This week brought news that the US retail giant Wal-Mart has removed Cosmopolitan magazine from its checkout stands because of concerns expressed by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Cosmo, it complained,
targets young girls by placing former Disney stars on its covers, despite the enclosed sexually erotic articles which describe risky sexual acts like public, intoxicated, or anal sex in detail.
The NCOSE might sound like a feminist organisation, but in fact it is a conservative religious pressure group whose original name was ‘Morality in Media Inc’. On learning of its deal with Wal-Mart, a number of feminists leapt immediately to Cosmo’s defence, arguing that the magazine
empowers women to embrace their sexuality and frequently encourages women to enjoy sex because it’s pleasurable and because women are deserving of that pleasure.
But there were also some feminists whose reaction was to say ‘hang on a minute—of course we shouldn’t support the religious Right, but wasn’t there a time when feminists were also critical of mainstream women’s magazines?’
The answer to that question is yes: criticism of mainstream women’s magazines was a recurring theme in second wave writing and, to some extent, second wave activism.
One memorable early action, undertaken by activists in New York City in 1970, was a sit-in at the offices of the Ladies Home Journal. The protesters (who included Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem) demanded that the publishers hire an all-female editorial team to replace the existing, almost entirely male one, commission more content from women writers and pay them more, employ non-white women in proportion to their numbers in the population and provide on-site nurseries for women with children. Instead of endless articles about beauty and housework, they suggested publishing pieces on subjects like ‘how to get a divorce’, ‘how to have an orgasm’, ‘what to say to your draft-age son’ (this was the era of the Vietnam War) and ‘how detergents harm our rivers and streams’ (a nod to the emerging environmentalist movement, but also a jab at the cosy relationship between women’s magazines and the advertisers of products like shampoo and laundry soap).
These demands were (predictably) not met, but the women were permitted to edit a section of the magazine later that year, and in 1973 it got its first female editor-in-chief, Leonore Hershey. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the conventional formula based on fashion spreads, beauty advice and ‘how to get/keep/please a man’ tips prompted feminists in various places to set up alternative magazines—titles like Ms in the US, Spare Rib in the UK and Emma in Germany. Though they did include political content, these publications weren’t aimed exclusively at women who were active in feminist politics: they set out to attract a mass audience, and at their peak all achieved large circulations.
The place of Cosmopolitan in this history is complicated. It did attract feminist criticism, but not for exactly the same reasons as the Ladies Home Journal and its ilk, because it wasn’t the same kind of publication. On the contrary, it too was conceived as a ‘modern’ alternative to the traditional woman’s magazine. The iconic status it still has now—the status which led NCOSE and Wal-Mart to single it out from all the other titles sold at checkouts—can be related to its emergence at a transitional moment in the mid-1960s, when the sexual revolution was underway and the feminist second wave was about to break. In some ways the impulse behind it was genuinely (albeit never radically) feminist; in others it was not feminist at all.
Actually it’s not quite true to say that Cosmopolitan emerged in the mid-1960s. It was first established in the 1880s, but by the 1960s it was failing. The editor who turned its fortunes around, after pitching a rescue plan to its publisher, the Hearst Corporation, was Helen Gurley Brown, a former advertising copywriter who had also written, in 1962, a bestselling book entitled Sex and the Single Girl. Whereas most women’s magazines targeted women who either had, or hoped soon to have, husbands and children, Brown’s proposal for Cosmopolitan channelled the same spirit as her book: she wanted to target women who were financially independent and sexually ‘liberated’ with ‘a variety of short pieces…that explore the single life, and contain frank discussions of sex, pregnancy, married men, work and money’.
This formula, centred on the kind of subject-matter other women’s magazines shied away from, eventually made Cosmopolitan a global market leader. Its success reflected some contemporary social trends whose significance Brown had grasped early on. More middle-class women were getting more education, and working to support themselves for longer before they married; more marriages were ending in divorce; the old, extremely censorious attitudes to pre- and extra-marital sex were changing, and the availability of reliable contraception (in particular, the pill—it was meant to be prescribed only to married women but there were ways to circumvent that) was reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy. Brown saw that these developments had created a market for a new kind of woman’s magazine. And while the creation of Cosmopolitan pre-dated the second wave, in some respects—particularly the emphasis placed on women’s financial independence, their professional aspirations and their freedom to pursue sexual pleasure outside marriage—it anticipated the demands of the women’s movement.
