Marsha Rowe is a feminist icon. In 1972, she and pal Rosie Boycott founded Spare Rib, a feminist magazine based in the UK that went on to become a bible of second wave feminism. Rowe was the magazine’s first editor and oversaw all of its radical glory; it was the first magazine to talk about female sexuality, it was frank, funny, intellectual, and it had the mission of making living conditions better for women. Spare Rib (get it?) ran until ‘93, but will potentially see a revival if editor Charlotte Raven gets her way.
I’m the author of slutever.com, a blog that deals mainly with sex, written from my feminist perspective. I was delighted at the opportunity to speak with Rowe, and to discuss the modern feminist movement, how it differs from feminism of the past, and lots of other fun stuff like body image, porn, and Pussy Riot. You can read our convo below.
Sciortino: I wonder what Spare Rib would look like today, in the context of modern women’s magazines. Obviously, when you guys started out, Spare Rib was one of the only outlets for this type of information for women. However now there’s almost an excess of websites who write about feminist issues, but which I feel often lack intellectual content, and instead feel like a bunch of girls getting together to talk about what makes them angry, alongside celebrity news. It becomes a combination of: “Who’s Lindsay Lohan dating?” and “I felt oppressed because my postman looked at me in a sexual manner.” It can become trivial.
Rowe: Well, the point behind 70s feminism was the idea of the personal as political. It wasn’t just about liberating ourselves, but about ourselves in the context of society; it was about the economic situation and wider political situation. And what strikes me about modern feminism is that it focuses quite narrowly on the body. So much anxiety gets centered on the woman’s body, and it feels somehow detached from what other things are going on in the wider world.
Sciortino: And feminism in the 70s was less concerned with the body?
Rowe: I mean, women’s rights here in the UK had four demands: equal pay, equal education and opportunity, 24-hr nurseries, and free contraception and abortion on demand. And then two years later it was for financial and legal independence, and for end of discrimination against women. And there was an explosion of new legislation in that period. So the female body was an issue, but in terms of one’s own health, control or knowledge over one’s body.
Sciortino: Perhaps now that we’ve won much of the larger war, we feel it necessary to fight a personal one.
Rowe: On the topic of the body, what do you think of the thin-ness of fashion models? It was interesting--I looked at an interview you did on your blog with porn star Bobbi Starr, and she was saying that women with flesh on their bodies are celebrated in pornography. There seems to be two versions of male fantasy: the super thin fashion object, which is like some male projection of transcendence, and the luscious, bigger woman, who could be associated with the old ideas of female-ness. Although to me, neither seem to me to meet what women want themselves.
Sciortino: I feel like it gets so confused--there’s so much anxiety today over how are women supposed to look that maybe we don’t even know what we want to look like, it’s more about what we feel we should look like. I do an advice column, and a lot of the questions that girls send me are like, “Should I shave my crotch or not?” And ultimately it’s like, “Who cares, do whatever you want.” But it seems like women have this idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way. Although I don’t know if that’s necessarily a new thing. Actually, I remember my mother--who has quite large breasts-- telling me, “I grew up in the 60s, the ONE time when it was trendy to be flat! I’m so unlucky!”
So much anxiety gets centered on the woman’s body, and it feels somehow detached from what other things are going on in the wider world
Rowe: Ha, that’s so funny! Actually, we ran a piece on that for the very first issue of Spare Rib. Angela Phillips, who took the cover photo, was complaining about having that same problem while school. I remember Germaine Greer marching into the office and seeing that piece and saying “It’s trash!” So yes, it’s nothing new that girls’ insecurities focus on their bodies. What do you feel when you answer these reader advice questions?
Sciortino: Well, it’s hard because from a neutral point of view I want to tell girls that they shouldn’t worry about being so thin, and that natural curves are sexy, and that there’s a difference between being healthy and looking aesthetically a certain way, and that what we see in magazines and on TV are the result of airbrushing and extreme dieting. But when I look in the mirror, I can’t help but compare myself to these same standards. I’m not above it.
Rowe: Well in the 70s we went for this idea of the “natural woman.” It was reclaiming whoever you were. Four of us in the office had curly hair and we stopped straightening our hair, and it did feel so liberating. I remember not shaving my armpits, and there were arguments over whether you should even shave your legs. And we never shaved down there very much. Men used to think it was sort of sexy anyway. But then, why should sexy be the criteria? In those days we were saying, “Why are we dressing for the male gaze?” Although I do remember feeling self-conscious because I sometimes wore terrific, bold dresses and high heels, and gradually that started to become less acceptable in some areas of the women’s movement. So even though it was a moment where we really felt we could say no to fashion, even within the counter-culture we had our own fashion.
