A shocking shade of pink
Shocking Pink was a magazine for and by young women, that rejected the adult-oriented feminism of the periodicals of women's liberation in favour of a youth-led agenda that prefigured riot grrrl. Cazz Blase talks to the women who made it happen
Shocking Pink was a magazine by and for teenagers and young women. Spanning 1979 to 1992, the magazine’s history charts a tumultuous period in British history and politics, not to mention feminism. Not quite a magazine, but not really a fanzine, Shocking Pink occupied a unique position in the post-punk second wave feminist world. It had access to and support from organisations and service that are now extinct and, in a pre-internet world, where sales were done face to face, by mail order, or through left wing bookshops, it was able to fill a distinct niche for a range of disaffected young women as well as gain recognition from the mass media. It was run by three different collectives throughout its long history and, while this is not a comprehensive study and I have only spoken to a small group of women who were involved in the magazine, I do hope to provide you with a behind the scenes history of the magazine throughout its three phases, and to set that history in the wider feminist, historical and political context of the 1980s and early 1990s. I will also be exploring the magazine’s legacy.
“It’s hard to remember now how little there was for feminists then”
Talk of launching a feminist magazine for young women, by young women, started at a young women’s feminist conference in 1979. As a result of this conference, an advert was placed in the women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib, which was read by the then 18-year-old Miranda*, at the time working at a record company in London.
Fresh from performing in a number of bands, Miranda was interested in the music business, but was also discovering the rampant sexism of the industry. She saw the advert in Spare Rib as an opportunity to “get involved in something and meet some other like minded young women”.
Sally O-J, then 17, also saw the ad and was inspired to attend the first meeting. “It’s hard to remember now how little there was for feminists then,” she recalls. “There was Spare Rib basically and if you lived in London there was something called the Women’s Liberation Newsletter, which was done on a Xerox machine at The Women’s Place, which was in King William IV Street in the back of Charing Cross…”
Shocking Pink: 1979-1983
Sally O-J, who was one of the earliest members of the collective, says: “We had a lot of help from the whole Spare Rib collective, they were very, very generous about trying to explain how to literally make a magazine. We didn’t know how to make a magazine. In those days we did all our own layout and everything: we did everything – took the pictures, wrote it, got the copy.”
“I wanted something that wasn’t Jackie”
Photographer Jo Spence lent the collective her camera, the Cockpit in Holborn allowed the collective to develop their own pictures for free and the Women’s Centre in Kings Cross hosted the collective’s meetings. “We had a lot of help, a lot of guidance,” Sally adds. “Not help, again, I must stress, not help with the doing of it, but advice about where to go and what to do.” The real problems lay more in “learning how to work as a collective, that was a big problem, there were a lot of quite bitter arguments … the kind of things that were just tearing the women’s movement apart at the time. In microcosm.”
A young woman by the name of Lisa Bahaire came up with the name Shocking Pink, which the collective chose because it subverted notions of conventional pink femininity. The magazine and the collective were also reacting against existing magazines for young women. Sally recalls: “I do remember saying ‘You know, I want something that isn’t Jackie‘,” the market-leading magazine aimed at teen girls, which at its height sold 1.5 million copies a week. “Very, very quickly it became this idea of the anti-Jackie.”
“Jackie magazine,” says Miranda, “was all full of fluff, very, very stereotypical roles for girls, nothing but heartache with boys and makeup, and nothing that considered that a young woman might have a brain.”
“Issue one included a picture of a c***, a real one, with all the diagrams and everything like that. We were threatened with prosecution under an obscenity law, because we had subscribers and we were sending them out through the post”
Shocking Pink had no truck with this approach. “When I look back now,” says Miranda, “I think it was actually very radical, in terms of the content that it had, the issues that it addressed and just the basic ethos really, which was just to treat young women much more as if they had a mind and interest, independent really of their relationships with boys.”
Thematically, Miranda adds, the magazine addressed “stuff about being at school, and about being young and gay at school, so issues around homophobia, bullying. We also were interested in ideas around race, so we did stuff on the Brixton riots. We were always interested in music as well so I remember I did an interview with The Raincoats, some of the women’s bands around.”
