Magazines, Women's

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Women's magazines, which are enormously popular in the United States, entertain and educate readers, help create and sustain mass markets for consumer goods, and provide a unique glimpse into women's and commercial culture. Hundreds of women's magazines have been short-lived; several, however, have lasted over a century. From the Ladies' Magazine and Repository of Entertaining Knowledge, founded in 1792, to More, founded in 1998, women's magazines have defined as well as responded to women's needs and aspirations. They address women as they are and as they hope to be. As Margaret Beetham argues, the woman reader is a real entity, but she is also an ideal, something the magazine hopes to construct in its pages and through its influence. As they promise to meet women readers' needs, magazines must also always leave enough unsaid to justify the following month's edition. Ephemeral, attractive, and timely, women's magazines have both a fascinating history and a promising future.

The Early History

Although the earliest magazines in the United States targeted men, they discussed and debated women's roles and laid the groundwork for periodicals aimed primarily or exclusively at women. Eighteenth-century publications discussed the role of women in the colonial context, debating the degree to which "woman" could be equated with "citizen." In the postrevolutionary period, women discussed these issues and a range of others in their own female publications. Patricia Okker explored the career of Sarah Josepha Hale, the first successful woman editor, who edited the Ladies' Magazine from 1828 until 1836, and then Godey's Lady's Book from 1837 to 1877. Not only did Hale carve out a space for herself and other women in the periodicals industry, but she also influenced the development of nineteenth-century literary culture. Hale promoted the notion of separate spheres, an essentialist argument about the differences between women and men that located women's sphere in the home, men's sphere in the public world. Nevertheless, many of Godey's Lady's Book 's features, including its signature fashion, poetry, and sentimental fiction, helped to define and encourage a female world that found expression, at least in part, in the commercial culture of magazines, advertising, and shopping.

The "Big Six," the Seven Sisters, and More

The commercial world that Godey's Lady's Book tentatively promoted found greater expression in the late nineteenth century with the founding of the "big six" women's magazines: Ladies' Home Journal, Woman's Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, Delineator, Pictorial Review, and McCall's. With the simultaneous development of national advertising, these publications, whether directed at women's home lives or fashion pursuits, flourished. They also shifted the editorial focus of women's magazines even further from literary to commercial culture. Technological improvements in printing facilitated the production of magazines, while the introduction of rural free delivery, increased urbanization, advances in literacy, and the spread of electricity combined to enlarge potential target audiences. The rise of nationally branded consumer goods and national advertising further supported publishers' efforts to reach the reading public. Advertising served as the intermediary between consumers and American industry, magazines as the intermediary between advertisers and consumers. Because women were thought to purchase over 80 percent of household goods, the middle-class white woman became the darling of manufacturers, advertisers, and magazines.

In Inarticulate Longing Jennifer Scanlon explores the significance of the most successful of the "big six," the Ladies' Home Journal, whose circulation reached 1 million in January 1904. The Journal, particularly under the influence of its most famous editor, Edward Bok, defined twentieth-century womanhood primarily through consumer culture. Known as the "monthly Bible of the American home," the Ladies' Home Journal promoted what Bok called "the simple life," a world in which simple fashions, small homes, and community life forged women's identities. At the same time, Bok's relationships with advertisers fostered the movement of advertising from the back of women's magazines to the front, from a position of marginality to one of centrality in the magazines' presentation, editorial position, and mission. The Ladies' Home Journal 's conservative agenda regarding women's education, suffrage, and paid employment was influenced at least in part by advertising: the woman at home acted out her consumer role more fully than did women with outside interests. At the same time, images of consumer culture offered promises about the excitement of worlds outside the home. In the face of conflicting messages, women readers actively read and responded to the Journal and other magazines, negotiating womanhood and consumer culture in an era of change. As Scanlon puts it, women found not only instruction but also a voice for their "inarticulate longings" in the pages of the Journal.

The Ladies' Home Journal and its contemporaries proved slow to address the needs of women outside their limited target audience. Editors lamented the choices of middle-class married women who worked by choice and pitied those women who worked by necessity, but neither of those groups of women found themselves courted by women's service magazines and their advertisers. African American women found themselves in the magazines as the butt of jokes in editorial pages or as service providers to white consumers in the ads; otherwise, they remained absent. Scanlon argues that advertising agencies and women's magazines ignored African American women even when industry research demonstrated that this group of women had high literacy rates and consumer spending rates.

In the years following World War I, however, the magazine industry sought out working-class white women with new genres: the movie fan magazine, the detective magazine, and, most significantly, the confessional magazine. Publisher Bernarr MacFadden, reading letters from readers of Physical Culture, his popular men's magazine, realized that readers, including women, desired frank discussions of sexual and marital issues. His first confessional publication, True Story, debuted in 1919 and quickly came to rival even the Ladies' Home Journal in national circulation. By 1927, it reached newsstand sales of over 2 million per issue. As economic conditions improved, working-class readers of the 1920s also purchased middle-class magazines in increasing numbers. Advertisers and magazine publishers did not seriously consider African American women as a specific target audience, however, until 1970, when Essence hit the newsstands. Essence stands out because, in addition to beauty, fashion, and fitness features, the magazine has focused on black women's struggles in contemporary American society. It also proved influential in opening up the modeling profession to women of color.