Sciortino: Well it seems the fashion was a specific rebellion to the left-over 50s ideals of dressing for a man, being hyper sexualized, etc., right?
Rowe: Well we weren’t trying to dress unsexy, just different. You know when we were in school, as teenagers, we had to wear stockings and corsets; in a way it was our armor. So the 60s was about throwing that off. We wore mini skirts, jeans and T-shirts. When I started wearing t-shirts they only sold them in the boys department, and jeans were always made for men too--to get them to fit you had to shrink them in the bath.
Sciortino: I think some modern feminists still struggle with the same idea: “Is it OK for me to want to dye my hair and wear makeup, and look according to the oldschool idea idea of female beauty?” In my opinion, this is fine. I follow the idea that women gain a lot of power from being sexually attractive, and to intentionally lessen your beauty is to lessen your power. You know what I mean?
Rowe: It sounds as though you’re talking about pride? Yes, I think pride in your body is good. I’m not sure I know any woman particularly like that. Although I’m reminded of Pussy Riot and FEMEN– these girls are brazen about using the body in a political way, in order to turn, as it were, the poisonous dart that is used to attack them back onto their attackers. They’re using their bodies to make their own feminist politics, and to talk about things like sexism, the patriarchy, arranged marriage, and I think they are fascinating. Did you see the recent news about Inna Shevchenko, the founder of Femen in the Ukraine? Basically every year in France they create a new stamp with the image of Marianne - the figurehead of the French revolution--and this year the stamp’s artist said the design was based mainly on Shevchenko’s image, and afterward Shevchenko was quoted as saying: “Femen is on a French stamp. Now all homophobes, extremist and fascists will have to lick my ass when they want to send a letter”.
Sciortino: That’s amazing.
Rowe: Isn’t that so good?
Sciortino: So, one of my personal feminist heroes is Camille Paglia--very pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-Madonna, all the good stuff. Do you know her?
Rowe: Well I do, but she was part of the anti-feminism backlash that came in the 80s and 90s! She said some great things, but she was also completely ignorant in a way. She said the second wave feminists were puritanical, and it was just so not true. Did she ever read all those articles about orgasm? Did she ever read Germaine Greer talking about the power of the female libido, and how we had to harness that energy? We talked about non-possessiveness and new forms of intimacy. She said the 70s feminists thought of themselves as victims, but that’s narrowing it down to just a tiny part of the debate.
Sciortino: Well, I think obviously a lot of what she said she was able to say because the second wave feminists before her had been so successful in their ambitions. In my mind she was essentially saying, “Hey guys, we’ve basically won the battle, so now we can afford to be a bit more relaxed, and create new goals that are potentially different than the original ones.” She was saying that it’s ok for women to be sexy and for men to be uber-masculine. Some second wave feminists, like Gloria Steinem etc, were anti-porn, anti-stripping, anti-prostitution, because they felt these things degraded women. But Paglia sort of said, “Well actually, in this new world I think differently.”
Rowe: Well, we didn’t think it was up to us to say if working as a prostitute was degrading. The idea was to change the language--you find out whether the prostitute actually chose that profession, or whether there was social pressure, or if they had no other way to earn money. You’re right, there were moralistic strands in second wave feminism. There are always moralistic strands. What I find horrible now is the pornification of nearly everything we buy--it’s everywhere, the sides of buses, store windows. Women’s bodies are used to sell more than they ever were back then.
Sciortino: Personally, I don’t think that porn by definition is degrading to women. Now more than ever there are lots of outspoken feminists in porn who speak about female sexual empowerment and pleasure. So I think there are some positive things coming out of the world of pornography.
Rowe: I have nothing against it. If someone chooses to work in porn, that’s fine by me. I’ve never been moralistic about these things. I mean, I grew up in the 60s during sexual liberation.
Sciortino: So if you were to re-launch Spare Rib, what are some issues that you feel are relevant now? What do you feel could be better for modern women?
Rowe: Well, I think the childcare situation is appalling. We had wanted 24 hr nurseries– a bit of a dream idea. Under Thatcher in the 80s, it was more like having to defend nurseries. But now that my daughter has two children, I’m aware of how nothing has changed. Bringing up children is a massive part of life and yet it’s just not catered for in society. How can society change if childcare is just pushed away into a corner? And equal pay is still absolutely not achieved. We still only have about 20% women MPs in parliament, a small number of women in the boardroom, and a massive number of women in low-paid part-time jobs, and they’re lucky they’ve even got a job.