Thirty high-profile former members of Women in Publishing (WiP) reflect on how the group empowered women in the industry in the 1970s and '80s in an oral history being made available at the British Library (BL).
The interviews - including with Penguin Random House chair Gail Rebuck, Bloomsbury co-founder Liz Calder, Grub Street’s Anne Dolamore, agent Jane Gregory and Hachette group contracts director Diane Spivey - can be heard in full on-site at the BL from the launch date of 4th April, with excerpts accessible via website womeninpublishinghistory.org.uk.
It also comes at a time when the industry is facing a period with far fewer women in the very top leadership positions, unlike a decade ago when Helen Fraser headed Penguin, Vicky Barnsley was chief at HarperCollins, and Gail Rebuck led Random House.
In the excerpts online, Rebuck reflects on an “unconscious conservatism” following the economic downturn that crept into every industry and led companies to go for what they felt was the "safe option", and appoint men to the highest positions. “Women were seen as a risk,” she says. “It’s a good moment for the industry to reconsider what’s going on. There’s a big dialogue to be had. Things always come full circle; all that stuff that Women in Publishing used to do about assertiveness training, I think we could go back and try and figure out what mentoring we need for this next generation, so that they are able to get to a certain point and then want to go on. Because I’ve seen far too many incredibly able women who decide to stop… not to take that extra risk and go on to the next stage."
The oral history project has been set up by former Silver Moon bookseller Jane Cholmeley (below left) and Penny Mountain (below right), one time news editor at The Bookseller, who raised a total of around £35,000 from supporters, and the Unwin Charitable Trust and the Book Trade Charity, to fund it.
Mountain told The Bookseller: “Jane and I have been working on this since 2013/2014, from the slightly idealistic point of view that women’s history tends not to get recorded – there are no minutes from meetings, no huge archive. An oral history is a good way to preserve it. Maybe one day women are going to have to reinvent the wheel again and they may find this useful."
Women in Publishing held its first meeting in 1979, with the aim broadly of creating a forum for women to discuss ideas and trends, to network, to support each other and share information, in the absence of widespread female role models in the industry, said Mountain. It quickly developed, organising itself into committees and holding events and conferences and running the WiPlash newsletter.
Mountain said: “Women in Publishing started up in the zeitgeist, there was lots of feminist activity in the '70s and '80s, although later it developed into more of a professional networking group, with women looking at their careers, rather than at the environment that stopped them getting careers. It had an impact; it gave women much more confidence to ask for things, for more money, for promotions, and they felt supported – they could go to other women and ask, ‘What are you earning?’ It was very liberating.”
She said: “If you want to be promoted, women tend to think: ‘I'll do my job as well as I can and they’ll see I’m really good.’ Actually they get: ‘As you’re really good at that job, you can stay there.’ And the irony is that’s where they stay. One of Women in Publishing's most influential training courses was on assertiveness training – a lot of women talk about that course giving them a huge boost and a feeling of self-confidence."
She thinks the “wave of confidence” WiP engendered was a factor in leading to a period when women flourished in leadership positions in the industry.
And though that is not the case today, it’s a case of “two steps forward, one step back,” Mountain said. “Today if as a woman in middle management you think you are not getting the opportunities and pay as male colleagues, you are much more likely to say so than 30 years ago, so you are starting from a higher threshold. Women in Publishing played a little part in that. But if I was a woman in a company with a high gender pay gap now, I would definitely be rolling my sleeves up. I’d be feeling pretty hard done by and looking to do something about it.
“I think people will get a huge amount of interest and pleasure to listening to what it was like [in the early days of WiP] and seeing how things have and haven’t changed.”
Women in Publishing remained active until recently, and though currently mothballed, it is hoped the group will become active once again.