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Harpies and Quines and feminist magazines in Scotland

By Rachael Alexander, University of Strathclyde

Feminist newsletters and magazines have gained significant attention in recent years. From the British Library’s digitising of Spare Rib to the Canadian ‘Rise Up!’ feminist archive, the increasing accessibility of feminist publications has introduced them to broad new audiences. As we talk about in the final week of the ‘Gender Representation in the Media’ course, these periodicals were of vital importance for feminist activity and activism. For this reason – among many others – they are well-deserving of our attention.

But even with this in mind, and the broader increase in popularity, the Scottish context is usually overlooked. In this blog I’m going to think about why this is and dedicate some much-needed attention to Scottish feminist magazines, focusing on Harpies and Quines.

It’s maybe unsurprising that Scottish feminist magazines haven’t had the same level of attention as publications like Shrew or Spare Rib. For one thing, there are currently no digitised versions of Scottish feminist magazines. They also had far lower circulation numbers and they were notoriously short-lived. The Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal ran from 1977 to 1978. From its ashes rose MSprint, which fared a bit better lasting from 1978 to 1981. The most recent Scottish feminist magazine, Harpies and Quines only lasted from 1992 to 1994.

These magazines are – of course – valuable records of Scottish feminist discussion, activism and activity. While their short lives may be one of the reasons they’ve gone unnoticed, I would argue that it’s one of the things that makes them so interesting. They demonstrate the challenges of feminist publishing, of combining feminist aims with commercial publishing practices. This has been well documented in relation to Spare Rib and other feminist magazines, but I’m going to look at Harpies and Quines.

Harpies and Quines was styled as ‘Scotland’s New Feminist Magazine’. It was founded by a Glasgow-based collective who emphasised that while they didn’t represent all Scottish women, they hoped the Harpies could be a forum for women to represent themselves. Founding members included Lynne Bryan, Stella Coombe, Jackie Erdman, Fiona McGregor, Fiona Montgomery, Lesley Riddoch and Catriona Stewart. In its first issue the magazine promised to ‘campaign for the rights of women, snap at the heels of chauvinists, encourage secret stories to be told and take a cool, hard look at the reality of our lives’. It championed Scottish women’s writing. It was humorous and controversial. It also discussed women’s everyday experiences and aimed to offer something different to a specifically Scottish readership.

Almost immediately though, the magazine ran into trouble with National Magazines – publishers of Harpers & Queen. They took issue with the apparent similarity of the names Harpers & Queen and Harpies and Quines, threatening legal action. Stories abounded in the press about the plucky Scottish start-up that had dared to defy one of the largest magazine publishers in the UK. While at the time Lesley Riddoch claimed ‘There was no deliberate attempt to flatter Harpers by imitation, she comments in our video in ‘Gender Representation and the Media’ that the similarity of the names was definitely not a coincidence. Harpies and Quines had no budget for publicity, so these sorts of risky guerrilla marketing tactics were necessary. As Riddoch notes in her later book Blossom, ‘thanks to the free publicity we had quietly been banking on in the absence of any cash for publicity or advertising, Harpers backed down’ (374).

So the gamble paid off. But the magazine soon ran into another commercial issue, this time relating to distribution. As the first issue of Harpies and Quines notes:

The first issue of Harpies and Quines was a huge success – distribution by ourselves from Shetland to the Borders […] But of course there were some problems – we know some of you found it hard to get your hands on the magazine. That’s because we’ve been side-stepping John Menzies and their near monopoly on Scottish magazine distribution.

According to Riddoch, in the magazine and elsewhere, John Menzies demanded over half of the cover price for distribution and had some very firm ideas of which titles should be sold where. So the collective had to set up their own distribution networks, which included women’s organisations, Oxfam stores and independent newsagents. The small collective physically distributed the magazines to sellers themselves, no mean feat in a country like Scotland. Fundamentally, the collective refused to contribute to a publishing and distribution system it found exploitative. The clash of feminist aims and commercial constraints remains at the core of feminist publishing enterprises.

In the end, the collective relented and signed a deal with distribution company Fleetfoot. This was an uncomfortable compromise but one the collective deemed necessary. It also allowed them to switch from bi-monthly to monthly publication. This was accompanied by a provocative ad campaign, asserting the magazine was ‘Not just for dungaree-clad dykes’. Controversial but the sense of provoking debate was integral to Harpies and Quines, which never positioned itself as a monolithic authority on feminism.

The prospect of monthly publication and controversial ad campaign appeared to work, and circulation jumped from 5000 to 15000. But the move to a distribution company meant an extended wait period before the income from each issue was received. In March 1994 the magazine folded after its twelfth, most successful, issue.

For a magazine that started with minimal investment, faced a lawsuit, and for two years challenged established distribution networks, Harpies and Quines did well to survive—and thrive—for so long. Yet, equally, its eventual downfall highlights the challenging nature of the publishing landscape, particularly for feminist publications. Like so many feminist publications, the lack of support for magazines beyond the mainstream combined with relative inexperience in the commercial side of publishing ultimately led to the death of the magazine.

But for a while, Harpies and Quines was an important feature in the Scottish feminist landscape. Important questions remain, though. What happened to the gap in the feminist landscape when Harpies and Quines folded? What more can the magazine tell us about the challenges of working as a feminist collective in Scotland? And what can other overlooked Scottish feminist magazines tell us? What is clear is that these short-lived publications have much to say about the history of feminism in Scotland. If for nothing other than this, they well deserve our attention.

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