Charlotte Lauder and Rachael Alexander on the emergence of Scottish feminist print culture
The 1970s was unquestionably a decade of a new feminist print culture. As the women’s liberation movement gathered speed across the UK and Ireland, there was a renewal of feminist publications that combined the content of a magazine – articles, essays, poetry, and letters – with an informative and communicative style similar to that of a newsletter or newspaper. This feminist print culture grew out of consciousness-raising groups, collectives, and workshops. In England, this developed more quickly and more diversely than in Scotland. For example, Shrew (1969-74, 1976-78), a newsletter that started at the London Women’s Liberation Workshop had a circulation of about 5,000 by 1974.
Well-known English feminist magazines such as Woman’s Voice (1972-82), Spare Rib (1972-93), and Red Rag: A Magazine of Women’s Liberation (1972-80) were organised by collectives and similarly aimed to provide analysis-based articles and opinion pieces with essential information akin to a flyer or bulletin. WIRES (1975-86), created by the Women’s Information and Referral Service was the so-called ‘internal newsletter’ of the women’s liberation movement that acted as ‘a central facility for feminist news’.[i] Other magazines from collectives in England show a range of viewpoints within the women’s liberation movement, such as Roman Catholic Feminists Magazine (1977-82), Link. Communist Party Women’s Journal (1973-84), Catcall (1976-84), and the Association of Radical Midwives Newsletter (1978-86, 1986-9). Ireland, too, had feminist print scene by 1972 with Fownes Street Journal (1972-4), Banshee. Journal of Irishwomen United (1975-77), Wicca. A Monthly Feminist Magazine (1978-c.80), and Status (1981-2).
The emergence of a Scottish feminist print culture has been described as ‘a trickle’.[ii] Although there were newsletters produced by women’s groups throughout the 1970s, such as the Edinburgh Women’s Liberation Newsletter (1975-1996) and The Tayside Women’s Liberation Newsletter, which was a joint effort between women’s groups in Dundee and St Andrews,[iii] 1976 was the turning point for a more determined Scottish feminist print culture. At the annual Scottish Women’s Liberation conference in Glasgow that year, a proposal was passed to form a feminist magazine and at the next conference in Aberdeen in May 1977 the first issue of Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal was launched.[iv] The magazine was organised by a collective of nine women, with production assistance from four others, and ran for 4 issues at 25p per issue. The principal aim of Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal was to represent the issues and concerns of women in Scotland, rather than relying solely on the viewpoint of publications from England:
The journal will also provide a forum for discussion for women in Scotland. A vehicle for debate on various controversial issues is badly needed. It is simply impractical to attempt to conduct discussions through already existing journals based in London. It is to be hoped that the journal will encourage active participation in discussion from women both inside and outside the movement.[v]
Like other feminist magazines, the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal (1977-78) published a variety of content including poetry, fiction, news, conference reports, book reviews, and political articles. Its list of ‘Contacts’ was especially important and provided a central source of information on women’s groups, collectives, and workshops that were operating across Scotland.[vi]
Geographical representation was another major concern for the magazine’s collective: articles such as Frances Bower and Joan McLellan’s ‘Women in Rural Scotland’ drew attention to the lack of access to healthcare, support groups, and educational opportunities faced by women in more remote areas of Scotland.[vii] In November 1977, a short article on the Shetland Women’s Group discussed that the group was facing “a limit to what can be done effectively in a small community where everyone knows everyone else, and to the kind o’ tactics we can use”.[viii] By 1978, the magazine’s ‘Contacts’ list has expanded to include Dumbarton, Inverness, and Falkirk, and calls were made for volunteers to distribute copies of the magazine on the west coast and the western isles.[ix]
Despite the magazine’s non-sectarian and inclusive policy, it was quickly caught up in the divisions between radical and socialist feminists that dominated feminist debate in the late-1970s. These tensions were splattered across the pages of most (if not all) feminist magazines in the UK and Ireland, and the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal was no different.[x] ‘In Feminism and Socialism’, Finella McKenzie (the St Andrews contact in the editorial collective) discussed the limitations of socialist feminism,[xi] and the article was reprinted in Scarlet Women (1976-82), a national newsletter produced by a women’s collective in North Shields, Tyneside, which emerged from discussions begun by socialist feminists at the 1976 National Women’s Liberation conference in Newcastle.[xii]
As Sarah Browne sets out, divisions could become nasty.[xiii] An open letter from a feminist in New York criticised one member of the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal’s position on radical feminism that was put forward at a radical theory conference in Edinburgh in July 1977 in a particularly heated and personal attack.[xiv] By the winter of 1977, rifts in the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal were obvious. Collective member Fiona Forsyth reported that:
The main disagreements were between feminists who saw women’s oppression by men as the fundamental structure which has existed in all forms of society, and the socialist feminists who wanted to discuss the links between male domination and capitalism.[xv]
Ultimately, these divisions, as well as disagreements about whether the magazine should include more literary content or focus especially on Scottish politics and the nationalist question, were too difficult to uphold in the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal collective and there was a split in 1978.[xvi] Esther Breitenbach and Geri Smyth, founding members of the collective and sympathetic to the socialist feminist cause, went on to produce Msprint: A Scottish Feminist Publication (1978-81).
