Alexandre Fleurent
15 November 2023
Women's magazines enjoy widespread recognition among the public. They are highly gendered and tend to focus on topics related to fashion, skincare, beauty, and lifestyle. Nowadays, these magazines offer a wide range of content, not solely dedicated to women anymore. What makes women's magazines so intriguing is that even if we do not personally read them, most of us are aware of their content. We might assume that the content featured in these magazines is aimed at enhancing women's lives and guiding them to enrich their personal development. Consequently, a critical question arises: Are the readers of these magazines feminists, and should these publications adopt a feminist perspective? Can they, at the very least, convey feminist messages to the public?
The connections between women's magazines and feminist activism are not self-evident and have sparked numerous intellectual and political debates. On the contrary, women’s publications are often perceived as spaces where stereotypes regarding beauty, heterosexuality, and the distribution of household chores are produced and reinforced.

I - The historical roots of feminine magazines and their connections to feminist movements

The first women's magazine published was The Lady's Magazine (1770), which offered embroidery patterns and sheet music. More publications emerged, including The Lady's Monthly Museum (1798), featuring a semi-annual Cabinet of Fashion: with colored engravings, marking the first appearance of such illustrations in a women's periodical. La Belle Assemblée (1806) then encouraged readers to share their thoughts in its correspondence columns. These early publications included poetry, fiction, and articles with low intellectual content but a strong moral tone. The earliest women's magazine in the United States was the monthly Godey's Lady's Book (1830–1898), published in Philadelphia, which employed up to 150 women to hand-tint its fashion plates. Following this, there was the American Kitchen Magazine (1895-1903), and other home, housekeeping, fashion, and cooking-related magazines. While analyzing the content of these publications, it is evident that the first women's magazines were not feminist in the way we currently understand the movement. In those times, women were predominantly assigned to family-oriented roles and excluded from intellectual content. Consequently, it is not surprising to find publications whose content was primarily aimed at guiding women on how to fulfill their traditional roles as good wives or daughters.

Throughout the evolution of women's publications, we observe a persistent duality within the women's publishing world. On one side, there are feminist publications advocating for societal improvements that grant women more space and rights. On the other side, we find traditional feminine publications that uphold more traditional roles for women. Sociologist Fabienne Malbois notes, “At the end of the 1970s, many feminist newspapers disappeared because traditional women's publications promoted the reconciliation between femininity and feminism”. During this period, women's magazines argued that they could embrace both femininity and feminism, asserting there was no need to compartmentalize themes among different publications. In this sense, women's magazines were feminist.

Nevertheless, a dichotomy still exists within women's publications today. Some magazines continue to align with traditional gender roles and hobbies. In many fashion and beauty magazines, women are predominantly depicted as white, tall, thin, skinny, heterosexual individuals. They are often portrayed in relation to their male partners. These visuals are accompanied by traditional yet sexist headlines, such as “Find your body back: how to lose weight”, (Front page of the 2020 French magazine Elle) as if weight loss remains a major concern for women in the face of significant contemporary social, economic, environmental, political, and cultural issues.

These publications often send women back to their traditional roles as perfect wives with the ‘ideal’ body (neither too thin nor too large), perfect families (a husband and children), perfect diets (emphasizing water, fruits, and vegetables), and being skilled in cooking. The historical context is noteworthy, as the first cooking book was entitled The Complete Housewife: or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion (1727) highlighting the limited roles women were expected to play at that time— mainly as good wives to their husbands, caretakers of the home and children, organizers of social events with neighbors, striving for the 'best' family and home decorations. With that being said, are not women magazines simply guides of the ideal woman?

II - The role of women’s magazines: guides of the ideal femininity?

This section raises questions about the often ambiguous stance taken by these publications, as they oscillate between promoting sexist ideologies and supporting social progress. Do the ideas presented in these articles empower women to become better versions of themselves, or do they perpetuate traditional sexist ideals? Let's analyze the sustainability of such publications in a society still influenced by deeply ingrained sexist and patriarchal beliefs, among both men and women.

