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Sheba Feminist Publishers (1980-1994)



Sheba Feminist Press was established in 1980 -- one of a handful
of small independent publishers born of the UK women's movement
during the 70s and early 80s. The new feminist presses turned
their backs on the high-modernist clique then firmly in control
of the British book scene, and looked instead at what that world
literally couldn't see: the writing of women who hadn't been to
Oxford or Cambridge, and who weren't necessarily white or
heterosexual or middle-class, and who didn't speak with the
polished vowels of Bloomsbury. The new

writers weren't seduced by the pastoral English idyll of haywains and cottages and servile, cap-doffing peasantry. They wrote instead about what it was like to live as an ordinary, non-privileged woman in post-imperial Britain in the second half of the twentieth century.
The ordinary, non-privileged women who constituted a large part
of the book-buying public found their own lives reflected in
these books, and responded with what can only be called devotion.
The phenomenal success of women's publishing was probably the
single biggest factor in the dissemination of feminist ideas to
women in the UK.

Today, mainstream UK publishing has been persuaded of the
marketability of women writers. Many large publishers have their
"women's studies" lists, and women novelists (some of them) get
reviewed on the literary pages, just like men. But old
predilections die hard -- particularly, in Britain, the
predilections associated with intellectual and social snobbery:
if more women writers are published now than in 1965, it remains
true that the majority are white, heterosexual, and middle-class.

Sheba has a mission to challenge this persistent bias. We give
priority to the work of women writers who continue to be
marginalized. That means more than simply being ready to publish
writing by women of colour, or lesbians, or working-class women;
it means recognising the multiplicity of voices within these
communities -- a multiplicity which is frequently overlooked by
a world quick to categorize and dismiss. Sheba has built its
reputation around its commitment to diversity, to difference, and
to open and critical debate. One of our earliest titles was
Feminist Fables -- a retelling of myths, from a lesbian-feminist
viewpoint, by an Indian woman, Suniti Namjoshi. Published in
1981, when lesbian-feminists were universally assumed to be
white, and Indian women universally assumed to be heterosexual,
Feminist Fables called into question this cosy compartmentalization;
it can be seen in retrospect as a harbinger of the coming
struggles over difference and diversity, which by the end of the
decade had put paid to the myth of a unitary feminist identity.

This commitment to openness and to diversity has made Sheba a key
player in the ongoing feminist debates around sexuality. In the
Seventies and the early Eighties, many women had a new and
pleasurable sense of ownership over their bodies and their
sexuality; and this was reflected in the books being published.
For Ourselves (Anja Meulenbelt, 1981) was characteristic: written
by a woman, for women to read, it rejected the marriage-guidance
approach which had previously dominated the field ("Doctor, my
wife is frigid. Can you help me?") and acknowledged women's
sexuality as a private source of pleasure and power available to
all women. Joanni Blank's The Playbook for Kids About Sex (first
published in the US by Down There Press) adopted a similarly
positive attitude; children were encouraged to explore their
bodies and to experiment with masturbation, fantasy, and sexual
play. These and other Sheba titles contributed to the growing
acceptance of women as autonomous sexual agents, rather than
eternal objects, and helped to undermine the cultural
prescription of what Adrienne Rich described as "compulsory

As the old prescriptions crumbled, however, new ones sprang up
to replace them. The ideological association of sexuality with
patriarchal power, expressed through pornography and rape, made
sex seem synonymous with oppression. For women, desire was taboo
all over again. In 1988, Sheba challenged this new puritanism
by bringing out the UK edition of Joan Nestle's A Restricted
Country (first published in the US by Firebrand). The
publication of this collection of essays and stories about
lesbian sexuality acted as a catalyst on the simmering
dissensions over lesbian sado-masochism, butch-femme
relationships, and perverse sexuality, and gave the UK proponents
of sexual autonomy an important cultural reference point.

The following year, Sheba built on the success of A Restricted
Country, by bringing out Serious Pleasure, a collection of
lesbian erotica . Although the controversy over pornography and
censorship continues, it is clear from the popularity of Serious
Pleasure and its successor, More Serious Pleasure that there is
a strong and growing demand from many UK lesbians for well-
written, explicit, woman-centred erotic material. (N.B. Serious
Pleasure and More Serious Pleasure are published in the US by
Cleis Press.)

Today, Sheba continues to prioritize the work of women of colour
and lesbians. A number of prominent Black U.S. writers have been
published in the UK by Sheba, among them bell hooks, Audre Lorde,
and Jewelle Gomez. Sheba is now turning its attention to the
exciting possibilities opened up by new technology, particularly
multimedia and computer-mediated communications. We welcome the
new ease with which we can communicate with other women in
countries all over the world; Sheba's dedication to openness,
fluidity, and the absence of boundaries finds a natural home on
the Internet.

Whatever the medium, the message remains the same: feminism,
diversity, debate. If you would like to know more about Sheba,
please write to us at shebaatdircon [dot] co [dot] uk. We'd like to hear from
you, and we promise to answer all messages. Sheba titles are available
in the U.S. from Inland Book Co., and in Australia from Bulldog Books.

Sheba Feminist Press is a not-for-profit workers' co-operative.


United Kingdom
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Additional information: 
Simone Murray, Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics (2004) *** Jean Florence Holder, Sheba Feminist Publishers: A study of a conflict between ideology and commercial practice, Thesis (M.Phil.) - Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 2001.
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Sex and sexualities
Women's Liberation Movement