Issue one featured a piece on sexuality and masturbation, which was so graphically illustrated that the collective were advised that publishing the article could leave them open to prosecution. “It was actually a picture of a c***,” explains Miranda, “a real one, with all the diagrams and everything like that. And we were actually threatened with prosecution under an obscenity law, because we had subscribers and we were sending them out through the post.”
“We did it anyway because we wanted to,” Miranda adds. “It just shows up the hypocrisy around young women’s bodies and sexuality, in that if you’re doing something educational like that, where some young women didn’t know what bits were what, what was called what, you could be threatened under the obscenity laws. But young women are endlessly sexualised for somebody else’s gratification, but not for their own empowerment.”
The collective also directly subverted the photo stories which often appeared in Jackie by shooting, storyboarding and publishing their own photo stories. Their first story was a tale of gay bullying and being outed at school. “It was two of the young women on the collective,” explains Miranda. “This was a reflection of their lives, this was what was happening at school: it was true and they wanted to write about it. I think they were 14 at the time.”
The collective worked together on the photo story: “We took the raw experience of some of the younger members and then we used some of the skills of some of the older members around the graphics and photography.”
In the beginning, Sally says, “We didn’t know what we were doing, we were learning on our feet and we were learning how to be a collective. The collective changed violently, a lot of people said ‘well, actually, I don’t want anything to do with this’ but it settled down, we were completely learning on our feet on the first [issue], and I’m still proud of it.”
“I’d got burnt out and I honestly did feel I was too old”
Within the feminist movement of the 1980s, Shocking Pink became well known and was often acknowledged in surprising ways. “We went to a feminist conference at Starcross School in Islington,” says Sally, “and at the plenary we got up and asked for donations, and it was a packed hall, 300-400 women there, and Paula Frampton got up, and her plan was to say ‘Hello, we’re the Shocking Pink collective, we’re going to pass this bucket around, if you could be so kind as to put…’ and she said ‘Hello, we’re the Shocking Pink collective’ and the place just erupted, and they went on, they clapped, and cheered, and clapped, and clapped and cheered, and stamped and hollered and whooped, and it was fucking excellent, it was such a great moment.”
“On top of doing the magazine, we had to do fundraising to make the money to pay for the printing,” explains Miranda. “So we organised gigs, and we did some shared fundraising events with Spare Rib, and a couple of different things with bands, you know, putting on an event with women’s bands playing and raising some money. And when we raised some money we got the first one printed, which I think cost us something at the time like 800 quid for about 2,000.”
On Shocking Pink and the women’s movement more generally, Miranda says, “I think in many ways, later in the ’80s for me, the whole women’s movement started to deteriorate in a way, in terms of the infighting that went on and the problems that happened, but, for me those early times, the early ’80s, when everything was more together and organising and doing stuff… it was just really positive.”
“We felt that things like Spare Rib were really boring and not really accessible to younger women, because they took themselves so seriously. And also they weren’t funny”
Around 1982 or 1983, Shocking Pink came to an end, and both Sally and Miranda moved on to other things. “I felt that I had done my bit,” explains Miranda. “Things have a momentum, don’t they? And an energy, and then after a while it dwindles and it sinks down a bit and comes up in another way, so it’s just more of an organic thing. By the end of it I’d just had enough.”
Sally, who had also been working as a gofer for The Slits while on the magazine. explains: “I’d got burnt out and I honestly did feel I was too old.” She was 22.
The inevitable return of Shocking Pink: 1987-1989
When Shocking Pink, ended, money was left in the magazine’s bank account with the specific intention of handing it over at a later date to another magazine for young women. A few years later, two sets of young women had independent but roughly coinciding desires to launch such a magazine.
Louise Carolin had seen a copy of Shocking Pink around the time she was 17: “And I had an ambition when I left school, to start something similar.” Shocking Pink had folded by then and Louise was reading Spare Rib, but felt she was the wrong age for it. “I either put a notice in Spare Rib or maybe I wrote them a letter, and said I wanted to do a magazine for young women.” This was around about 1985, “after I left school. And I met with a couple of girls, but we really only had a couple of meetings and talked.”