Nowadays, we tend to expect women's magazines to be entirely feminist and to eradicate any content that may be interpreted as sexist or that may try to push women back into unattainable beauty standards. They should offer women a means to fight for their rights and combat the patriarchy by transforming traditional, girly feminine publications into more militant ones that gather only content to nourish their political minds. Nonetheless, thinking this way is not entirely feasible nor relevant. First, it is often challenging for magazines to fully embrace any form of social progress because their readers expect them to maintain the content they have traditionally been accustomed to. Second, a complete shift from traditional to modern perspectives may not be sustainable, as it can be perceived as opportunistic in an attempt to appeal to a new generation of readers and could fail. However, it is intriguing to observe a balance within the articles presented, oscillating between conventional subjects and more thought-out ones.

Earlier, we observed that women's publications between the 19th century and the 1960s often portrayed a distorted ideal of women. Women were historically expected to engage in domestic activities and conform to rigid beauty standards, often serving the male gaze. Some women's magazines not only perpetuated traditional yet sexist content but also catered to a male audience rather than a female one. For example, magazines like Playboy (1953), Penthouse (1965), Hustler (1974), Gear (1998), and many others, were categorized as 'men's lifestyle and entertainment magazines.' These publications aimed to portray the female body as an object of eroticism while displaying sexuality to a primarily male readership. Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy, expressed his intentions as “simply a lifestyle magazine for single guys”— a concept that was previously unprecedented. In contrast, there is no equivalent list of such magazines specifically designed for women. The only magazine somewhat similar to Playboy for women is Playgirl (1973), which did not achieve significant success among women but found popularity among gay men, eventually folding in 2016. Those interested in magazines featuring men similar to Playboy often have to turn to the gay magazines section, where titles like Bear Magazine (1987), Boyz (1991), Têtu (1995), and others can be found. The historical preference for male-oriented adult content is rooted in market demand and societal norms. However, societal attitudes have been changing, leading to an increased demand for more inclusive and diverse content that caters to various sexual orientations and preferences, including LGBTQ+ individuals. As a result, the landscape of adult content has diversified, but traditional gender roles and biases continue to influence the industry, making it more challenging for women to have their own magazines dedicated to male models and erotic content.

In contrast to that era, we can still observe changes today. When we open women's magazines like Marie Claire (1937), Grazia (1938), and Elle (1945), we can find entire articles about culture, politics, and the arts, domains from which women were initially excluded. The Athenian (1974) was one of the first women's magazines that allowed individuals from various social classes to access a diverse range of content. The magazine was delivered to homes, sold at coffeehouses, and peddled in the streets, making it accessible to ordinary people. This shift in traditional women's media played a pivotal role in freeing women from patriarchal constraints.

Even in 1910, Good Housekeeping featured a remarkable number of articles focusing on specific states of the Union. These articles were aimed at fostering a national consciousness by educating readers about different regions in the country. We might think that publications offering women a variety of content contribute to their emancipation. However, is it possible that this approach is also confining women to another set of expectations? Today, women are expected not only to be good housekeepers but also to embody traditional duties and physical characteristics as described earlier. They are also expected to be knowledgeable about politics, economics, arts, culture, and more. While this represents a positive step toward women's emancipation by granting them access to a wide range of knowledge within their own magazines, it also highlights the growing expectations placed on them. Consequently, a girl or woman who is not fully aware of all these subjects or not adequately educated in the topics they are expected to master may risk being labeled as ‘superficial’, ‘ignorant ', or ‘bimbos’. This goes against progressive feminist ideals. Anne-Marie Dardigna, who studied the ideological function of the press in 1978, denounced the ‘supposed feminism’ of certain magazines, which she saw as a mere political co-optation of the women's liberation movement, ultimately serving as a new form of oppression against women.

This can be explained by the expectations of the readers of women's magazines. We understand that the editorial direction of a magazine is closely connected to the preferences of its readers. Therefore, women who read magazines like Vogue (1892), Marie Claire, or Elle may not necessarily be seeking content that promotes alternative visions of womanhood. They may still prefer to read about fashion, beauty, and skincare, even if these topics occasionally reinforce patriarchal norms. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced among older readers, as they were strongly influenced by these social norms from an early age. It can be challenging for them to fully embrace ideas that contradict what they have been taught throughout their entire lives.

