Women have always struggled to get their work published, to have their voices heard and their own dedicated spaces within society. Magazines have been for many years one of the dominant places where mainstream media has somehow focused on women, their stories, their interests and their lifestyles.
However, when looking at women, media has mainly reinforced cultural and social mores, and the advice given to women in these magazines was and still is very often a contradiction.
In the past, women were expected to appreciate those spaces, to value the fact that somewhere someone had decided they were important enough to have their own magazine or their own page on mainstream magazines, even though the content of those were mainly dictated by stereotypes and prejudices.
Some women reacted to the mainstream media, they turned their anger into something creative and decided to make their own zines, where they could write about what they wanted, take photographs of things and people they liked and truly enjoy their own space. That is how magazines such as Spare Rib, Ms magazine, Camera Obscura and many others were founded.
Overall women’s magazines have increasingly diversified and gone online. The radical ones still fight for visibility among specific groups, while the mainstream media still plays a fundamental cultural role and attracts a larger readership.
Young people may be turning their backs on magazines and newspapers in favour of social media, but a new wave of (very young!) feminist zine-makers are proving that print – and feminist publishing in particular – is not dead.
Grrrl Zine Fair, Boshemia, Fem Zine, Gal-dem, Bandasaur, Sweet-thang are only some of the new wave of feminist zines increasing in popularity today.
What has changed since the first feminist magazines were ever founded? How hard it is to run a feminist zine nowadays compared to then? Are women still fighting against the way the mainstream media represents them?
From the early 1770s to the late 1860s, the first magazines dedicated to women and curated by women started to appear in the scene of mainstream media; they mainly talked about female domesticity. The Lady’s Magazine, founded in 1770 in America, was one of them.
As the political and cultural scenes changed in the early 1870s to the late 1970s, women’s magazines began to have the responsibility to make readers aware of the changes and help them prepare for a possible new lifestyle.
Some feminist magazines were founded in different countries. L’Égyptienne, for example, founded in 1925, was one of the first French language feminist periodicals in Egypt – and distributed abroad – and its logo featured a woman removing her veil.
The female domesticity content of the 1940s and 1950s shifted to more career-oriented content in the 1960s. The 1970s brought a wave of female independence at home and at work, and magazines adjusted to these changes by starting to publish articles on new topics such as how to start a family while keeping your full-time job.
Ms magazine, Spare Rib, The Una, Camera Obscura, Off Our Backs are some examples of the second wave of feminist magazines that challenged stereotypes within the media and society of their time.
Camera Obscura, founded in 1976, still runs today, and Off Our Backs, started in 1970, had its last issue in 2008. Spare Rib, founded in 1972, was an active part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 20th century. It was one of the most important places that shaped debate about feminism in the United Kingdom, the same way other feminist magazines did in their countries.
“I suppose the idea of Spare Rib was that it should be an alternative women’s magazine, we wanted it to be something people would buy in the same way they would buy Vogue,” Angela Phillips, photographer and contributor for Spare Rib, journalist and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, says.
She explains: “At the beginning, it was just this little office with two editors, who were the founders of the magazine, someone doing advertising, a business manager, one person as arts editor and everybody else was freelance and paid – cause they managed to raise some money at the beginning.
“We wrote about fashion, health, make-up and everything, but we wrote about it from a different perspective.”
At the time, women were treated poorly, they were secretaries, typists and rarely got to make any decisions. Most of the women who started Spare Rib and similar magazines were angry about the way they were being treated in the political and social circle; they set up very definitely to be a different kind of voice.
In the UK, when the Guardian and the mainstream press started noticing Spare Rib, which was gaining popularity, the contributors of Spare Rib got a big lift within the media industry.
“Spare Rib was very much on the periphery. However, because of the connections between periphery and centre, when we did things for Spare Rib they would very often be picked up by the mainstream media, although it was a provocative and difficult relationship with them,” Angela says.
“There are always connections, nothing is by itself, the women’s press isn’t an island, it’s a provocation in a sense.” Angela Phillips, Spare Rib
There’s always been this circulation of information. Without that periphery and the people of minorities at the edge shouting, it was and is hard and unlikely for the people in the centre to change anything.
Spare Rib released their final issue in 1993 after years of success, development, hard work and changing people’s life.
Angela explains: “Anything like that, any alternative publication is really dependent on the energy of its founding members, and when the founding members cannot do it anymore or want to have a different life and a steady job, then people who come in don’t have the same founding principles, and gradually the energy just dies. Then it’s time for something new, but there’s always something new so it doesn’t matter.”
