Enterprising Women: Independence, Finance and Virago Press, c.1976–93

Since 2018 I have been working as Research Fellow on the Leverhulme-funded The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, a project based at the University of Sussex in collaboration with The British Library and the University of Cambridge.

It has been an incredible experience reading the Carmen Callil and Virago archives based at the British Library, as well as other Virago collections held at Special Collections, University of Reading.

One area I was keen to investigate when I started the role was how financialisation changed capitalism and its interaction with culture in the late twentieth century.

Virago’s business histories offered a compelling case study to understand these transformations in detail, in particular how the Private Equity and Venture Capital industries grew in Thatcher’s Britain.

The outcome of this research is a new article, recently published online in the journal Twentieth Century British History, called ‘Enterprising Women: Independence, Finance and Virago Press, c.1976–93.’

The abstract is as follows:

“Virago Press were established in 1972 and became one of the twentieth century’s most enduring publishing brands. As a women-led enterprise, articulations of independence have defined key moments in Virago’s history. This article explores two moments when the company re-structured as independent, in 1976 and 1987. To become successful, Virago had to overcome barriers that have historically hindered women’s participation in business, namely limited social capital and difficulties accessing finance. Virago founder Carmen Callil’s friendship with publisher Paul Hamlyn and printing entrepreneur Robert Gavron embedded Virago in networks of male entrepreneurial knowledge that helped shape the evolution of the company. Such networks were vital to Virago securing investment from Rothschilds Ventures Limited in 1987 who were, at that time, leading figures in the UK’s growing private equity industry. This article contributes to growing historical understanding of the synergies between financial, arts and culture industries in the 1980s. It argues that while this era offered new opportunities for women to participate in business, such participation was tempered by new forms of legal and financial discipline that re-calibrated existing gender inequalities within business cultures. Due to the time periods under consideration, this article also analyses how entrepreneurial practices and opportunities for women changed dramatically with the onset of Thatcher’s ‘Enterprise Culture’.”

This research has also opened up further avenues I hope to pursue in the future, namely the cultural, economic, political and business impact of Paul Hamlyn, a hugely important figure in post-war Britain but whose influence has not yet been analysed in detail.

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