Thursday, March 19, 2009

For the Exciting Woman with a Job!

For my ongoing media/cultural comparisons between today and yesteryear, I looked at several issues of popular magazines aimed at young women. I have in front of me several issues of Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Charm (which was later incorporated into Glamour) from 1956 to exactly 50 years ago--1959. The focus of these magazines is fashion and beauty. And oh, what fashion. I'm no fashion plate but I just melt when I see these beautiful, classy, affordable clothes. Where are they all? I scour vintage stores and all I see are corny Ethel Mertz-type dresses and other unattractive schmattes. But I digress.

What is the subtext of these magazines? That you are just biding your time, working at a nothing job until you find the man of your dreams, get married, and become a housewife? No, no and NO! The featured articles treat their readers and their professions and aspirations very seriously. Here are some of the features in these issues:

Charm, August 1959 is billed as the "special issue for the young tycoon." The lead article is "Are You Afraid to Be a Boss?" The articles in the Jobs section include What Makes a Young Tycoon, and Young Tycoons: On Their Way Up. In addition, there is a long feature on traveling in London (independently!) and "Boom in First Novelists" which very interestingly features the very young Philip Roth and John Cheever. What foresight! It also includes several female novelists such as Nora Johnson, whose first novel was The World of Henry Orient, later made into a film starring Peter Sellers.

Glamour, January 1956 ("the fashion magazine for the girl with a job") punctuates their fashion spreads with articles such as "24-hr. mothers with 8-hr. jobs," a lengthy discussion of the issues facing working mothers, and some solutions; Careers for women in the armed forces; an in-depth article on various forms of insurance; and In Your Future—Job, School News to Come.

Mademoiselle, January 1957 featured a thoughtful article titled "Who belongs?" discussing the inclusionary/exclusionary aspects of culture; Around and about MirĂ³ (about the artist); two short stories; profiles of several colleges; and not least, an in depth article titled "14 professions: what to study and where." What do you think Mademoiselle was proposing as professions to young women in 1957? Nursing? Teaching? Yes. But the other professions profiled were: Engineering, Architecture, Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine, OT/PT, Pharmacy, Extension Work, Dietetics, CPA, and Actuarial Work. The article following, titled "The Best College for Me," briefly profiled 14 colleges by current students who spoke about how much they earned with part-time work at the college and why the college suited them.

I wondered, what the hell happened? These magazines are giving young women the message to take themselves and their careers seriously, to be well trained, well presented, and ambitious. Many of the professions above were then not hospitable to women until well after the feminist revival of the early 70s, and some are probably still not. I know female MDs (I have one), female dentists (I had one, and know a few others), pharmacists, and architects. I don't know any female engineers (maybe software engineers) and I don't know too many people, male or female, dying to be actuaries. But women in these professions are still in the minority, despite their swelling ranks in universities.

Fast forward. I hadn't looked at Glamour magazine since I was in my twenties (which still seems to be the demographic). The focus is still on fashion and beauty, though not in very classy terms. The other sections in today's Glamour are Health and Fitness (which are mainly about dieting and body image) and the big one, men and relationships. The underlying message is How to get your man, and in particular, How to hook him in with sex. Every issue blares at least one sex headline: 10 Things He's Thinking About When He's Having Sex (do we really want to know?), A Sexy Move to Heat Things Up in the Bedroom, 16 Sexy, Sneaky Acts of Seduction. By the way, in the 1950s versions there were no "How to get your man" articles. The rest is basically about shopping. No real articles on careers, or college, or culture. In one issue the closest it got was "Secrets of 5 women millionaires," which was basically a 5-part celebrity interview—in fact many of the full-length articles are celebrity interviews.

So the question is, does media shape culture, or just reflect it? Do young women want Glamour to instruct them on how to give a better blow job rather than enlighten them on art and literature and professional issues? I'm really not sure. All I know is that looking at today's Glamour was excruciating in comparison to its 1950s counterparts.


Anonymous said...

Well, after reading this latest post, you could knock me over with a feather. Who in the world wouldda thunk it?!
I truly had no idea that magazines in the fifties offered such fare to their young, female readers. I remember graduating from college in the early seventies when there was basically the holy trinity of female career options: nursing, teaching and secretarial. Since I didn't want to do any of those, I got a job as a service rep for the phone company. Maybe, I should have asked my mom to dig out one of her old magazines. I might have made a better choice!

Anonymous said...

I think a lot depended on your family's expectations. My father's mother was a newspaper photographer in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and very smart and glamorous. My mother's mother was sent to college in the Depression even though her widowed mother could ill afford to lose her from the farm. She became a teacher. Both my parents have PhDs, my sister is a doctor, and I run a consulting business. The downside? Traditional family life was always rejected as something anyone could do - but as I grow older, I'm not really sure about that anymore. It would be great if the media presented options - the reality of what happens on the middle ground between career and family, love and sex, marriage and singlehood. Life isn't either/or, it's all of these things, usually at all the wrong times. And those articles in Glamour are for gals who have never been married, right?

Nava Atlas said...

Heidi, I would say that the demographic for these magazines was/is unmarried women. I only have a few issues, but in the 1956 Glamour, as I mentioned, there was a substantial article for working mothers. I'd love to look at more of these particular magazines from this era to spot further trends. Your family sounds fascinating. Your implication that every family was/is different despite the media versions is spot on. I suppose my problem with media is that they portray such a narrow range of narratives for how life can look, especially for women.

Heidi said...

Not sure if this relates to the Glamour article, but I've been talking with a few friends over on Facebook about Miss California and...where do I begin?

When I see a woman promote her sexuality in that way - to advertise her body as something to be consumed, and then, clearly, to use her appearance to draw attention to her thoughts (I had to try hard not to put the word thoughts in quotes)...I shudder.

gryph said...

Hi Nava - Fantastic post! I find it so sad that those sorts of thoughtful articles aren't presented in today's Glamour etc. sort of magazines. Because it would be terrible if our media was telling our young women to take themselves and their potential future careers seriously... instead of something *clearly* more important like What He's Thinking During Sex. *sigh* Thanks for writing about this - it's so interesting and important to remember our history accurately!