While it is her work with The Women’s Press that interests us here, Ros was also an editor of Revolution Africaine, of Souvenir Press, and she did freelance editing for Heinemann’s African Writers Series. She wrote The Press in Africa: Communications Past and Present (1966), as well as two pamphlets, Unholy Alliance (1962) and The Collaborators (1964), all to bring awareness to the atrocities of apartheid. She was also a founding member of Women in Publishing, and co-originator of the Orange Prize for Fiction for women writers. Ros herself won the Women in Publishing Pandora Award for her significant contributions to raising the status of women in publishing.
A fundamental principle of women’s publishing has been the idea of space for those who have not had space in the mainstream. (“Publishing against the ‘other censorship’”, Ros de Lanerolle, Index on Censorship, Vol. 19, Iss. 9, 1990)
We in SFF may know The Women’s Press best for its science fiction series, a line which gave us reprints and originals by Joanna Russ, Tanith Lee, Suniti Namjoshi, Lisa Tuttle, Suzette Haden Elgin, Octavia Butler, and many more. This series, helmed by Sarah LeFanu, reached its zenith under Ros de Lanerolle’s management of The Women’s Press, but it was merely one part of the press’s whole during those years.
The Women’s Press was founded in 1978 by Stephanie Dowrick. Backed by Naim Attallah, with whom Dowrick shared formal ownership, it became Britain’s leading women’s publishing house. Ros replaced Dowrick as managing director in 1981, steering The Women’s Press in a new direction:
The accession of Ros de Lanerolle to the managing directorship of The Women’s Press in 1981 signalled a reorientation of the house’s list spurred by de Lanerolle’s own political interests. As a South African and a seasoned anti-Apartheid activist, she expanded The Women’s Press investment in new Commonwealth and third world women’s writing and in addition presided over the firm during the time of its greatest success in 1983 with the British publication of Alice Walker’s bestseller The Color Purple. (Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics in Twentieth-Century Britain, Simone Elizabeth Murray, 1999. p137)
According to the journal of Canadian poet Ellie Epp, Ros was “sacked” from her position at The Women’s Press in 1991. This is unfortunately true. The Women’s Press, under de Lanerolle’s direction, dedicated a “significant portion of its list… to promoting writing by women from those minority groups marginalised by early-second-wave feminism: black women, women from ethnic minorities, working-class women, lesbians and disabled women” (Mixed Media, p140). Yet we find, in late 1990, Attallah blamimg the press’s financial losses on an “over-concentration of the Women’s Press list on risky third world writers” (p138), rather than on the publishing recession of the time. Ros attempted a buyout; it was rejected. Attallah then offered her a lesser position with The Women’s Press, which she refused.
The results were catastrophic: de Lanerolle was forced by Attallah to resign and to accept a redundancy payout; Attallah appointed himself the firm’s interim managing director; five of the small press’s senior editorial, publicity, and rights staff resigned in solidarity with de Lanerolle… (Mixed Media, p138)
In a 1991 letter to Spare Rib magazine, Ros writes, “the major disagreements between Mr. Attallah and the majority of the workers at The Women’s Press were not simply about losses but about what we published and how we ran the company”.
After leaving The Women’s Press, Ros co-founded, with Gillian Hanscombe and Alison Hennegan, a new feminist publishing company called Open Letters, “a publishing house owned and run by women for women, which aimed to ‘bridge the gaps between academic disciplines, between feminist theory and practice and between those writing and reading within academic institutions and those outside.'” Open Letters had hardly begun when it, too, fell victim to the recession. We will never know what Ros might have done next. In 1993, two years after leaving The Women’s Press, Ros de Lanerolle was taken from us by cancer.