As publishing house Virago turns 40, a chronicle of its long journey from a London kitchen sink to the top table.

Long before Steve Jobs launched his famous Apple logo there was another, equally famous, Apple symbol — a brilliantly red ripe apple nicked straight from the Garden of Eden with a chunk bitten off it. It belonged to Virago, Britain’s first feminist publishing house, founded in 1973 by a group of women writers, journalists and activists who believed that women would be truly liberated only when the male hold on levers of cultural power was smashed. They wanted the power to tell their own stories in their own words and from their own perspective, rather than through male-tinted glasses.

Thus was born the idea of a publishing house “run by women, to publish women and uncover the buried traces of earlier feminists, at a time when men’s tastes and preoccupations were still assumed to be the universal standard,” one critic recalled. Virago’s founders advertised their intentions of how they planned to subvert conventional male wisdom when they had a go at a sexist Fiat car ad which declared: “If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched”. The Virago team spray-painted it with the warning: “If this lady was a car she’d run you down.”

This month, Virago is celebrating its 40th anniversary — a milestone that might provoke titters in post-feminist circles, but has a huge significance for an older generation of women who went out on a limb to fight for freedoms that today their daughters and granddaughters take for granted.

In India, Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia quit their day jobs to establish Kali for Women, India’s answer to Virago, spawning a new genre of feminist publishing in the country. Kali closed down in 2003 as Menon and Butalia parted ways to set up their own separate outfits but it left behind a robust legacy of making Indian women’s voices heard.

“The 1980s were a wonderful time for feminist publishing, worldwide, and Virago, with its cheeky logo which said very clearly, ‘We will shake the tree of knowledge’, became its icon,” says Menon who now runs Women Unlimited. “We had the International Feminist Book Fairs, Feminist Book Week, a vibrant international women’s movement — there’s seldom been such dynamism and solidarity in publishing as there was with women’s presses then.”

In many ways, the history of Virago — now part of Little, Brown — is also the history of Britain’s feminist movement. If the founding of Virago represented the idealism and feverish energy of an incipient struggle, its merger with a company run by the very same forces that it had set out to topple marked feminism’s mainstreaming and reflected a new mature confidence that you can sleep with the enemy without compromising your independence.

Despite criticism of “timidity”, Virago claims that it remains as fiercely independent as it is possible to be within the broader business realities of publishing. “There’s no point being the greatest thing in the world if you can’t survive,” says Virago’s publisher Lennie Goodings who has been with it for 35 of its 40 years and still remembers the time when it was a struggling start-up — “five flights up a dusty staircase in one room” — in the West End of London.

“I guess it’s fair to call it pragmatic but we’re not a charity, we’re not a political movement, we’re not a library, we’re a business,” she told The Guardian. It was the same spirit of pragmatism that determined Virago-ites to sell the company to Little, Brown during the 1990s economic crisis, she said arguing that there was nothing to be “defensive” about making sensible commercial decisions so long as they did not impinge on the basic integrity of purpose. “You need capital as a publisher because it’s a gambling game…”

Indeed, let’s not forget that setting up Virago was itself as much a commercial decision as it was an ideological one. Its founder, Australian-born Carmen Callil, was a hard-headed businesswoman (she ran a publicity company) who also had the integrity to put her money where her idealism was. It was around her kitchen table in London’s fashionable Chelsea and with her money that Virago — dubbed the “business wing” of Britain’s literary feminist movement — was founded. Virago became Callil’s launching pad to become a superstar of mainstream publishing — first as director of Chatto and Windus and then as a global publisher at large for Random House. Its other founding members included Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe who ran the feminist magazine Spare Rib. In fact, Virago was first registered as Spare Rib Books.

Virago’s first book, Fenwomen by Mary Chamberlain, was published in association with Quartet Books in 1973. It was only in 1977 that it issued its first fully independent title Life As We Have Known It by Co-operative Working Women setting off a venture that was to become a publishing phenomenon — and remains an enduring symbol of Britain’s culture wars.

But the beginning was tough. Virago was up against an all-male Oxbridge publishing culture in which women had only walk-on parts, if at all. There was also resistance from booksellers who said “there are no feminists in this town, there is nobody who wants to read those kinds of books.” And it was not only men. There were also an awful lot of women who were pretty patronising and thought Virago was a bit of a joke. “But you also had secret allies, you’d get letters from librarians or young women in bookshops,” Goodings says.

And it is to these early “secret allies” that Virago owes its later success. It is marking its 40th birthday with an e-book, Virago is 40: A Celebration, a collection of contributions by 40 of its writers whom it asked to write something “inspired by the number 40”.

Some have questioned the logic behind celebrating 40 years when the norm is the 50th anniversary. Apparently, it is all about 40 being considered an important milestone in the life of a human being — a moment for reflection, stock-taking and preparing for a new “four-oh” phase in which “I would never again have to go on a crash diet”, as The Guardian’s Susanna Rustin quotes South Africa’s Lauren Liebenberg saying in her autobiography.

But 40 is also when a mid-life crisis could strike. We are already seeing creeping signs of mid-life blues with many women (among them once-hardened feminists) questioning whether in the 21st century they still need their own little publishing houses and literary prizes.

So, Virago beware…