I watched the recent BBC documentary on Virago Press with a whole mixed bag of emotions. Admiration, excitement, inspiration. Pride by association. And envy of course. Bloomin’ Virago, always so brilliant at publicity. But two-thirds of the way through, I got very cross indeed. In an understandable lapse of memory in a live recording, Lennie Goodings remarked that all the other feminists publishers had ceased trading by the time Virago joined Little, Brown in 1996. Bl**dy hell, I thought, as I kicked the furniture, maybe I dreamed that I was co-running the vibrant, successful and profitable Women’s Press at that time.
When I joined The Women’s Press in 1991, the company was in very straitened circumstances in a whole range of ways. Within six months of co-running the press with Mary Hemming and, for a time, Carole Spedding, the press went into profit and it stayed in profit until we handed over the baton to the excellent Elspeth Lindner in 1999, that profit enabling us to publish a range of very important books, often by and for marginalised women. This was a testament to our authors and all the women who worked with us. Elspeth left to relocate to the US with her family a year later and some time after that, for reasons I’m not aware of, the company eventually ceased to trade. Perhaps because there was no one running the press for a time for whom it was their very life and soul as it had been for Mary and I, and our predecessors.
It is a matter of considerable pain to us – and I’m sure to many other women who worked at Women’s Press over the years - that the press ceased to trade. And the pain is compounded by the response we sometimes get from the outside world. "You got out just in time," I am sometimes told, as if I somehow deserted a sinking ship. And it is a surprisingly regular event to get requests from women to speak at conferences on the history of The Women’s Press "and why it failed". They think it failed? Good Lord above. Since The Women’s Press, Virago, Sheba, Pandora, OnlyWomen and Stramullion feminist publishing houses began, women writers of serious literature are published and distributed – with respect – by every publisher in the land. That was certainly not the case when I was in mainstream publishing in the 1980s. Women are on boards of our publishing houses (although not so much at the helm). Women’s thoughts, ideas and perspectives are out there in the world in a way they simply were not before. Black women, Asian women, lesbians, disabled women all have much more of a voice. And the world has transformed as a result. There are no longer strippers at sales conferences. Men don’t decide in marketing meetings that it would be perfectly fine to ask a young member of staff if she would pose topless for a book cover. Black women are rarely accused of being prostitutes in large hotels. The routine sexualised bullying of women and girls is no longer widely accepted in our major institutions.
These changes can – at least in very significant part – be laid at the door of all the women who worked at the feminist presses from the 1970s onwards and all our authors with their campaigning, ground-breaking books. As the Virago documentary at least partially showed, this work was not easy. It was bl**dy tough. It is not that there isn’t more to do – of course there is. But we succeeded. We achieved a huge amount. All of us.
Kathy Gale was joint managing director of The Women’s Press from 1991-1999 and is now a psychotherapist, executive coach and writing coach. She co-founded and co-runs the executive coaching organisation, Working Edge, with Harriet Spicer, who was managing director of Virago when Gale was joint managing director of The Women’s Press. She is about to launch Writers’ Studio: coaching groups for writers with the potential to become published and published authors wanting to go to the next level.