Msprint – a play on the word ‘misprint’ and a reference to Ms., the liberal-feminist magazine founded by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes in 1972 – was similar to its predecessor but operated a closed editorial collective (initially 7 members in 1978 and 3 by 1981) in which prospective members had to be sponsored by a member before being admitted.[xvii] The initial run was 1,000 copies priced at 25p and contained 24 pages of familiar feminist content including political articles, letters, book reviews, conference reports, and literature, and a list of contacts for women’s groups and help centres.
The aim of Msprint was to “develop analysis of the position of women in Scotland and the role of women in Scottish politics”.[xviii] Whilst Scottish issues had also been at the heart of the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal, this position certainly reflects the growing discourse on constitutional matters in Scotland magazines by 1978. In practice however, Msprint was much more concerned with wider British feminist debate. Indeed, whilst the magazine was critical of Spare Rib and the way its two Scottish issues of 1980 “handled Scotland”,[xix] far more attention was paid to the national question in Ireland than Scotland across the seven issues of Msprint.[xx] This was not a unique position: both Red Rag and Scarlet Women dedicated space to women’s concerns in Ireland. Scarlet Women’s eleventh issue was put together by the Belfast Women’s Collective and published articles on Irish feminism, the British occupation of Northern Ireland, abortion in Belfast, Belfast Women’s Aid, and a personal account of life in Catholic Belfast.[xxi]
It is worth mentioning that the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal and Msprint were both printed by Aberdeen People’s Press (1973-84), an alternative printing service established by members of the Aberdeen Arts and Community Workshop in 1972 which printed a variety of socialist and community-led publications, including the newspaper Aberdeen People’s Press (1973-6) and books such as Oil Over Troubled Waters: a Report and Critique of Oil Developments in North-East Scotland (1976).[xxii] Feminist publications like Msprint were as reliant on their collectives as they were on their community printers and publishers. Scarlet Women was printed by Moss Side Community Press (later Moss Side Community Press Women’s Co-op) which also published the Manchester Women’s Liberation Newsletter (1973-87), Lesbian Express (1977), and a retaliation publication to Msprint entitled Whatever Happened to the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal? (1978), which was edited by members of the Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal’s collective who did not agree with Breitenbach and Smyth.[xxiii]
In the wake of Msprint there followed a gentle stream of Scottish feminist publications including the Dundee Standard “a closed feminist newspaper in Dundee”, NESSIE: Radical and Revolutionary Feminist Newsletter from Scotland (1979-80), Our Times: the Bulletin for Thinking Women (1986-8) published in Ayr, and Harpies & Quines (1992-4).[xxiv] Of course, the corpus of cultural, literary, and political magazines examined by this network also published articles on feminist issues, including Radical Scotland, Catalyst, Cencrastus and, most notably, Chapman under the editorship of Joy Hendry, who became the first female editor of a literary magazine in Scotland in 1979.[xxv]
The impact of Scottish feminist publications on the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s can seem fairly modest. Indeed, feminist publications in England appear to have been more active in engaging with issues of sexuality, class, and race than their Scottish counterparts. Arena Three (1963-72), the first openly lesbian newspaper, and Sappho (1972-82), a magazine for lesbian feminists, were both published from London, as were Outwrite (1982-88) a newspaper aimed at Black British women, Mukti (1983-87) which addressed British Asian women, and Candice: For the Woman of Colour (1992-4). Nevertheless, articles on class, imperialism, sexuality, race, and anti-colonialism appear regularly in Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal and Msprint, alongside specific Scottish issues, and an in-depth analysis of these will provide a richer picture of the role of Scottish feminist print culture in wider feminist debates. Likewise, an intersectional perspective that includes within its scope magazines aligned with feminist issues highlights the lack of research on titles such as the St Andrews Lesbian Feminists Newsletter (?), Red Herring (Scottish Lesbian Feminist Group, 1975-6), and Gay Scotland (Scottish Homosexual Rights Group, 1978-97). Ultimately, feminist magazines in Scotland proved to a generation of women that feminism was an important source of debate, criticism, and analysis in Scottish cultural, political and social life in the late-1970s and early-1980s.
