Women’s History Month: Sheba Feminist Publishers

Leila Kassir
Senate House Library Academic Librarian

Sheba Feminist Publishers (Sheba) was founded in 1980 by seven women and, over a fourteen-year period, published a range of feminist fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books. Sheba consciously differed from many other women’s publishers of the era (such as Virago and the Women’s Press) as they were formed as a workers’ collective, were independent, and focussed on publishing new writers. Most importantly, Sheba was a political project, publishing works which originated within the struggles and activism of the women’s movement, and with an emphasis on class and race. As writer, filmmaker and Sheba collective member Pratibha Parmar stated in 1986, this way of working meant that ‘some of the feminist publishers see Sheba as a conscience of the feminist publishing industry’ (Menika et al, p.22).

The independence of Sheba’s publishing model gave the group the freedom to select and publish titles that meant something to and reflected the members of the collective who, by the mid-1980s, were predominantly Black women*. As a result, Sheba was the first in the UK to publish important and influential works and writers such as four texts by Audre Lorde and Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables. Sheba’s decisions were prescient: Namjoshi’s book was later published by Virago, and Lorde’s works are currently published by Penguin amongst others. Many Sheba titles are long out-of-print but some, such as Charting the journey: writings by Black and Third World women (a recommended text during the 1988 Feminist Book Fortnight), continue to inspire younger generations of feminists via sharing of library and second-hand copies.


Sheba Feminist Publishers: photo kindly provided by the Author

Ultimately, the independence which gave Sheba a distinctive and powerful voice amongst feminist publishers of the time was also a factor in their demise in 1994. In her survey of UK feminist publishing, Simone Murray notes that a combination of issues within the collective and the reduction of public spending under the Thatcher government prevented Sheba from profiting ‘from its often astute publishing decisions’ (2004, p. 135). It is inspiring reading today about Sheba’s work and aims, and particularly their conscious intersectionality, and thankfully their astute publishing decisions remain in many personal and library collections. Several Sheba books are held in Senate House Library, predominantly in our literature and social science holdings, and can be located using the online library catalogue.

*(Black Woman Talk was the first solely Black women’s publishing collective in the UK).

The following bibliography and list of further reading, also held within Senate House Library’s print and electronic collections, may be of interest:

Black Woman Talk (1984), Black Woman Talk Collective, Feminist Review, No. 17, Autumn, Many voices, one chant: Black feminist perspectives, p.100 https://catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/record=b3551249~S1

Cadman, Eileen, Chester, Gail, and Pivot, Agnes (1981), Rolling our own: women as printers, publishers and distributors (London: Minority Press Group) https://catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/record=b1830636~S1

Careless, Eleanor (2022), Mapping Feminist Book Fortnight: regional activism and the feminist book trade in 1980s Britain, Women: a cultural review, Vol.33, Issue 3, pp. 280-313 https://catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/record=b1738487~S1

Menika, Pratibha, Sue, Alice, Ravinder (1986), Interview: SHEBA a feminist press in Britain, Off Our Backs, Vol. 16, No. 3, March, Celebrating women world-wide, pp. 22-24 https://catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/record=b3016163~S1

Murray, Simone (2004), Mixed media: feminist presses and publishing politics (London: Pluto P.) https://catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/record=b4050262~S1

Leila Kassir is the Senate House Library Academic Librarian for British, US, Commonwealth, Latin American and Anglophone Caribbean Literature. Leila has worked in academic libraries for over 20 years, and has a particular interest in small presses, pamphlets, and zines and how libraries collect this material. 

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