Virago: A Feminist Fairy Tale of Being Both Damsel and Dragon

Word Art
Synonyms for ‘Virago’ (Photo Credit: Elisabeth Green)

Once upon a time, there was a lady named Carmen Callil. Carmen had travelled from the far away land of Australia, to London, and there hoped to become a publishing queen. However, the publishing kingdom held little opportunity for young maidens in the 1970s. Women struggled to be taken seriously by their male rulers, being granted no power or decision-making opportunities. All they were allowed to do was work in the realms of publicity or marketing, where they would be sent to flatter and flirt with journalists, in the hopes of gaining coverage in newspapers. Carmen wanted more than this.

Now, in a standard fairy tale, this is where a prince would ride in on a noble steed, whisk up the fair maiden and fulfil her heart’s desires. But this is no normal fairy tale, as princes had actually been the source of the problem so far, and Carmen was no damsel in distress. Instead she took it upon herself to be her own saviour, and together with founders of feminist magazine Spare Rib, Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, created her own company, with their mission being to champion the voices of women and bring them to the largest possible readership. Though originally named ‘Spare Rib Books’, Carmen later decided on the name ‘Virago’ – a word which the OED defines as “A man-like, vigorous, and heroic woman; a female warrior; an amazon.” These women were (and are) dragons, not damsels.

Rosie and Marsha left Virago soon after, committed to other ventures, but two new women joined – Ursula Owen and Harriet Spencer. Together the three women bravely risked their own money, in a (successful) bid to make Virago self-financing and independent. Alas, this was not the end of their troubles, and the women continued to face battles for their business. By the 90s, nearly all feminist publications set up in the 70s had fallen in the face of adversity – but not Virago. Many times were they met with financial frays, but survived through determined decisions – in 1982 Carmen was headhunted by Chatto & Windus, accepting a job there as managing director, but only on the condition that she could bring Virago with her. This prevented Virago from falling victim to the financial curse placed on small publishing companies, whilst allowing them to stay a separate entity.

In 1987 the three fierce females, joined by Lennie Goodings and Alexandra Pringle, successfully got free of the grips of CVBC (at the time owned by Random House USA), completing a management buy out – again with their own money. This second bout of independence was also short-lived, with Virago being purchased by Little, Brown in 1995, and remaining an imprint there to this day. However, this has proved a happy home for Virago, who have now published over 1,200 authors, and more than 3,500 titles. Virago have succeeded by taking chances on female authors, like Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter – some being unable to get published by other UK companies, who saw no audience for them, such as Sarah Waters and even Maya Angelou. 

And so Carmen succeeded in vanquishing the gender barriers faced in the publishing kingdom, profiting every single year, and they all lived happily ever after.

If you’re wondering what the moral or life-lesson of this fairy tale is, you can take your pick from the following; don’t underestimate what the publishing world is ready for; don’t assume you know what audiences will, or won’t read (such as feminist literature); oh, and don’t underestimate women. 

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