Helen’s testimony (part 1 of 2)

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In the first part of her testimony Helen talks about her introduction to Spare Rib magazine in the early 1970’s. She discusses issues around women’s health and in particular, mental health

Recording in progress. Helen would you mind just telling us a little bit about yourself first of all

Okay I’m Helen McConachie, I’m 72, and I worked as a clinical psychologist in the health service and then as a researcher at Newcastle University in the field of childhood disability mostly. I was born in Edinburgh, went to St Andrews University and then University in London. I’ve worked in Dundee, Manchester, London, and then Newcastle and I’ve been in Newcastle for 23 years

Okay brilliant thank you so obviously the first question is very much about your first encounter with a feminist magazine, do you remember that?

Not specifically, but I do know that I had an almost complete set of Spare Rib which unfortunately I donated to charity some years ago in one of my many moves. I think the first one I bought was number five and that would mean probably it was 1976 that I started to read Spare Rib, so I was 26 well probably 25 at the time.

[when reviewing the transcript, Helen corrected the date near the beginning of the recording from 1976 to 1973 when she would have been 22 or 3]

What were your first impressions of the magazine or do you remember anything specifically about why you were attracted to Spare Rib.

I don’t know why I was attracted to it but I do remember thinking that it was like coming home. Things were being written there that made sense of the kind of maelstrom in my head of contradictory ideas. And also sort of like a signpost of how to deal with things that annoyed me or made me angry but actually that could be positive ways of doing something about things, or being part of a much broader group of women that were thinking similar things; so it was just, it was wonderful. It was a relief and very inspiring

So can you remember any particular aspects of Spare Rib that you were drawn to or any particular issues or campaigns or parts of the magazine that you can turn to straight away?

Well, I thought one thing that was good about it was that it was a visually attractive magazine;, it was well designed so it was easy to read. In preparation for this interview, I was looking back through some documents that I still have from that sort of time, and they’re appalling, unreadable, you know, text all crammed in, and litho? What do you call it, the kind of reproduction process where they, rolled out one page at a time.  But Spare Rib was never like that. You could read it properly. I think I used to like the letters [page] because they were always [from] really interesting people, asking a question or relating an event or something.  And then the interviews with interesting women that therefore you could be interested in because they weren’t, well maybe some of them were film stars or whatever, but they weren’t film stars and the kind of women that otherwise whose lives were on show on television or in other kinds of magazines

It’s really interesting that you mentioned other sorts of magazines that maybe have been in circulation at that time which were more text heavy and much less engaging. Those kind of visual objects and that it’s kind of extraordinary to think about Spare Rib now, even now you know, when you look at magazines that are available, you go into WH Smith or something and Spare Rib just did something, really quite extraordinary. It managed to bring in those ideas from those what you might call, hardcore pamphlets, that were in circulation, that we’re exploring feminist ideas but then putting them into a commercial, mainstream magazine.

Yeah, can I just ask you, as a little follow-up on that, were you buying Spare Rib from WH Smith’s or where were you getting it just from newsstands

I’m pretty sure it didn’t come through the door; I didn’t have a subscription in that way so yes, I must have just been buying it in in a newsagent somewhere.

Well that’s interesting because although they had problems with distribution it was accessible in that way, a lot of the pamphlets weren’t.

Were you reading other newsletters and periodicals, the slightly more shoddily produced ones that you’re referring to? What were they?

Well the things that I was looking at were uh, I don’t know at the moment who produced them but they were things to do with campaigns against violence against women, and so I probably picked them up at meetings. They certainly wouldn’t have been on sale in the ordinary way

Yeah that’s what we’re finding with a lot of the magazines that the distribution was actually often at meetings and conferences that’s how people pick those things up.

How involved were you as a reader? Did you ever write a letter in yourself or did you ever make a contribution?

No, I’m sure I’m pretty sure I didn’t

And how influential do you think reading Spare Rib and any of the other things that you were reading… how influential was that on your everyday life do you think?

I think it gave me information, that’s one thing; I can’t remember exactly. In Dundee I must have been in a women’s group or in touch with the women’s group, but I can’t really think clearly about where that was, but I remember reading in Spare Rib an article about the children who lived at Lauriston Hall, which was a big commune in the southwest of Scotland. And Lauriston Hall ran a women’s movement week, once a year, and I went to that twice.  I know that I drove down with a woman from Dundee and her kids and she wasn’t somebody that was a friend or that I knew through work, so I must have met her through some women’s meetings, but I just don’t recall what. I know what I belonged to in Manchester but not in Dundee, it’s a complete blank. It’s funny isn’t it the things you do remember.

One of the things we’re really interested in is the actual role that magazines played in connecting people up to each other and connecting people to the movement. Did you feel involved in a movement as such? Did you feel part of the women’s movement?

Yes, yes I did. It was an important part of my identity. I remember when I moved to Dundee at the end of 1974 I made contact with Women’s Aid and the first thing they invited me to, was a wine and cheese evening and I just thought, “What? This isn’t what I want!”. And so I’m afraid I made an instant decision and didn’t go, which is, in retrospect to be just as  judgmental as that, was awful. Certainly, I did feel part of a movement and Spare Rib coming out once a month was part of reinforcing that.

What about at work Helen because you’re in quite an interesting area I suppose at quite an interesting time as well; with maybe more women coming into the profession.

Yeah, well it was. As clinical psychologists, there was always a big proportion of women. Probably at the time that I trained it was just less than 50 percent. So when you say what about at work, what specifically do you mean?

I suppose I’m thinking about whether the kinds of things you were reading in Spare Rib were influencing your practice at all or making you attentive to things that you might not have had words for before?

That’s an interesting question. What has come into my mind is actually nothing specific in Spare Rib. I’m not sure whether they covered mental health that well; it was still a taboo subject really.  But I remember at a discussion at Lauriston Hall being essentially attacked by a woman about conventional mental health practice in the NHS, and she was saying “well it’s no use for women because they just don’t know what women’s lives are like and everybody makes judgments and they give pills” and this and that and the next thing,  but afterwards she came up to me and said that one of the reasons she was exercised about mental health was that she’d been sharing a house with somebody who was going through a crisis, and she herself was finding it really difficult to cope with this woman’s mental health difficulties. And so then we had a long discussion. So I think that various things made me think about why it was that that women were more likely to have mental health difficulties, and also how to understand those in the context of the lives that women had, and the pressures on them, the pressures to be happy and be perfect and to look after your husband and bring up your brilliant children etc. etc. There was precious little understanding of that; but I don’t know that it was reflected in Spare Rib. Maybe it was

I suppose what I was thinking when you were talking was about Spare Rib’s scepticism about the medical establishment and its various masculine biases and women’s experiences of going to doctors and being dismissed and so that was what I suppose I was alluding to when I asked the question.

Well I agree there was a lot going on at the time, particularly about physical health. I used to read a lot, I still do, and I’ve got shelves full of books, but the books from that time were a lot to do with physical health. There was an American group that published Our Bodies Ourselves and I probably read about that in Spare Rib first of all, and then bought it. That included discussion of self-examination, just opening up women’s eyes to all the things that might be going on in their bodies and that were just not considered by the medical profession traditionally.

What’s great about listening to these testimonies is that is that you suddenly realize “oh actually this is something that that we should be looking for in the magazines”. For instance you say “is there much on exploring mental health issues” for instance. And then that gives us a great way of going back and thinking about that question exploring the magazines in relation to that question. So that’s really helpful.

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