Elsewhere, Jo Brew and her sister Angie were also making plans. “When me and my sister left university we wanted to create or make a feminist magazine.” They went about it by “advertising in Brixton, talking to people and advertising, and after about six months, maybe three months, four months, we had found a few people who were interested in also doing a feminist magazine.”
Louise Carolin, meanwhile, left for Cambridge in 1986, but around April 1987, she “saw a notice from another group of young girls, saying that they were starting a magazine for young women, based in London, calling [for] people who were interested in contributing or helping to get in touch. And I dropped them a line and said ‘This is fantastic, I wanted to do something like this, but it didn’t work out, I’d love to come to your meetings. I’m away at college at the moment but when I get back to London in my summer break I’d like to hook up with you.’ So that’s what happened, that’s how I met them.”
“I think I was a feminist from quite young,” says Jo, adding: “I think we probably felt that things like Spare Rib were really boring and not really accessible to younger women, because they took themselves so seriously. And also they weren’t funny, it was so inaccessible because it was so academic and worthy, so we wanted to do something that was a bit lighter. And also, if possible, to make people laugh.”
“I think there was about four or five young women that I met the first time I went along,” says Louise. “Two of them were sisters, Angie and Jo Brew, and they had both graduated the year before. They were doing voluntary youth work with girls in London and living around the Brixton area, and they were involved in left wing politics, sort of Socialist Worker, and through the SWP they’d met a lovely young woman called Rebecca Oliver.” She adds, “I think she was 16 when I first met her, she was the youngest of what emerged as the hardcore and she was doing A-levels at a sixth form college. And there was another woman, called Frances, who was also in her 20s, and I’ve a feeling that she might’ve been a youth worker as well. But there was nobody pulling the strings, it wasn’t like it was a group of youth workers trying to do something for young women.”
The new collective, having been made aware of Shocking Pink, got in touch with Sally and Miranda, and a meeting was arranged. “We met them at the ‘Pollo in Old Compton Street,” remembers Sally O-J, “and we handed over – me and Ilo and another woman from the last version of the collective, called Kate – we gave them this big cheque. It was a lot of money; it was in the thousands I think.”
Just 17 (later J17) had launched in October 1983 and quickly overtook Jackie in sales, establishing itself as the leading magazine for young women. “I don’t read very young women’s magazines now,” says Louise Carolin, “but at the time it was still, really, even in the mid-late ’80s, they were still a lot like they were in the ’70s. It was Cathy and Clare in Jackie saying ‘ooh, you know, don’t worry that you fancy girls cos it’s just a phase.’ It was really pretty unreconstructed stuff in girl’s magazines.” The new pretender, Just 17, “had started off with a very obvious feminist remit, I would love to see the original, the early copies again actually, but by the time we started Shocking Pink it had swung round, as magazines inevitably do.”
“There was nothing feminist that was accessible or aimed at young women,” says Jo Brew. “All the other feminist stuff had been started about 20 years beforehand. Whereas then, when we were, say, 20, 21, they were about 40, controlling it, and it was serving them. And all the political stuff, the more left wing political stuff, was very sexist. It wasn’t overtly anti-women, but it didn’t value women’s ideas and it was mostly written by men and assumed that most valid political points were about men.”
As with the previous incarnation of the magazine, Shocking Pink II was interested in “feminism, young women – things that mattered to young women – lesbianism, left wing issues” and Jo is careful to stress the importance of humour, “jokes, making things funny”.
“We didn’t necessarily have places of our own, we were living in squats, then moving around. Some of us were living with our parents, some of us weren’t out to our parents… and the fact that we had a place where the magazine lived, that we could go to, made it possible”
As time went on, “I think we became more confident, and so we were exploring different things. Probably the thing that I found the most interesting was in about issue four, we started thinking about violence by women, thinking about liberation struggles and starting to think a little bit theoretically about why some liberation struggles – let’s say Che Guevara, the Cuban Revolution – those international liberation struggles, violence was thought to be acceptable at certain moments in liberation struggles, but why women rejected it almost completely overwhelmingly as a method. It was thought that the feminist movement was Other, a different form of liberation movement which didn’t involve violence.”