A few years after Spare Rib’s last issue, women were still not happy about the way they were being represented by the mainstream media and the way female magazines were approaching women’s issues. They were concerned about the way they were being spoken to and told what to do, what to wear, how to do their hair or approach their men.
The new group of angry women started a new wave of feminist magazines that we still talk about now. Have you forgotten about Everyday Feminism, The Vagenda, Hysteria, Shameless? And what about the zines that came out of the Riot grrrl movement in America?
These magazines challenged society and reached important goals for women, opening discussion on topics such as rape, abortion, stalking, mental illness, incest, homophobia and even vegetarianism.
Defined by one of the co-founders Rhiannon Cosslett as “a media watchdog with a feminist angle”, The Vagenda reached 8 million hits in its first year, showing how women still felt the need of having their own spaces and did not recognise themselves in the way the mainstream media represented them.
Co-founder of The Vagenda and now journalist at the Guardian, Rhiannon explains how The Vagenda was created: “We found the magazines that we (Cosslett and co-founder Holly Baxter) were looking at to be quite limited in what they thought women were interested in – it was basically all about clothes, men and losing weight.”
She continues: “Women’s magazines are very patronising, they assume low intelligence and a very limited range of interests, they are designed to sell you things. They want you to buy as much stuff as possible in order to fix all the problems they tell you that you have with yourself.
"Women's magazines are very patronising, they assume low intelligence and a very limited range of interests, they are designed to sell you things." Rhiannon Cosslett, The Vagenda
“For example, if your eyebrows are too bushy then you should buy these magic tweezers or maybe this special eyebrow pencil. The editorial side will tell you all the flaws you have and then the advertising side will tell you how to fix them. We felt calling that out and drawing attention to it.”
Rhiannon and Holly both loved writing but they did not feel like they had a chance of being in the media or being journalists. Rhiannon explains: “We knew how hard it was to get into journalism, it didn’t seem something that girls like us would be able to do. We didn’t go to private school, we were women, we didn’t know anybody, we thought there was no way we were going to get into journalism, we felt like nobody wanted us. We took the attitude that if they weren’t going to take an interest in us then we would just do our own thing, make our own thing.”
The Vagenda stopped running in summer 2015, after a ‘summer hiatus’ in publication was announced in its last issue.
Rhiannon says: “Women’s magazines are all dying now. The Vagenda is now completely out of date, a lot of these magazines are gone as the Internet is taking over. I don’t think women, young women, really buy magazines anymore to the same extent that they used to, now we can find most of the information online.”
She concludes: “When I talk to younger women trying to get into journalism now, particularly the ones who went to state school like I did or ones who are working class or from ethnic minorities, I always do my best to help them because I know how difficult it is. Where applicants are these boys who have all the same contacts and connections, all go on holiday with each other to Tuscany, those whose families all know each other and have dinner together, that is all against us, women have to build their own networks.”
By using social media to promote their work and business, feminist zine-makers have not given up. The new generation of young self-publishers are catching people’s attention by breaking the rules and challenging stereotypes on girls. They want to be visible in a society that often wants them to hide behind their make-up, they want their voices to be heard, their art to be exhibited, their words to be read.
They are everywhere, doing workshops and fairs in different libraries and galleries across the UK, selling their copies online and in bookshops such as Housmans in King’s Cross, posting their latest updates on social media, sharing their work through their Instagram stories, and finally on our shelves with their latest issue.
Dr Cynthia Carter, senior lecturer Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, and co-founding editor of the journal Feminist Media Studies, says: “There is a continued need for feminist zines. They are typically a way in which younger woman feminists and men feminist supporters have their voices heard. Their voices are often at the vanguard of changing gender relations.
“They are also a fertile ground for learning the craft of magazine journalism, which provides younger people with opportunities where these might not otherwise be forthcoming in the mainstream market. Additionally, they often more closely mirror the political agenda of those writing for the zine, thus making them spaces where contributors may feel they have a greater opportunity to be true to their principles.”
What are these young women trying to say and why now? How hard it is to find your feet as a feminist creative, designer, illustrator and writer in 2018?
Lu Williams, founder of Grrrl Zine Fair, says: “I’ve always explicitly stated that the events I organise and my zine have an intersectional feminist ethos. The message I try to share through my work is the value of Doing It Yourself, which goes in hand with empowering yourself, skill sharing, collaborating and being self-sufficient in a way that you’re more involved with a community rather than capitalism.”
