In our latest blog, Annabel Friedrichs examines representations of womanhood in American avantgarde magazines published between 1880 and 1920.
With the turning of each page, the early magazine medium provides the modern scholar of women’s history with a rich visual-textual testimony of women’s changing (self-)perceptions in turn-of-the-century America. In my research on early female magazine illustrators’ visualizations of girl-, mother-, and womanhood in American mass and avantgarde magazines published between 1880 and 1920, I ask how these imaginations of femininity in the modern periodical press are not only proliferated and managed by the magazine. Also, in a comparative approach, I ask how these visual-textual imaginations of modern femininity can possibly even be understood in terms of the same temporal affordances that characterize the turn-of-the-century magazines that circulate them.
The early periodical form is in many ways emblematic for a distinctly time-imbued modern female life experience at the turn of the century. The four decades between 1880 and 1920 mark an era of innovation, modernization, and acceleration – aspects that enabled the unprecedented mass proliferation of the magazine form. The magazine itself becomes then both a purveyor as well as a ‘symptom’ of distinctly modern ideas of newness, brevity, as well as underlying mechanics of (re-)production and renewal.
At the same time, these four decades appear central to women’s emancipation from dated role concepts, the ‘private sphere,’ and a life draft that followed largely repetitive time patterns of domestic labor and reproductive work. At the brink of the century, women were increasingly claiming space, time, and attention in the urban as much as in the periodical public sphere, and the burgeoning print market for (women’s) magazines increasingly tapped into this development. While these magazines did of course not abandon traditional female gender roles overnight (and, let’s face it, they never really did so even today), they propagated increasingly multi-faceted female roles that were fanning out into different directions – often within the same magazine! With this ambiguity in mind, magazines invested time on women’s new life experiences, hopes, and imaginations: Advice columns that addressed the concerns of both office girls and mothers were allowing women to claim (but also question) their new space and roles in the public sphere; a burgeoning advertising market for time-saving household devices targeted the busy housewife in an accelerating world; and ‘new women’ paced, tennis racket in hand, fast-forward onto the covers of turn-of-the-century women’s magazines.
Quite noticeably, all of these role negotiations and imaginations (on and off the magazine pages) were deeply imbued with the notion of time and its passing. As a ‘timely’ medium itself, particularly the women’s magazine participated in managing the transition between old and new temporalities for young women in a conspicuously time-informed manner, week after week. Let me elaborate on this:
The young turn-of-the-century woman was breaking down her time in new manners – graduating from college, taking up professional occupation, driving a speedy car – and was simultaneously always driven by an urgency to find time and space to live out these new opportunities before traditional roles of wife and mother awaited her. While intricately capitalizing on these new female roles and hopes, the modern periodical market was in a remarkably similar way embodying and living off its very immediacy and periodicity, i.e. the limited and essentially brief availability of its issues. In other words, just like the life phase of young womanhood was limited in time, the magazine was a distinctly brief and topical medium to be viewed, read, and used in a timely manner itself, before being discarded for an even newer issue next week or month.
Further, while both the periodical form and modern female life were subject to certain temporal and spatial restrictions, both also followed certain instincts for renewal. Propelled by an economic impulse of (re-)inventing and (re-)producing itself ‘in the nick of time’ (that is, before the copy deadline), the early (women’s) magazine was closely hinging on the same constant and time-imbued struggle to renegotiate and reinvent its identity as did young, single women who sought to live out their opportunities within the social, temporal, and spatial limitations of the turn of the century. Particularly women’s magazines capitalized on this idea of continuous identity renewal. That is, while women therefore increasingly strived to free themselves from circular time patterns dictated by their life cycles of biological reproduction, they ironically sought advice in a magazine medium that in fact relied on its own circularity, as well as on its strategies of delay and progress, to spread repetitive promises of (identity-, beauty-, or life-) transformation that would of course be constantly deferred – ‘to be continued in next week’s issue.’ This way, particularly the women’s magazine’s promise of self-improvement (function) is fundamentally taken up in its seriality (form). Not only the magazine market but also the imaginations of a modern female life mediated and perpetuated by it were therefore subject to a certain temporal and spatial contraction. Women’s space and time in the modern public sphere was limited, competed, and first had to be claimed – particularly in a periodical press where both time and space for reader-viewers’ attention were limited.
Finally, the magazine-inherent fluctuation between episodic containment and open-ended seriality, between representing “part of a continuum” and yet being “of [its] particular moment” that Margaret Beetham demarcates in A Magazine of Her Own (13) proves a case in point for how female artists as well as reader-viewers could then actively claim their time and space in the periodical public sphere. That is, just like a serialized novel’s seeming open-endedness creates suspense and a potential for differing and potentially political readings (would the female heroine ditch the lover or her parents’ advice on her quest for emancipation?), also young, single (and certainly white) female life at the turn of the century was characterized by an unprecedented scope of possibilities that allowed for productive (re-)imaginations and (re-)writings of role concepts beyond the usual ‘margins.’
As seen, the magazine as a time-imbued modern mass medium takes up a central role in discussions of femininity and the centrality of time in and for women’s lives at the turn of the 20th century. My comparative approach therefore helps to understand how modern female life was discursively (re-)produced and (re-)negotiated in the modern periodical press in a distinctly time-informed manner – week after week, issue after issue.
Credits for image:
Rose O’Neill, “Flirting with Time” (Truth, March 18, 1897, microfilm scan from Library of Congress)
Annabel Friedrichs is a doctoral student in American Studies at Leibniz University Hannover (Germany) and member of the DFG Project “Contingency and Contraction: Modernity and Temporality in the United States, 1880-1920” with Ruth Mayer and Felix Brinker. After she earned her M.A. in Advanced Anglophone Studies in 2017 with a thesis called “Drawing Appeals: Femininity and Feminism in Nell Brinkley’s Graphic Art” in which she analyzed the employment of feminine visual for feminist political appeals, she expands her focus to female illustrators’ visualizations of girl-, mother-, and womanhood in her dissertation “Imagining Change: Visual and Textual Representations of Femininity in Mass and Avant-Garde Magazines, 1880-1920.” She regularly presents papers on the interrogations of femininity, temporality, and the modern periodical press, and successfully hosted the two-day symposium “Managing Time, Mediating Modernity: Temporality, Mass Culture, and the Avantgarde, 1880-1920.”