Joanne’s testimony (part 1 of 3)

In the first part of Joanne’s testimony talks about how Spare Rib magazine fitted into a broad spectrum of cultural influences growing up in the late 1970’s in Manchester.

Hi, I’m Joanne Hollows I suppose I first came to feminism in the late 1970s.

Can you tell us how or when you first encountered a feminist magazine?

I don’t exactly remember when I first encountered a feminist magazine but it would have been probably late 70s. I probably would have been I would guess roughly 16 years old, which would have been around 79. I definitely wasn’t in that first wave of feminism and definitely the first magazine I would have encountered was Spare Rib I think like a lot of people. It was a thing that was available in WH Smith’s which growing up in a suburb of Manchester was what I had available at the time but I don’t remember how or why I actually bought it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come across anyone else’s because I was the most likely person I knew to buy Spare Rib so none of my school friends ever bought it yet somehow I became aware of it, went into WH Smith’s and bought it and bought it probably fairly regularly while I was in sixth form I would say.

I’m interested in the fact that you probably found it in [WH] Smith’s do you remember when you went to look for the magazine, whether it was easy to find or whether it was tucked away at the bottom of the stack of magazines?

I don’t remember the first time but I do remember you really, really had to look for it. It was normally possibly one maybe two copies. There was obviously a load of Cosmopolitan and things like that in very high profile facing you and yeah, it was a real root around the fringes probably of women’s magazines or special interest magazines, hobbyist stuff too in order to find Spare Rib. In later days, I would buy it from more specialist places as I got older but at that point I was very much dependent on mainstream outlets.

Could you tell us any more about the particular part of Manchester where you were living at that point?

I grew up in Sale which is a south Manchester suburb fairly standard lower middle class place but with some very posh bits and some quite poor bits as well but it wasn’t a place that was sort of a trendy middle class place. It wasn’t a place overrun with feminists. It was a very ‘small c’ conservative kind of suburb.

Yeah it was as I say it was a fairly standard boring lower middle class upbringing that feminism really wasn’t part of I would say.

Do you remember how you did come to feminism given that was the background you grew up in?

I’m not really sure. I think it was probably the library. It’s a very sort of old-fashioned story but I used to work in the library as my Saturday job but I’d always spent a lot of time in the library basically just reading my way through whatever was there and I started encountering feminist novels and I don’t quite remember. There was a radical bookshop in Manchester and I can’t remember the first time I went there. I was already familiar with feminism by then because that was the motivation to go really; And that had a far greater range of feminist periodicals, feminist novels but I suppose it was an era when things like Virago Classics were being published and that kind of thing so they were sort of available and definitely in my local library

I guess it got to that point in the late 70s when those sorts of feminist books were becoming more available. The Manchester bookshop, has it got grass in its name?


Yeah Grassroots, thank you. Moving on to the next question in our list how did it feel? Do you remember how it felt when you read a feminist magazine for the first time?

I kind of remember it was about being part of another world. It was partly about being in a world I wanted to be in, in the sense of escape but I think that was as much or partly an age thing as much as a feminist identity thing. I grew up in this sort of three bedroom semi in a very three bedroom semi kind of area and it was a world where rather more exciting things happened but I think there’s a sense of not being alone as well, not being the only person who thought like I did. Most of my school friends had far more conventional thoughts but I think the other thing I wanted to say was I never entirely saw the feminist presses cut off from everything else around me so in a way I think feminist ideas were in the ether by 79.

So in a way some of those ideas… I wasn’t clear what was feminist what wasn’t properly feminist because they were all jumbled up so you’re getting a lot of stuff from popular culture, whether that was in disco songs and punk songs, in Cosmopolitan, in Charlie’s Angels and things like that and they were all a bit of a mishmash for me because some of them seem to be about female independence and I wasn’t well equipped to make fine distinctions between good and bad images of female independence. I suppose what things like Spare Rib did was they put that in a far more political context in an organizational context and also gave me a sense of depth I suppose, an understanding but I think I was probably I was probably a bit of a, I didn’t read everything. I wasn’t one of those people who read it cover to cover. I sort of read quite selectively but I think I probably read all women’s magazines like that.

Yeah magazines lend themselves to that kind of thing; it’s part of the pleasure of them I think. I’m interested in what you were saying at the end there because I guess Spare Rib does encourage a sort of analytical approach to that sort of popular culture, cultural material and I suppose that would help to orientate a burgeoning feminist consciousness

Yeah but again the fact that I ended up doing sociology and then later on when I ended up doing cultural studies, I think it’s very easy to read backwards and say, oh I became that person and therefore I was interested in those things but actually I think my interest, but I don’t think it’s just me of my generation, my interests for thinking sociology but also media and cultural studies came out of popular culture and it was things like Spare Rib but equally it was things like New Musical Express at the same time. So you’re in a culture where in some ways popular culture has been quite analytical of some things but yes I would say that Spare Rib made it more worthy. I didn’t always enjoy reading it to be fair.

Oh we should talk about that. Before we do I just very quickly wanted to return to one other thing you mentioned a couple of minutes ago which was that you felt that there was maybe some distance between some of the views of your schoolmates and peers and your own developing feminism and I think suggested that perhaps that played a role in in your sense that Spare Rib gave you a sense of community. I was just wondering if there’s anything else that you wanted to say about that. Don’t worry if not. I guess I’m interested in that sort of feeling of being among other teenagers but having a slightly different sense of the world.

Yeah that was quite a strong feeling and if I was generationally properly just a year or two out of something like Shocking Pink and I remember buying a copy of Shocking Pink which probably would, if it had come out two years earlier, have given me that far greater sense of identity because it was aimed, would have been aimed, at people more my age but yeah it was, it was very much an escape and reading was an escape and Spare Rib was part of that reading that was an escape but it was also, a weird thing to say, but a bit of a kind of model of mobility. So the escape was also an escape I suppose, into education, into trendy middle class [Laughter]. You may want this bit edited out [Laughter].

It represented an escape from convention I suppose but that in a way perhaps puts it a bit too simplistically.

We’re really interested in these sort of knotty aspects of magazines like Spare Rib might represent and of course you know it was often accused of being too middle class among other things. I guess that takes us back to where you left off a minute ago. We were talking about how sometimes reading Spare Rib perhaps was not the most enjoyable. Did you want to elaborate more on that?

I think I found it quite dull really. I mean sort of, it was there and kind of vital stuff but I felt it was educational. I was kind of trying to educate myself about things, so that was okay but I didn’t really feel any great pleasure, I don’t think, in reading it. I don’t know again if that was an age thing. You know by that point it had matured quite far, and whether I wasn’t really particularly its target audience anymore, as its readership had grown up as well. I now know it [had] sort of been wracked by internal debates and whether it was trying to so hard to please everyone it had forgotten to be an entertainment magazine in the process. When I’ve looked back at Spare Rib in retrospect, as an academic, actually I quite prefer some of the earlier ones which had a greater sense of fun because I think they were probably slightly better at getting the message across than when it became far more talking to itself perhaps, and talking to a limited number of people. It wasn’t that I felt excluded by it but I didn’t necessarily always feel engaged by it.

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