Lu started being interested in zines when she was at university, she was part of a group who organised the first Grrrl Zine Fair in Oxford and was one of the editors of County Living Zine. Through Grrrl, she has been creating DIY spaces within venues, arts organisations and shops, aiming to bring a new context to spaces that maybe have not been associated with the DIY movement before.
Grrrl’s events operate a space policy and the zine platforms first and foremost, the voices of all women, non-binary and LGBTQIA* people.
Sunayah of AZEEMA says: “We have a responsibility to ourselves as a generation, to pave the way for a positive change we want to see. It’s down to us to help shape a society where we are all loved, celebrated, represented and accepted. Feminist zines and platforms like ourselves are so important for encouraging discussion, creating safe spaces and providing opportunities for like-minded women. There is room in the media for these zines and platforms to exist along other magazines.”
AZEEMA is an independent print magazine exploring women within the MENA region, diaspora and women of colour.
“Our founding editor Jameela noticed that while growing up, that there were no print magazines for Middle Eastern/North African women and Women of Colour, that had a fashion and culture focus. During her final year at university, she decided to create something that challenged current stereotypes and representation and embraced culture,” Sunayah explains.
The proliferation of these zines points to a lack of representation in the mainstream media.
Mia Maxwell, founder of Fem Zine and student at UAL, explains why she felt the need of creating her own zine: “I wanted a space where the work of emerging artists, people who don’t have thousands of followers on Instagram – myself included – could be published. I felt like every time I was making work people weren’t seeing it because I didn’t have enough followers on social media.”
She adds: “I definitely think that we need our own spaces and our own literature. Zines will always be one step ahead of mainstream media and always cater to the most niche subjects. I don’t necessarily think they fit into the bigger picture of media but I think they purposely don’t – they will always be representative of those whose voices aren’t heard in mainstream magazines.”
Cynthia explains: “Oftentimes feminist magazines answer back to the mainstream ones, and especially women’s magazines, who, despite seeming to be much more open to alternative voices, are still quite conservative in their views about gender. This is largely because of the nature of their corporate ownership which is seeking profit maximisation through selling audiences to advertisers. In the zine market, this is rarely a problem, since few take advertisements and those that do tend to take them from alternative businesses and groups.”
Zoe Thompson, of Sweet-thang magazine, says: “Shedding light upon the complex and many aspects of feminism is so important, especially today. These zines fit into the bigger picture of magazines and media by simply existing and filling the spaces where exclusive narratives or perspectives dominate.
“This sounds farfetched, but the whole industry, and whole world to be honest, needs to be inclusive and diverse, and promote this as the norm. My work fits with it because it’s giving a voice to marginalised ones. It’s so necessary for unlearning static and oppressive structures. I believe something as small as Sweet-thang is at the moment contributes to that force.”
Inspired by platforms and other magazines that challenged this notion by creating safe-spaces for poc’s art, Zoe wanted to create a safe-space for black women to share their art away from “the white-washed nature of most mainstream arty DIY bubbles”.
She explains: “I have always been interested in magazines and writing, but specifically zine culture, because of how niche and DIY it is. While I wanted to contribute to several platforms to get my writing out there, I always felt quite alienated by the fact that there was a great lack of people of colour contributing to or creating these spaces.
“The voices of black women in the creative industries are often concealed. Black women’s art or opinions surrounding creation or just anything in general tends to be digested with difficulty by mass media, because of the ingrained idea that ‘whiteness’ is the ‘norm’ – everything else is different, deviant. But, fortunately, this is changing.”
Sarah Q, co-founder of Boshemia, says: “We enjoy featuring and putting a spotlight on women who continue to do amazing work that might not be necessarily recognised otherwise.”
Boshemia started as a blog in April 2016 as a place for intersectional feminists and free expression, and became a magazine in June 2017, when the first print edition came out. Founded by storytellers and activists E, Q and L, based in the UK and US, it welcomes women and non-binary people, minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Sarah L, other co-founder of Boshemia, says: “A lot of people underestimated the work we would produce as a magazine because a lot of zines out there are quite DIY, which is great, but we wanted to make something that would be an art object as well. We wanted it to be beautiful and feel nice while reading and feeling it.”
Concerned about the use of social media platform in 2018, Fem Zine decided to only have the print version and to only share some of their content online to let people get a taste for things.
