National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (From the collection of LSE Library)

The most ardent feminist paper of its time was the Women’s Penny Paper (1888-1890). Its subtitle was ‘The only paper in the world conducted, written (printed and published) by women’. Printed by the Women’s Printing Society, it contained interviews with prominent feminists and reports from various women’s organisations such as the Primrose League. It was edited by ‘Helen B Temple’, a pen-name of Henrietta B Muller, sister of prominent feminist and suffrage campaigner Eva McLaren. The Women’s Penny Paper later changed its name to the Women’s Herald, and continued until Henrietta Muller went to India. It then became the paper of the suffragist Women’s Liberal Federation, later developing links with the temperance movement leading to a takeover by Lady Henry (Isobel) Somerset.

Due to the lack of coverage in the general press, suffrage campaigners created and supported several publications specific to the cause. Shafts (1892-1900) was a radical feminist paper which covered the suffrage movement, particularly featuring articles from Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. The Women’s Franchise (1907-1911), published by John E Francis, a member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, covered all views of the suffrage campaign.

The Women's Penny Paper (1891) by The woman's heraldOriginal Source: LSE Library

The Women's Penny Paper (From the collection of LSE Library)

Votes for Women (1907) by The Women's Social & Political Union, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and Frederick Pethick-LawrenceOriginal Source: LSE Library

Votes for Women (From the collection of LSE Library)

Suffrage societies also produced their own papers, Votes for Women (1907-1918) being probably the most well-known. It began as the official organ of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) until the Pankhursts fell out with its founding editors and funders, Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, in 1912. The Suffragette then became the official paper.

The Common Cause (1909-1920) was the paper of the National Union of the Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), first edited by Helena Swanwick, with Clementina Black and Maude Royden joining later. It contained articles on a wide range of feminist topics. The Vote (1909-1933) was the paper of the Women’s Freedom League, an off-shoot group from the WSPU, and was always concerned with other topics besides suffrage, such as sexual oppression, restrictions on women’s employment, prostitution, and more.

"Some types of electors who did NOT sign the petition" (1910-02-03)Original Source: LSE Library

The Common Cause (From the collection of LSE Library)

Between the two world wars, the women’s press changed considerably. A substantial feminist periodical of the 1920s was the Women’s Leader (1920-1932), paper of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, successor to the NUWSS. Although its main campaign was equal franchise, it also campaigned for the abolition of the marriage bar, equal knowledge of birth control, equal pay, and many other feminist issues.

Time and Tide (1920), founded by Margaret Haig, Lady Rhondda, vigorously reviewed politics, literature and the arts, and for a time included reports from the Six Point Group, a new feminist organisation also founded by Lady Rhondda. Many prominent women contributed articles, including Vera Brittain, Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby, Elizabeth Robins, Christopher St John (the pen name of playwright Christabel Marshall), Helena Swanwick and Virginia Woolf.

The Women's Press is Steaming Ahead (1978/1990) by The Women's Press (publisher)Original Source: LSE Library

The Women's Press Is Steaming Ahead, The Women's Press (From the collection of LSE Library)

The inter-war years saw a rise in magazines catering for the middle and lower-middle classes, whose titles would become household names in the 1940s and 1950s. The list included Good Housekeeping (1922), Woman and Home (1926), Woman’s Own (1932), and Woman (1937). The boom broke by the end of the 1950s with sales dropping, and women’s journalism had to be re-assessed to cater for the modern woman. One innovation was Nova (1965-1975), a ground-breaking magazine which owed its existence to market research. It was artistic, intelligent and worldly.

By the end of the 1960s, women were beginning to question their position and role in society. The Shrew (1968-1978) was the first of many magazines in Britain to emerge from the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). It aimed to break down isolation between women by discussing the WLM’s aims and ideas. Initially, each edition was produced by a different group within the London Women’s Liberation Workshop.

The Suffragette (1913-07-04)Museum of London

The Suffragette newspaper (From the collection of Museum of London)

The best known feminist magazine of the era, Spare Rib, (1972-1993) was published ‘to put Women’s Liberation on the newsstands’. It was started by women of the underground press to provide an alternative to commercial women’s magazines, and played an important role in introducing women to feminism. During this period, women also set up publishing houses: Virago Press was founded in 1973; Sheba Feminist Press in 1980, which specialized in Black and Asian women’s writing; The Onlywomen Press (1974); and The Women’s Press (1978), which promoted lesbian writing in particular. Tri-annual women’s studies journal The Feminist Review was established in 1979, and is still published today.

From the 1990s onwards, feminism increasingly found its voice through online blogs such as The F-Word, Rarely Wears Lipstick and The Vagenda, with a key feature being to challenge stereotyping and discrimination in mainstream media. With the feminist resurgence of the late 2000s came Feminist Times - originally envisaged as an attempted revival of Spare Rib by journalist Charlotte Raven. This was followed by a range of increasingly mainstream online titles, including The Pool, Standard Issue, and gal-dem, and indie print publications like Riposte and Ladybeard, continuing the legacy of feminist media well into the 21st century.

Dr Gillian Murphy, Curator of Equality, Rights and Citizenship, LSE Library

Spare Rib (1972) by Spare Rib CollectiveOriginal Source: LSE Library

Spare Rib (From the collection of LSE Library)

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