In other respects, however, Brown’s ideas were closer to those of another high-profile magazine boss of the time, Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. Though she championed women’s sexual freedom, she also shared Hefner’s tendency to equate female sexual pleasure with the ability to please a man. That was reflected in the kind of sex advice for which Cosmopolitan became (in)famous, as well as in the highly sexualised images she selected for the magazine’s cover. (‘If you’re not a sex object’, she once wrote, ‘you’re in trouble’.) She also believed that women who wanted to get ahead at work could and should use their sexual allure to enlist men’s support or buy their patronage. (Sex and the Single Girl presents her own younger self as having slept her way out of the typing pool and into an advertising career.) And she took it for granted that the ‘fun, fearless female’ who was Cosmo’s target reader would need to pay constant attention to staying slim, youthful and well-groomed in order to attract an ‘eligible’ man. The single life might be fun, but successful women didn’t plan to be single forever.
These attitudes would soon attract criticism from women more closely linked to the nascent feminist movement, including Betty Friedan (whose own book denouncing compulsory domesticity, The Feminine Mystique, was published a year after Sex and the Single Girl). And the criticism would continue throughout Brown’s long career. When she died in 2012 at the age of 90, the director of the organisation Women in Media summed up the general feminist consensus by first acknowledging her achievements as a woman who had gained real power and influence in the male-dominated publishing industry, and then offering the opinion that the magazine she created was
one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.
In that context, there is indeed something a bit jarring about recent feminist defences of Cosmopolitan. Of course, there is also something jarring—not to say nauseating—about NCOSE’s press release hailing the removal of the magazine from Wal-Mart’s checkouts as a feminist triumph:
This is what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture, and NCOSE is proud to work with a major corporation like Walmart to combat sexually exploitative influences in our society.
The opportunistic hijacking of #MeToo by a thoroughly patriarchal (religious, conservative, male-headed) pressure group is especially repulsive. But do we really have to rush to embrace whatever conservatives attack?
The feminists of the second wave didn’t think so. Their movement emerged in opposition both to traditional patriarchal values and to the differently-patriarchal attitudes women had encountered in the leftist counterculture of the 1960s. It urged women to put their own experiences and desires at the centre and make their own social and sexual revolution. In that endeavour, generally speaking, it saw mainstream women’s magazines—whether they addressed themselves to Betty Friedan’s domesticated housewife or to Helen Gurley Brown’s ‘fun fearless female’—as more of a hindrance than a help.
One important element of the second wave analysis was economic: it pointed out that all these publications were designed largely as vehicles for commercial advertising, and as such they would be bound to promote a far-from radical idea of what it means to be a woman. That argument hasn’t become irrelevant in the 21st century, as some of this week’s commentary acknowledged: ‘if Cosmo was truly interested in women’s liberation and empowerment’, noted one writer,
it wouldn’t be focused on selling women thousands of dollars worth of products, clothing, and cosmetics aimed at “fixing” invented flaws and “wrong” bodies.
We don’t have to choose between the pro-family conservative sexual politics of the NCOSE and Wal-Mart and the consumerist, body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, sexually-objectifying pseudo-empowerment peddled by magazines like Cosmopolitan. Like the feminists who came before us, we can surely be critical of both.
For more on women’s magazines in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, follow Kate Long’s regular Vintage Mag Tweets (find her on Twitter @volewriter).
If you’re interested in the academic work second wave feminists produced on the subject of women’s magazines, here are a few classic references:
Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer and Sandra Hebron, Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Women’s Magazine. Macmillan, 1991.
Marjorie Ferguson, Forever Feminine: Women’s Magazines and the Cult of Femininity. Heinemann, 1983.
Janice Winship, Inside Women’s Magazines. Pandora, 1987.