Charlotte Lauder is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde and National Library of Scotland researching Scottish magazine culture from 1870 to 1920. Her work on Scottish women’s magazines has been featured on BBC Radio Scotland.
Dr Rachael Alexander is based at the University of Strathclyde and is the author of Imagining Gender, Nation and Consumerism in Magazines of the 1920s (2021). Her research focuses on constructions of gender in twentieth-century periodicals and print cultures, in Scotland, Britain, the US, Canada and Scotland.
[i] Sarah Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), p. 85.
[ii] Ibid., p. 86.
[iii] Lynn Sampsell, ‘Women’s Liberation in Scotland’, Womanspeak, no. 1 (March 1979), p. 8.
[iv] Esther Breitenbach, ‘“Sisters are Doing it for Themselves” The Women’s Movement in Scotland’, Scottish Government Yearbook (1990), p. 214.
[v] ‘Editorial’, Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal (SWLJ), no. 1 (Spring, 1977), p. 2.
[vi] Ibid., p. 27.
[vii] Frances Bower and Joan McLellan, ‘Women in Rural Scotland’, SWLJ, no. 1 (Spring 1977), pp. 7-9.
[viii] Jane Cook, ‘Shetland Women’s Group’, SWLJ, no. 3 (November 1977), p. 13.
[ix] Ibid., p. 3.
[x] Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement, p. 90.
[xi] Finella McKenzie, ‘Feminism and Socialism’, SWLJ, no. 1 (Spring 1977), pp. 21-3; Finella McKenzie, ‘Feminism and Socialism’, Scarlet Women, no. 5 (1977), pp. 3-7.
[xii] Scarlet Women, 1982-2019, Tyne & Wear Archives and North Tyneside Women’s Voices, https://www.twmuseums.org.uk/files/320304-scarletwomen.pdf.
[xiii] Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement, p. 88.
[xiv] Deb Symonds, ‘An Open Letter to Lorna Mitchell’, SWLJ, no. 3 (November 1977), pp. 27-9.
[xv] Fiona Forsyth, ‘The Radical Feminist Theory Conference’, SWLJ, no. 3 (November 1977), p. 14.
[xvi] Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement, pp. 88-9.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 90.
[xviii] ‘Editorial’, Msprint, no. 1 (August 1978), p. 1.
[xix] ‘Editorial’, Msprint, no. 5 (n.d., 1980?), p. 3.
[xx] For example, see Esther Breitenbach, ‘Women in Northern Ireland’, Msprint, no. 3 (n.d., March 1979?), pp. 12-3.
[xxi] Scarlet Women, no. 11 (June 1980), pp. 1-37.
[xxii] ‘Aberdeen People’s Press’, Aberdeen Protest Blog, (September 2014), https://aberdeenprotest.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/aberdeen-peoples-press-fl-1973-early-1980s/.
[xxiii] Lois Stone, ‘Manchester Women’s Liberation Newsletter and the Lesbian Community’, Queer Beyond London, (June 2017), http://queerbeyondlondon.com/manchester/manchester-womens-liberation-newsletter-and-the-lesbian-community/. Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement, p. 90.
[xxiv] Rachael Alexander, ‘“Alive, Practical and Different”: Harpies & Quines and Scottish Feminist Print in the 1990s’, in Laurel Forster and Joanne Hollows (eds.), Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture, 1940s-2000s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), pp. 307-24.
[xxv] Eleanor Bell, ‘“Leaps and Bounds”: Feminist Interventions in Scottish Literary Magazine Culture’, in Laurel Forster and Joanne Hollows (eds.), Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture, 1940s-2000s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), pp. 215-28.