Sunday, January 18, 2009

Magazine Mamas

I have a nice little collection of women’s magazines from the 1930s through the 1950s. In that era, especially those of the pre-televsion age, magazines held a lot of sway as the primary conduit between advertisers and consumers. We tend to look back at that era as a time when a woman’s home was her universe—a view that's far too simplistic.

A comparison of women’s magazines from those decades to similar ones of the present day favors the former for intelligent content. Sure, the magazines of yesteryear focused mainly on domestic issues—marriage, motherhood, cooking, home decorating—but they also contained idea-filled articles and as many as a half dozen dense, wordy pieces of short fiction. These stories, though mostly, but not always, with a romantic theme, were solidly written and their contributors were occasionally literary stars—I noted stories by Shirley Jackson, Pearl Buck, and Rebecca West.

Every issue, whether
Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, or others, offered at least a few articles on pithy topics. Here are a few examples:

- "Marie Curie, My Mother" by Eve Curie (book excerpt about the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, and then later in chemistry, by her daughter, an author and journalist—her other daughter, Irene, also won a Nobel Prize in chemistry) - Ladies Home Journal, 1938

- "The Kinsey Institute Report on Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion" (can you think of any woman’s magazine today that would touch this topic with a ten-foot pole? The advertisers would be aghast!) - McCalls, 1956

- "Why do Women Vote the Way they Do?" (an in-depth look at women’s political opinions and affiliations) - Woman’s Home Companion, 1956

Waiting in a doctor’s office last week, I had a chance to peruse the contents of the top women’s magazines(such as
Redbook, Good Housekeeping, LHJ, and the like) and without a doubt, their offerings are much thinner than their counterparts of the past. There are few actual articles, and those that are of any significant length are either celebrity interviews or trite tips on how to improve your marriage and/or marital sex. Many of the so-called “features” are merely advertorials.

Women’s magazines, past and present, assume an extremely narrow narrative for what a woman’s life looks like. You are generally white, married, and have a couple of kids, and most of the articles and ads are geared toward that scenario. No one has a female partner, or a lover named Eduardo, or a twice-married boyfriend with some addiction problem, or is, heaven forbid, single. Did you know that about half of adult women in the U.S. are single? Of course, for young single women there are magazines like
Cosmopolitan and Glamour, which are mainly about shopping, beauty, and attracting the right man.

Bottom line: even in the 1940s and 1950s, when the cultural paradigm was even narrower than it is today, magazines offered far more thought provoking, well-crafted, lengthy articles and stories than they do today. This is definitely an area where we've not come a long way, and in fact, have regressed!


Anonymous said...

You bring up a great point, Nava. Today many women share a rather smug attitude toward our feminine forbearers. We believe, because we've made substantial strides in gender equality, that our mothers and grandmothers were somehow "less than."
Nothing could be further from the truth. For those who are examining issues that surface at midlife, I invite them to pick up a copy of "Gift From the Sea" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The book was originally published in 1955 and few, if any, works can hold a candle to Morrow's musings on growing older as a female in our society.
Women writers have always been insightful and sensitive to the deeper issues of life, whether or not they published before the women's movement. Thank you for reminding us.

Nava Atlas said...

Gift from the Sea is such a beautiful book, so spare and elegant.

I think media is largely to blame for presenting such a narrow view of women's lives past and present, whether in print or on film, and that all works to keep the status quo. In the last 100 years or so, women have done some remarkable things and I'll be exploring many more of these topics, from science to politics to literature and more, in the weeks and months to come.

Mel said...

What great observations, Nava. My heart goes out to all the single women in the world. I spent so much of my twenties/early thirties feeling like a 2nd-class citizen because I was single (by choice!) I didn't want to be in a relationship just for the sake of it, but felt so much pressure - mostly by other women. It's as if women have no value unless partnered with a man.

I used to be a magazine junkie and I finally (just recently) became fed up with all the ads and scant content.

I must say, I love the feminine fashions/hairstyles of these older magazines you're presenting.

You are right on!

Anonymous said...

I think the transition had to do with the beginning of women having an expendable income. Magazines (and their advertisers) realized that they could coerce women into buying stuff so their magazines turned into one giant advertisement.