By this point Shocking Pink had come to the attention of Melanie McFadyean, previously the agony aunt at Just 17, then editor of the Young Guardian section of The Guardian. “She approached us and wanted to interview us about Shocking Pink,” recalls Louise, “and three of us went along, and we did this interview and were photographed by a Guardian photographer. And then she asked to see the issue that we were working on, and we sent her a draft of what became issue four, the ‘Violence By Women’ issue, and she baulked at it.” While the collective stood by their issue, McFadyean had grave concerns about it. “[She] got back in touch and said ‘I can’t possibly promote this magazine, you’re advocating castrating rapists and things, and I can’t’ – you know – ‘as a responsible journalist, you know, I’ll have parents writing into me and…’ and she suggested that we should take that content out, and we said no.”
“I remember her doing quite a nice article” recalls Jo, “maybe she would have made it a bit bigger or something. But I thought that was quite interesting, that one of these gate keepers for publicity for us thought she knew what feminism was, and also that it’s such a taboo thing.”
“We had an office in a squat,” says Jo, “then we got an office in the South London Women’s Centre.” When the centre, itself housed in a squat, was re-homed to “somewhere that was really yucky and unhelpful”, Shocking Pink had to move house again. “We had a cupboard basically that we kept our stuff in,” says Louise, “But within about a year they’d given us a room at the front, so we had a proper office, which made a huge amount of difference because it really meant there was somewhere to come, any day of the week, anybody who wanted to come and do some work. They would let us use the phone in their office to ring around to try and get people to advertise and stuff like that.”
She adds: “We had a computer of our own, that kind of belonged to the magazine, and I’m not sure where that came from. I’ve done interviews with people who operated other gay/queer magazines around the same time, and they all worked out of collective members’ houses.” She explains: “I do think all of that is really important about Shocking Pink, that it couldn’t have happened for as long as it did if it hadn’t had offices, and I think that was quite important about it being a young women’s magazine, that we didn’t necessarily have places of our own, that we were living in squats, then moving around. Some of us were living with our parents, some of us weren’t out to our parents… and the fact that we had a place where the magazine lived, that we could go to, made it possible.”
“We had quite a lot of lesbian content, which was, at the time, extremely hard to find: there was no lesbian magazine on the shelves, there was no real kind of visibility in the mainstream culture. And there was no internet”
The magazine was printed at East End Offset, the SWP printing press, and it was typeset at Leveller Graphics, producers of the long running left wing paper The Leveller. “We were very fortunate to be able to key into that existing print culture,” says Louise. The magazine was distributed by Central Books, “who were great because they didn’t really care that we were sporadic. I think we were supposed to come out four times a year: we didn’t. I think, looking back now, it’s absolutely extraordinary that we came out as frequently as we did, and as consistently as we did.”
She adds, “We sold it on marches, in the manner of left wing paper sellers, we’d take bundles to sell on the various marches and demonstrations that we were going on, and we also used to go along on Tuesdays to The Fallen Angel, a gay pub in Islington that had a regular women’s night on a Tuesday night. When we got the magazine back from the printer it was one of the places we used to do face-to-face sales.”
Shocking Pink campaigned fiercely against Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which sought to ban local councils from “intentionally promoting homosexuality” and forbade schools to promote homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship. The insertion of Clause 28 into the Local Government Bill occurred on 8 December, 1987 and, despite a series of protests that included invasions of the Lords and the BBC by lesbian protesters, lobbying by arts organisations and a march in Manchester that was attended by 13,000-20,000 people, the bill became law on 24 May, 1988.