Mia explains why that choice. She says: “I want people to own the art, the image, the text. I want them to have it in their homes, so then they really get to know the work, and it’s not just quickly going through something on Instagram or on a website. I feel like we most experience social media in a very momentary way, whilst a publication is something you’ve invested in, something you can go back to.”
That is how Bandasaur started, on Instagram. After posting on social media photographs of the underwear she made for herself, Rebecca Sander received a message from someone interested in buying the underwear.
When she realised people were interested in her creative work, she started making designs, zines and the underwear from scratch.
Rebecca says: “If people ask me ‘What do you do?’, I’m always like ‘Oh I’m a waitress but I also do illustration.’ And, in terms of my priorities, it’s the other way around, I am an illustrator and then I do some waitressing to pay the bills.
“But because you’re not earning the most money doing the thing you love, it is viewed as a less important thing because you know…capitalism!”
Rebecca is an illustrator and writer interested in documentary and reportage, she is also a printmaker, bookmaker and animator. Her work is both personal and political.
Bandasaur is now a collection of prints, zines, and embroidered lingerie and it stands for all women and femmes, and is pro WOC, LGBTQIA+, sex workers and anyone else who is oppressed.
Rebecca explains: “We do need feminist zines and spaces. I think social change starts on the periphery and that is what the DIY culture is currently doing, it doesn’t do everything but it is something.
“If you want to make social or political change you can start at the bottom down but then you have to become politically involved with it. By sharing their stories or saying something without any influence from the outside, people can create their own narrative, which is how change starts, not necessarily how change is made.”
Cynthia says: “At times, being true to feminism has been a difficult task since sticking to your principles rarely opened-up mainstream job opportunities. With the plethora of feminist zines, blogs, websites, etc. today, there has never been a better time for young writers to work in this sector, even when they have to make opportunities for themselves – oftentimes, that’s preferable anyway!”
Most of the young women behind these zines fund their zines themselves, some of them print the zines at home to save money, others are trying to fund the next issues with the money earned selling the previous ones. Funding the zines is the biggest struggle for all of them and sometimes having more than one job is not even enough.
Lu explains: “Balancing the amount of work I put into Grrrl has been the biggest challenge so far. Also, as it’s a not for profit, it has been tough to fund each zine as I pay for it in one chunk, which is often my overdraft.”
Sunayah says: “Being a self-funded, independent magazine, puts limitations on how many we can print and distribute. We want our magazine to reach as many women as possible but with limited funds, this goal is harder to achieve. It also constricts other ideas that we have for AZEEMA to grow as a brand, platform and community.”
Angela explains: “The issue we have now is the same for all forms of journalism, the Internet has provided us with an absolutely brilliant means of contacting audiences and no means of paying for journalism. It’s a victim of its own success.”
She continues: “It would be impossible to start a feminist magazine now I think, not because people wouldn’t read it or because we don’t need it, but because we wouldn’t be able to fund it.”
Women’s magazines have been funded and are still funded today through make-up advertising mainly, which would surely be a contradiction for a feminist magazine.
“You cannot run a magazine without an income source – a cover price is only a part of the income – and if the income has always been make-up and fashion, and your message is that we don’t need makeup and we can make our own fashion, you’re not really going to attract a lot of advertising, and that makes it very difficult to fund yourself. Online it’s even worse because you don’t even have a product to sell,” Angela says.
The first issue of Boshemia was funded by the co-founders, the second one was crowdfunded through readers’ pre-orders, while on the third one they got a larger profit so they think it will be easier to fund, they explain.
Boshemia does not have any adverts currently and they want to try and keep it that way.
Sarah Q explains: “If we want to get adverts then it would only be companies that we do genuinely feel strong about. We see so many feminist magazines that use make-up ads. There’s one that claims to be a feminist zine – I’m not going to name it – which has the first 40 pages about YSL, Dior, Chanel, big fashion brands that the average magazine reader, who might be able to spend a bit more money on a fancy magazine, won’t be able to afford. And they’re all featuring skinny white women.”
Sarah L laughs and adds: “We don’t want to capitalise our feminism!”
Cynthia concludes: “We’ll always have feminist zines in one form or another because they address marginal audiences who will always be there. These groups may or will change over time, but as alternative spaces, they have and will continue to be much needed. Titles will come and go, but that’s quite usual for media overall, and especially in the feminist and alternative sectors. As long as there is a need to challenge sexist, racist, homophobic, classist discourses, and as long as there are people who want to challenge the status quo – whatever that is at any given point in time – there will always be a need for alternative voices and spaces in which to articulate them.”