Agreeing to Disagree in Feminist Newsletters

“Let’s agree to disagree.” So concludes many an adversarial conversation between passionate political activists. The reluctant final realisation that there are no more cards to play, that both activists must cut their losses and move on, firmly entrenched in their original views.

But what if the intention of each activist was not to win the other over, but to enter into a process of collaborative learning? Such ideals of constructive dialogue were being explored by feminist information activism during the 1970s and 1980s. Over this period, an alternative feminist print economy, also referred to as the Women in Print Movement, developed in symbiosis with the political aims of the broader Women’s Liberation Movement. Just as women active in the male-dominated Left were becoming increasingly frustrated with its sexist undercurrents, so too did they come to realise that male-controlled systems of publication and distribution were insufficient for representing the feminist cause. Women needed to establish their own systems of information-sharing and communication, and embracing a plurality of opinion was at the heart of its abundant output.

Newly formed feminist publishing collectives understood that disagreement was an unavoidable characteristic of working together. Informed by the principles of consciousness-raising and small group process, these collectives intended to be less dogmatic and hierarchical than their male counterparts. Consciousness-raising brought women into communication with each other through a mediated “free space” wherein the sharing of personal experience could be transformed into political theory. Describing the inner workings of this process in late 1960s San Francisco, Pamela Allen emphasised that it necessitated an exploration of differences of opinion and experience for it to be successful. This non-sectarian sensibility went on to become a defining convention of feminist information activism.

Selection of feminist magazines, newsletters and journals published between 1970-90. Courtesy of author’s own personal archive. 

Nowhere is the espousal of pluralistic communication more apparent than in the thousands of feminist newsletters, newspapers, magazines and journals that populated the Women in Print Movement. “This newsletter will not lay down the ‘correct’ line,” said the opening editorial of the third issue of the socialist feminist newsletter Scarlet Women in 1974. It would “provide a forum for discussion” because political disagreement “can be healthy given the right framework and approach.” Similarly, in its inaugural 1982 issue, the feminist tabloid newspaper Outwrite stated that its purpose was to “provide a forum for women to write and communicate with each other.”The feminist arts journal Lip, likewise,opened its 1984 issue with a proclamation that its aim was not to “draw the threads of the movement together, to construct a unity [that] does not and need not exist.” Instead, the publication’s purpose lay in “providing a forum, a space in which a discourse is kept alive.”

It should be said that, certainly, the discursiveness of feminist information activism had less to do with any one individual publication and more to do with the existence of a bibliodiverse and international network of publishers, printers, editors, distributors, readers, writers and bookstores. Nevertheless, it was the form of the periodical that best captured the expansive and non-dogmatic ideals of feminist communication.

This is chiefly due to the expansive woman-controlled material network which played a great role in the unfolding of debate. As duplicating machines such as mimeographs became more affordable, women’s groups had increasing access to low-barrier self-publishing technologies. This meant that the means of production, and by consequence editorial control, was entirely in the hands of feminists. Accessible printing methods resulted in a kaleidoscopic network of feminist information activism in the form of campaign newsletters, organisation bulletins, traditional magazines and tabloid news. From magazines with high circulation numbers, to more niche and localised newsletters, “hardly an area of life was without some periodical or other media voice of women contributing new facets of their lives to the collective understanding” during this period.

If, say, women felt that their concerns were not being covered by existing publications, they had access to the technological means and networks of distribution to produce their own channels of debate. In the context of the 1982 Lebanon war, for instance, a prolonged disagreement took place in the pages of Spare Rib about how feminists should position themselves vis-à-vis Palestine and the state of Israel. Many Jewish feminists claimed that their letters on the matter were not being published by Spare Rib which, in their view, reflected an editorial bias. In response, a collective of ten Jewish feminists set up their own periodical, Shifra, in 1984 for the purpose of creating a forum of their own. The decentralised arrangement of the feminist information network made it possible for disagreements to have a generative effect in producing new forms of communication, rather than shutting down debates entirely.

Spare Rib and Shifra, 1983-86. Courtesy of author’s own personal archive.