“There’d never been a party line at Shocking Pink and I felt like we were in danger of accepting a kind of party line”
In a political climate in which hysteria over Aids was at its height and a media climate in which The Sun could get away with publishing a cartoon depicting a gay lynching, the Conservative Party saw an opportunity and the fate of the bill was seemingly sealed from the start. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Scottish Parliament repealed Section 28 and the rest of the UK had to wait until The Local Government Bill 2003 for it to be repealed.
“I think [Shocking Pink] got more lesbian as it went along,” says Jo, “some people kept pushing for it to be almost overwhelmingly lesbian and I didn’t want it to be that.”
But Louise Carolin points out: “A lot of women who got involved [with Shocking Pink], looking for a kind of community and a gang, were emerging lesbians. We had quite a lot of lesbian content, which was, at the time, extremely hard to find: there was no lesbian magazine on the shelves, there was no real kind of visibility in the mainstream culture. And there was no internet.”
The question of how much to stress the lesbian aspect of the magazine had also been an issue for the first incarnation of Shocking Pink, which also featured lesbian content and had lesbians on the collective. Miranda explains that, while the collective was over 50% lesbian, it was decided that the magazine would be promoted as being for young women, not as a magazine for young lesbians.
After three years at Shocking Pink, Jo Brew was ready to move on. “I felt I’d done everything I wanted to, and that I wasn’t that excited by it anymore,” she explains. In the immediate aftermath of Shocking Pink she worked at both Shelter and Spare Rib.
Louise Carolin also departed around the same time. “It was after I’d graduated,” she explains, “it was about 1989 and, in fact that was somewhat provoked by debates around S&M and stuff that was really tearing up the lesbian community at the time.” She adds: “There’d never been a party line at Shocking Pink and I felt like we were in danger of accepting a kind of party line.”
Frustrated by this, Louise moved onto another collectively produced magazine, Square Peg, a lesbian and gay quarterly. “We were all beginning to move a bit. I think that was when Katy appeared. We were very lucky.”
Shocking Pink III: enter Katy Watson (1989-1992)
Previously involved with the feminist magazine Outwrite, Katy Watson took Shocking Pink off the hands of the second collective in 1989. It was also around this time that the magazine moved to its final home, 121 Railton Road in Brixton, an infamous anarchist squat.
In an interview conducted by her friend Neil Transpontine shortly before her death in 2008, Katy said: “Me and my friend Vanida took it on to quite a large degree. I really liked that magazine. I liked the way it worked. We had a kind of no-editing policy – if we wanted to put something in we just put it in wholesale. We didn’t put everything in, we were selective about what we put in, but very open.” She added: “It made the collective meetings and collective process of putting it together quite light and quite fun because we weren’t sitting round saying ‘what news stories do we need to cover’ we were just saying ‘OK what articles have we got typed up on the computer, what cartoons have we got, is this enough to fill a magazine yet?’ and then when it seemed like it had built up quite a lot we’d shove it all together and have these big press weekends.”
As was the case with the second incarnation of Shocking Pink, the magazine was sold on demos, in lesbian pubs and even “outside Brixton tube station, just like the SWP would with their paper”.
One of the political demos the Shocking Pink collective attended was the Poll Tax demo in London on 31 March 1990. The climax of anti-Poll Tax demos across the country, the march began in Kennington Park in South London and ended in Trafalgar Square. Attendance was so huge that the front of the march had already reached Trafalgar Square by the time the last person had left Kennington Park.
A decision by police to first of all divert most of the march away from Downing Street, where about 2,000 people had broken away from the march and were being contained by police, and later to move this contingent to Trafalgar Square in the hope that the largely peaceful crowd there would absorb this troublesome minority, backfired spectacularly. What happened next has become known as the Poll Tax Riots, during which riot vans drove into crowds of protesters, materials from a building site – including scaffold poles – were hurled at police and mounted police charged protesters. When the crowd was dispersed from Trafalgar Square in the evening, trouble spread to the West End and led to a series of running battles between police and protesters. Windows were smashed, shops were looted and fires were lit.
