Event, Politics, Women's History

Between the Pages – Women, Magazines & Historical Memory

In her book ‘There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement – This Century’, feminist Dr Dale Spender points out that at the end of the 19th century the English-speaking world was awash with women’s magazines, particularly those presenting a feminist perspective. ‘Time & Tide’, published in the United Kingdom, showcased feature writers whose articles addressed social, cultural and political issues and challenged patriachal orthodoxies. A regular column contrasted sentences for property crimes with sentences imposed on crimes against the person. The former outweighed in length and seriousness sentences handed down in respect of the latter. The tenor of this column was that crimes of violence – mainly rape and other sexual offences committed against women victims and survivors – were not taken seriously. At least, the seriousness with which they were taken was far less than the seriousness of property crimes. At this time, male property ownership far outweighed that of women: it was only during the last half of the 19th century that women’s right to own property during marriage was recognised by statute.

In Australia, the redoubtable feminist Louisa Lawson published ‘The Dawn’ with an all-woman staff: writers, printers and page-setters. Through promoting women’s industry and right to engage in paid employment at all levels of publishing, Louisa Lawson ran into the demands of male trades unionists for ‘closed shops’: ironically, the trades unionists wanted to limit paidwork to members of unions. As there was no printers union for women at that time, women would – on the alter of trades union rights – be sacrificed to join the ranks of the unemployed. Louisa Lawson fought on, together with her staff. ‘The Dawn’ continued publication until 1912.

Vida Goldstein, in 1903 the first woman in the British Empire to stand for Parliament, ran ‘The Woman’s Sphere’ and ‘The Woman Voter’. Where Louisa Lawson concentrated upon issues such as criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence, Vida Goldstein mainly addressed women’s political rights in the sense of parliamentary representation and voting. These issues were the subject of feature articles and columns in both ‘The Dawn’ and ‘The Awakening Dawn’, however, true to their respective spheres of primary concern, Lawson and Goldstein made their publications their own: vehicles for expressions of women’s rights in the public world and the world of domesticity. For them, the personal was political and the political was personal.

In June 2012, women and magazines, and women’s magazines, was the subject of academic and activist debate and discussion in London, organised with support of Kingston University, Women’s History Network, The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University and SHAW – Society for the History of Women in the Americas.

On 22 and 23 June at Kingston University, the conference ‘Women in Magazines: Research, Representation, Production and Consumption’ saw papers presented on myriad ways of seeing and understanding the magazine industry as impacting upon women. Keynote addresses were combined with streams featuring simultaneous panels ranging from ‘Women as Editors’ through ‘Targetting Specific Racial Groups’, ‘Women as Writers’ and ‘Discourses of Humour in Women’s Magazines’, along with many others.

Noliwe Rooks, Associate Director at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies (and as from 1 July Associate Professor at Cornell University), gave a keynote address entitled ‘Black Women and “Real Beauty”: The Rise and Fall of the Dove Beauty Campaign’ analysing the way ‘black women’s bodies are used to market products to consumers who are not black, in a cultural moment, desperately seeking to evade race’.  This sparked off extensive reflection, both in the session and outside it – in corridors, over coffee, lunch and dinner, and in other sessions – on magazine culture, advertising, beauty products and campaigns, and the place of women’s bodies and colour in promoting cultural sameness and difference.

Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester Penny Tinkler gave the second keynote address under the title ‘”What Every Reader Knows”: Using Girls’ and Women’s Magazines to Explore the Past’. She began by observing that girls’ and women’s magazines ‘exert a strange fascination’, leading to her being ‘drawn to study them’ whenever she undertakes historical research. Her presentation reflected upon the reasons for these magazines being ‘such an attractive and productive historical resource’, as well as considering ‘ways of using them to address questions about the past’. The session took on a practical perspective, with many questioners and discussants raising issues going directly to ways in which researchers might access women’s and girls’ magazines, where archival material might be found, and how these resources and sources may be used to expand upon knowledge and understandings of past and present.

One of the parallel sessions was particularly relevant to this perspective: Jayne Shacklady, post-graduate student at Edge Hill University, looked at the role of editor in girls’ magazines, focussing upon a particular edition of ‘The Girls’ Own Annual’ – the 1923 edition under Flora Klickman’s editorship (which spanned more than twenty years, from 1908 to 1930). In ‘Flora Klickmann’s Editorial Interventions in “The Girl’s Own Paper”‘, Jayne Shacklady suggested that Flora Klickmann’s editorial position ‘allowed her to respond publicly to social changes experienced by the female readership and engage openly with topics such as women’s mental health, … interlacing the personal with the public and the domestic with the professional’. Klickmann ‘addressed middle-class women’s concerns by utlising her autobiographical work and personal experience suggesting a blurring of notions of public and private’.  Jayne Shacklady thus brought into the debate her own practical research into the archives of the magazine, with an eye directed toward the politics of editorship and the need to delve into the personal to determine upon the direction of particular publications. Women’s and girls’ magazines are thus revealed as a repository of information about the place of women-in-the-world as subjects and as operators in determining how women and girls might be represented.

This, then, comes full circle to Noliwe Rooks’ perspective on the way in which product manufacturers and advertisers may influence what appears in women’s magazines and how editorial direction may be enhanced or undercut by the broader demands of economics and women’s power (or otherwise) as editors and audience.

‘Women in Magazines’ began and ended on a high note, with participants glorying in the knowledge that the field is replete with research, perspectives of varying hue, and both academic and popular investigation. All this ensures that women’s and girls’ magazines will continue to provide a resource for historians, political scientists, psychologists and general researchers into women’s writing and editorship, and how publishers regard women and girls as readers and consumers. 

JAS (c) July 2012

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s research presently focuses on women’s bodies as sites for consumerism, medical and surgical intervention, and objects for ‘treatment’. The ‘moral panics’ brought to light by the (now somewhat old) ‘new’ criminology are being replicated in body panics directed toward women’s perceptions of body-as-real and body-in-need-of-treatment.  Dr Scutt’s books include ‘Taking a Stand – Women in Politics & Society’.

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