Not only were feminist publishing collectives experimenting with internal collective working practices, they also challenged traditional divisions between producers and consumers by understanding their readers as active collaborators. This was not a case of experts handing down their knowledge to novice pupils. Rather, feminist periodicals functioned as what the literary scholar Kathryn Flannery calls “counterinstitutions” to conventional education wherein women could participate in the construction of new political knowledge. While many readers-turned-writers contributed articles and reviews, the most collaborative exchange of ideas took place in letter-to-the-editor pages. Constant calls for opinion produced lively debate in the form of letter-writing that often spanned several issues of a newsletter or magazine. These forums of communication were integral to collaborating with broad and active readerships in the women’s movement.

Because the facilitation of debate was seen as essential for the advancement of the women’s movement, feminist periodicals often purposefully published controversial or thought-provoking articles. In 1974, the newsletter off our backs published a manifesto by the Collective Lesbian International Terrors (C.L.I.T.) which criticised heterosexual women as patriarchal agents who were infiltrating the women’s movement. Although the off our backs publishing collective confessed that this manifesto generated “individual and collective internal anguish,” they nevertheless decided to publish it in the hope that it would inspire new insights and letters from readers on the topic of compulsory heterosexuality. This framing alludes to the notion that collaborative debate, not unified agreement, produces transformative conditions for political growth. While the C.L.I.T. manifesto clearly provoked distress, the periodical form was able to facilitate generative disagreements by encouraging correspondences from readers.

Published at regular and ongoing intervals, the feminist periodical encapsulated the belief in the continuity of the women’s movement. Expecting new issues of newsletters or magazines to continue arriving into the future produced an expectation that feminism, too, would carry on. The print historian Agatha Beins describes how feminist periodicals “regularly reminded readers that feminism had a place in the world and that this place could persist” over time. This promise of futurity featured heavily in letters to the editor wherein women would often request or hope for replies in the following issue. Disagreements unfolding in this manner rarely descended into “final word” statements. Instead, similarly to serialised fiction, feminist periodicals consistently generated anticipation among its readership for how the discussion may continue into future issues.

The invitation for a continuity of disagreement was an important characteristic of letter-writing in feminist periodicals. In 1975, the Women’s Information and Referral Enquiry Service (WIRES) addressed its readership and stated in its third issue that “THIS IS YOUR Newsletter. USE IT !!” Input from readers was the newsletter’s raison d’être. When an ensuing debate took place in WIRES on the topic of political lesbianism, the newsletter took its role as facilitator and mediator of disagreement seriously. An array of letters were published over a dozen issues in 1980 that debated whether lesbianism was a legitimate political strategy that feminists should adopt, or merely a personal sexual preference. Letter-writers were notably keen for the debate to continue and expand beyond their own opinions. Many women convey their appreciation for the newsletter in facilitating this debate and qualify their arguments with invitations for other women to respond and to “please say more.”

Feminist newspaper tabloids from 1970-2000. Courtesy of authors’ own personal archive.

Letter-to-the-editor pages were of course not published in isolation. The rest of the feminist periodical’s content, depending on its editorial scope and theme, ranged from in-depth political analysis to current affairs, original reporting, news about campaigns, indexes of feminist resources, reviews, poetry, conference proceedings, travel logs, cultural criticisms, manifestos and much more. Indeed, individual feminist periodicals themselves did not exist in isolation. Readerships overlapped between periodical titles and, along with feminist publishers and bookstores, cross-advertised their existence or appeals for more subscribers. This networked infrastructure of information produced a common feminist knowledge of sorts. Today, in contrast, our news feeds are carefully designed by algorithmic patterns to suit each individual’s interests. Readers of feminist periodicals, on the other hand, were embedded within a decentralised network of collective knowledge-production. As a result, disagreements unfolded within a common epistemological foundation that lent itself to rapid intellectual and activist development.

All this is not to romanticise feminist information activism as a painless, non-sectarian utopia. Strong feelings and rigid political boundaries permeated letters to the editor in feminist periodicals, a type of communication which the cultural studies scholar Margaretta Jolly likens to velvet boxing gloves that deliver a critical “punch” inside a rhetoric of concern and obligation. But the success of feminist information activism can be accredited to its efforts in providing a location wherein such difficult feelings and debates could unfold, often specifically for political purposes. As the feminist Sue O’Sullivan clarifies in a critical letter to the eleventh issue of the Marxist feminist magazine Red Rag in 1976, “I’ve written these letters not to prove points or knock things for the sake it, but because I feel it is necessary politically.”

This piece draws from the author’s doctoral thesis “‘Please Say More’: mediating conflict through letter-writing in British second wave feminist periodicals, 1970-1990” which can be accessed here.

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