Life & Style

October 25, 2016

How Virago Press Changed Feminist Publishing Forever

Angela Carter, Maya Angelou, Naomi Wolf and more are celebrated in new documentary

  • Written by Alexandra Pereira

1973 was the year for girl power literature. Eudora Welty scooped the Pulitzer for The Optimist’s Daughter, signalling a booming appetite for characters, plots and themes equally charming and grotesque by women at a time when fiction was still an aggressive sea of Millers and Mailers.

That year’s Nobel Prize in Literature by Patrick White featured a egotistical male protagonist who cannibalises the women he dates, so it seemed a good year for some sassy bookworms to create a small press for female-only authors with a certain pizazz.

Choosing the spicy name Virago, meaning both Trojan woman/heroic war-like woman – and also bitch, dragon, she-devil – they poked fun at the tired stereotypes of powerful, clever women and said: “Yes, we are all of those.” Their colourful roster came to boast some of the world’s finest, seminal authors.

Writing unabashed theories, accounts and fiction about everything from sex and violence to politics and death, Virago established itself as the definitive publishing house for smart, female voices with universal appeal and a new BBC Four documentary, featuring some of the figureheads of Virago’s success, airs on Halloween (I think Carter would have approved of this date especially).

Not least bolstered by the awesome results of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the 1972 launch of pioneering zines (two of Virago’s three founders were the creators of Spare Rib), the tiny army of astute viragos took out loans and made generous personal contributions in laying the foundations for a press that would premiere new writing that would alter literary history forever. They’ve given some of the most quotable, sage chicks on the planet the recognition they deserve, and I personally can’t imagine a world where neither The Bloody Chamber nor Vagina exist. Can you?

Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics
Kate Millett went from overnight sensation/poster girl for second wave feminism to a totally demonised figure of angry, anti-men feminism. The popularity that her radical first book (1977) drew – which included an introduction depicting an anal rape scene – and its subsequent whip from the hall of fame shows how viciously and rapidly a female can still be taken down if her ideas/actions (she called marriage a sham, pregnancy barbaric, she also came out as gay) aren’t in line with hegemonized belief systems.

After its one hot minute, she was shamed from the lit world when a number of great male writers – one of them being Norman Mailer – continually shot her theories down, thus proving some of her radical patriarchy theories quite true (and ever relevant today). She later bravely opened up about the dent this made on her identity, health, finance, everything. Whether you agree with her sexual politics or not, her sass is unbridled.

Angela Carter’s Sadeian Woman
I’m Team Angie, original Team Angie. As readers quickly came to learn, Carter was never about subtlety, and she was not about pandering to anyone’s reading desires, least of all men’s. Her stories are distorted realities with a thousand meanings, and could be seen as the ultimate finger up to the likes of White’s Dorian Grey-esque cannibal.

She was truly at the helm of taking existing fictional characters, usually from folklore or fairy tale, and recreating them with a unlikely edge, usually a sharp one at the tip of which was a doomed and deserving person about to take advantage of a fierce and independent woman (my favourite being a matriarchal knight in shining armour coming to her daughter’s rescue on a horse with a gun).

Her first non-fiction, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1979) celebrated one of the most venerated and so-called woman-hating Marquis de Sade on his strong and sexual female characters.

The New Man/New Woman series, 1980
Feminists are often wrongly accused of man-hating and, like with their publishing of The Sadeian Woman, Virago were keen to dismantle any rumours that the press was out to stamp men out of publishing. Their 1980 modern classics reissues included a host of male writers. The cheeky catch was that they were all writing about the new woman of the late 19th century. Tehe. What’s a harpy to do?

The phoenix that is Maya Angelou
When the world was introduced to the beauty of Angelou’s writing, female literature changed forever. Never has an author been quoted in memes or on fridge magnets more often and her words are worthy of this cultural saturation.

All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1987) followed the brilliant I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1984) and Angelou teaches us the essence of feminine gentleness alongside feminine strength. To kill with kindness. To love madly. To cackle loudly at yourself and everything around you in our funny, transient time on earth. One of my fave quotes: You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise. You can follow her, posthumously, on Twitter.

Naomi Wolf’s Vagina
Wolf knew what she was doing with a title like Vagina (2012), and we needn’t womenxplain. In 2012, fresh off the back of The Beauty Myth, Wolf discusses the links between sex and emotional creativity. Never has there been a page turner like this, where she details her orgasmic pleasure like a form of synesthesia and makes us face the truths of the heights of pleasure we’re either getting or have let go in favour of a dulled existence. Technicolour reading, especially if you enjoy an academic critique of the vajazzle.


USA. 1974. Author and poet Maya Angelou.
By Wayne Miller.
Courtesy Magnum Photos.


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