Another reason that could explain why women's magazines are sometimes hesitant to address issues like body positivity, racism, and feminism is related to the perspective of their journalists. Many articles in these magazines are written by journalists who may not personally relate to these issues or consider them as central to their own lives. Consequently, they may not feel the need to cover these topics because they do not personally experience them. Furthermore, the impact of progressive articles on sensitive topics like body positivity or racism may be diminished because they are often authored by individuals who may not fully embody the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected. For instance, articles addressing racism might be written by white journalists, and articles on body positivity may be authored by individuals who fit conventional beauty standards.
However, I do not want to conclude with a negative assessment. Clearly, not every woman’s magazine is against feminism.

III - The emergence of new forms of feminine magazines: a true revolution?

We often perceive women's magazines as harmless because they predominantly cover topics related to fashion, beauty, and lifestyle—subjects typically seen as apolitical and superficial. However, I believe that women's magazines hold significant power through their subtle presence in our homes. They can be found on our mothers' dressing tables, on our nightstands in our bedrooms, in our sisters' and female friends' handbags. Their glossy and colorful covers may appear sweet, attractive, and innocent. Yet, these magazines enable women to stay informed even when they live in households where patriarchal and traditional values still prevail. Furthermore, women's magazines were the first to broach discussions on contraception, abortion, sexual assault, and other issues that traditional male-dominated media avoided. They served as a crucial source of information, allowing women to access knowledge and escape from environments where they were not treated properly.
By addressing societal matters that directly affected women, these magazines empowered women to raise their voices and gain new insights without the need for formal education. Historically, women were often denied access to higher education until the 19th century. Slowly, the United States saw the emergence of women's colleges and coed institutions. Many Ivy League schools initially refused to admit women and established sister schools as a compromise. It was not until the Common School Movement of the 1840s and 1850s that girls were allowed to pursue their education further, often during hours when boys were not present in schools. Thus, women's magazines can be powerful political tools.
To continue these advancements, new alternative magazines like Teen Vogue (2003), Cheek Magazine (2013), Women Who Do Stuff (2018), and Gaze (2020) aim to redefine the balance between femininity and feminism. They continue to cover ‘innocuous’ subjects like fashion, beauty, and skincare while incorporating interviews with women activists, articles addressing societal issues, and pieces dedicated to women's concerns, often authored by women.

Another aspect I would like to explore is the connection between men and women's magazines. It might be easy to assume that women's magazines are exclusively read by women since they predominantly cover topics relevant to them. In our patriarchal societies, our reading materials are not only gendered but also imposed. Women and girls are expected to read feminine publications focusing on fashion, beauty, cooking, and skincare, while men and boys are expected to engage with content about politics, economics, sports, and cars. When going through a list of men's magazines, one can observe titles like Muscle & Fitness (1936), Popeye (1976), Men's Health US (1987), New Man (1994), or Men's Fitness (2016)—which shows the traditional gender roles and societal expectations associated with masculinity based on the patriarchal norms deeply rooted in our societies. This gender-based assignment of reading materials confines young boys to content they may not be interested in. Reading women's magazines might be stigmatized or even forbidden by their families. Therefore, when women's magazines are introduced by sisters, cousins, mothers, or female friends, they provide an avenue for young boys to read about their true interests and build their identities.

Finally, the idea is not that women's magazines should solely focus on feminism by selecting sensitive topics that question institutions and society in general. Instead, it is about allowing a diversity of content. There is still a majority of women who enjoy reading about cooking, fashion, beauty— and that is perfectly fine. Not everything needs to be political. To answer our initial question, “Can and should women's magazines be feminist?”: the answer is yes, they can be. But no, they should not be exclusively so. It is essential to allow women to read about feminism and express their activism through their reading choices. Equally important is the need to allow other women to read about more superficial content. It is all about finding a balance. One question to consider is whether the gendered division that currently exists in the media should be replaced by publications that encompass content for both men and women. Alternatively, is there still value in maintaining separate forms of media for the construction of our identities?