“The collective meetings and collective process of putting the magazine together were quite light and fun because we weren’t sitting round saying ‘what news stories do we need to cover’ we were just saying ‘OK what articles have we got typed up on the computer, what cartoons have we got, is this enough to fill a magazine yet?'”
Katy estimated that “about half a million people” attended the demo and describes rioting in Trafalgar Square. “We were sitting by some landmark and I would say [to my sister] ‘I’ll see you in 10 minutes’ and I’d go and try to riot and chuck things into the crowd.” She added: “There were huge buildings in Trafalgar Square set on fire and it went on well into the night.” The day after the Poll Tax Riots, rioting broke out at Strangeways Prison in Manchester and continued for 25 days.
By the autumn of 1992, riot grrrl had reached the UK from the US, and Katy was DJing in “a couple of gay punk clubs”. It was around this time that Shocking Pink was wound up for good and, as had happened with the first collective, the money left in the collective bank account was used to finance a new feminist magazine for young women or, in this case, two new magazines: Subversive Sister in Manchester and Katy’s new project, Bad Attitude, which launched in December 1992.
Bad Attitude and Subversive Sister were not the only magazines to owe a debt to Shocking Pink. In 1991, Erica Smith started Girl Frenzy, initially a comic-based magazine by women, for women, based in London. Whereas Bad Attitude would disappear for lack of collective members around 1995, Girl Frenzy was still going strong in 2,000, launching its first annual, The Girl Frenzy Millennial. Both magazines would foreshadow and, after initial scepticism, embrace riot grrrl.
“It was an empowering experience of being a young woman and doing something creative like this, and really feeling like you could get something done and you could express yourself, and you could feel that commonality with other girls, even girls that you’d never met who were reading it in remote bits of Wales”
Bad Attitude focused on international politics as well as feminism, and Girl Frenzy initially focused on women and comics, but both shared Shocking Pink’s combination of feminism and humour, and a variety of irreverence and anarchy that was hard to match or replicate. Louise Carolin has also pointed to the influence of Shocking Pink on “the new generation of commercial gay magazines” including Diva, where she is now assistant editor.
“One of my best friends,” says Sally O-J, “had – though she’d be gutted to hear me describe it like this – but I think you could only call it a dinner party. It was a few years ago now, and there were 10 people or something around this table, and somebody said to her ‘How did you and Sal meet?’ because we’ve known each other since 1981, and Jackie said ‘Oh we were on Shocking Pink together’ and every woman at that table went ‘Shocking Pink… fucking loved Shocking Pink!‘ and these were people that we had no idea had… somebody said ‘I remember writing to Shocking Pink and getting an answer,’ and that was actually one of the best moments of my life. Because they were such different women, and some of them I would never have thought, but every single one of them [loved Shocking Pink].”
“I think it had a big impact on the individuals who were involved in it,” says Louise Carolin, “That kind of empowering experience of being a young woman and doing something creative like this, and really feeling like you could get something done and you could express yourself, and you could feel that commonality with other girls, even girls that you’d never met who were reading it in remote bits of Wales. There were girls who used to write to us, ring us up, and say ‘Your magazine is completely like my lifeline’. So that was really important.”
“When I was in Brussels,” says Jo Brew, who worked at the European Parliament as an assistant in the ’90s, “two of my still very good friends saw on my CV … that I had worked at Shocking Pink, they were actually so excited that they came and found me, and just gave me a massive hug. And then recently my best friend at the school my kids go to, we were talking about various things, and I mentioned that I had done Shocking Pink, and she was so excited, because she’d had some sort of consciousness of feminism, that she just gave me this massive big hug, and was really pleased that I had done it, and it had been done.”
She concludes: “One thing I thought since we did all that stuff in the ’80s, that I was involved in, sometimes I thought ‘Oh God, everything will be lost, all of this information on all of these things we did, and were trying to do, will be lost.’ But now, since this new bit of feminism coming up, I’ve thought ‘No, it’s not lost at all’ and not only that but all the young women now who are doing things, they’re finding out everything, so really they can make the next leap forward because none of its been lost, it’s really exciting that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, and that the next group can move on, and move ahead, really good!”