Grocery store magazines arrived on the scene in the 1930s, offering depression-era tips for low-cost meals and inviting women to shop in supermarkets rather than corner stores. Family Circle, founded in 1932, typifies the genre. A tabloid weekly, offered free until 1946, it quickly made its way into thousands of chain grocery stores and then into the homes of female consumers. Supermarket magazines continue to hold a significant share of the magazine market—and continue to place food purchasing and preparation responsibilities with women. At the same time, they, too, changed to recognize women's broader roles by featuring women who "made a difference" in their communities.

Seventeen magazine premiered in 1944 and introduced a new market: the teenager. Advertisers took notice, particularly advertisers for cosmetics, fashion, and toiletries. As in other women's magazines, editorial matter complements advertising in teen magazines, and girls receive strong messages to participate in and cultivate identities through consumer culture. In recent years, beauty magazines for teens and for women have incorporated more socially relevant editorial matter, focusing on women's finances, relationship violence, and sexual harassment and discrimination. Nevertheless, women's service magazines retain a significant share of the women's magazine market, although the "big six" list has been replaced by the "seven sisters": Family Circle, Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Redbook, and Better Homes and Gardens. These publications retain a focus on women's homemaking roles, but each has in its own way responded to changes in women's lives and aspirations by addressing the competing interests of individual women, work, and families. Despite the ups and downs in that process of accommodation, the seven sisters alone had a readership of almost 34 million consumers at the end of the twentieth century. Newer magazines focused specifically on women's complicated work and family lives. In addition to their role as aide to women who negotiated the double day, as Ellen McCracken notes, magazines such as Working Woman and Working Mother attempted to solve the problem that advertising agencies identified early in the twentieth century: working women were too busy to shop. These magazines served as a kind of consumer clearinghouse for the woman whose double-duty day could not easily accommodate the triple duty of committed consumption.

Competing Interests

Virtually all magazines face the dilemma of pleasing readers and advertisers both, despite the competing interests of the two audiences. As early as 1920, Upton Sinclair bemoaned advertising's influence in his muckraking study The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. Sinclair argued about magazines, essentially, as many have argued more recently about television, that editorial matter existed simply to fill the space between the advertisements. In 1973, Herbert Schiller argued in The Mind Managers that advertising's reach discourages editors from addressing controversial topics. In The Lady Persuaders (1960), Helen Woodward argued that women's magazines claim to be public-service tools but primarily function to serve the needs of advertisers. Women's magazines have faced more aggressive attempts at editorial control by advertisers than have other types of magazines. Feminist journalist and activist Gloria Steinem provided a thorough exposé of the control advertisers held over women's magazines in a Ms. magazine article in 1990. Founded in 1972, Ms. magazine operated with the dual goals of inviting women into the women's liberation movement and persuading the advertising industry to treat female consumers with a great deal more respect. More successful in the first goal than in the second, Ms. ran ad-free for a number of years and in 2004 still included advertisements for nonprofit organizations and feminist publications.

The Future of Women's Magazines

A new form of new magazine emerged in the 1990s: the zine. These do-it-yourself grassroots publications, amateur in production and often more political in content than commercial magazines, come in print and cyber formats. As Karen Green and Tristan Taormino demonstrate in A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World, zines provide a more direct means of communication among girls and women. Operating arguably outside the commercial culture, zines demonstrate the diversity of girls' and women's voices and allow for some of the woman-to-woman identification women's magazines promise but often fail to provide. They often mock the invitations to beauty offered in traditional magazines or, alternately, expose the dangers of subscribing to mainstream ideals of beauty through personal accounts of eating disorders, androgynous rather than feminine coding in dress and appearance, and resistance to dominant heterosexuality. It remains to be seen, however, whether zines will prove ephemeral or remain a strong part of the magazine scene in the twenty-first century.

In the meantime, new commercial magazines for women and girls continued to emerge, and the new and old alike vied for readers and advertising. Specialized publications targeted women in terms of ethnicity, class, and status: One could purchase a magazine that was aimed at single women, mothers, working women, Latinas, homemakers, women over forty, brides, and so forth. Other magazines targeted women in terms of interest: fitness, beauty, health, decorating. Women's service magazines struggled to maintain an identity in the face of social change. House and Garden, in response to changes in women's lives, changed its name to HG and began to feature people as often as it did homes. Other service magazines developed online editions to reach women as they stole a few minutes of alone time at work or at home. Feminist magazines like Bust attempted to reach young women and bridge the competing and often conflicting needs of feminist readers and consumer culture. Researchers debate the degree to which women's magazines have changed with the times, reliant as those magazines are on the dictates of consumer culture. Ahmed Belkaoui and Janice Belkaoui argue that, as the portrayal of women in domestic roles decreases, their portrayal as sexual objects increases. Nevertheless, the world of women's magazines was an exciting and financially lucrative one in the early twenty-first century. New publications alternately highlighted or collapsed differences among women as they attempted to make it in the vibrant, culturally complex, and highly competitive environment.

See also: Genre Reading, Magazines, Men's, Women's Leisure Lifestyles


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Jennifer Scanlon

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Magazines, Women's

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