Are Women’s Magazines Today Less Feminist Than in the 18th Century?
In 2018, when we are endeavouring to achieve gender equality on all levels, it seems surprising to learn that in the eighteenth century when the fight for women’s rights had barely even begun that this singular magazine had taken a step forward before the rest of society.
Words by Henrietta Easton
I’m walking down to the check out of my local supermarket and evidently have to stand in line as I’ve picked the busiest time to do my food shop. I’m standing, waiting, and all of a sudden I notice that I’m completely surrounded by big headlines on short lead magazines that make bold statements such as “How to Lose Weight for your Man” and “Inside This Issue: Five Ways to Make Sure He Isn’t Losing Interest”. My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and continue on with my day, but then I thought, why should I stand for this? I’m not an eighteenth century woman thats sole purpose in life is to please my man.
Then, upon further thought, I imagined myself as an eighteenth century woman. I couldn’t have dealt with the constant feeling of oppression and surely the women from those times couldn’t either. It was then that I realised that they didn’t. They had their ways of being free and an outlet through reading female targeted publications.
One of the first female targeted magazine’s in Britain, and arguably the most successful of its time, was entitled ‘The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex Appropriated Solely for their Use and Amusement.’ Running from 1770-1832 in a time before any indication of an attempt at gender equality in Britain, the magazine in its first few years was actually surprisingly dissimilar to many gossip women’s magazines we see today and beard more resemblance to our modern independent zines that are often based around feminism. In fact, many of the messages about women’s education, excellence and encouragement of each other were exactly the kinds of messages that our modern women’s movement aims for. Though they may not have taken their ideas about gender equality from eighteenth century society, this specific magazine proves that our twenty-first century ideas about women and their abilities were perhaps not so modern after all.
Before it became a specifically fashion magazine during the 1790s, ‘The Lady’s Magazine’ prided itself on it’s determination to to educate women in history, politics, geography, literature, art and culture. Though it occasionally mentioned that this was in order to make women more ‘interesting companions for their husbands’, it should be pointed out that if the magazine was providing this information, female readers could not only talk to their husbands about it, but talk to their friends, their mothers, daughters, sisters and even produce their own similar work. In fact, much of the magazine was made up of letters, stories, poems and essays written and sent in by the readers themselves. In this way the magazine was allowing free reign for female readers to be a part, almost equally with men, of an ever-expanding print culture world. The magazine celebrated and encouraged female achievement and excellence in a way that we aim to today.
In 2018, when we are endeavouring to achieve gender equality on all levels, it seems surprising to learn that in the eighteenth century when the fight for women’s rights had barely even begun that this singular magazine had taken a step forward before the rest of society. It is rumoured that Jane Austen was an active reader, and with ideas about female strength, ability and empowerment like hers, I am sure this must be true. There were pieces about admirable women ‘upon which to model oneself’ including Queens, actresses, authors and other brave women who had ‘achieved greatness.’ Doesn’t this just sound like the kind of positivity we need for women’s journalism now? It’s a very appealing image to think of Jane Austen sat at home in her night gown flicking through the pages of ‘The Lady’s Magazine’, marvelling at these examples of excellent women and using them to create characters of her own. It is sisterhood at its finest.
Why am I giving this history lesson? Well, it is not as irrelevant as you may think. In fact it is vital to understanding and developing the magazine world today, specifically in terms of female creativity, equality and inclusion. Although the magazine did transgress into a very Victorian image of womanhood that involved, almost exclusively, an interest in fashion, finding a husband and motherhood, the first editors of the magazine had set out on an entirely different path and proved themselves to be pioneers. Let us make a conscious effort to reflect the efforts of the first editors of ‘The Lady’s Magazine’ and create a world of female specific journalism that doesn’t place women in a female only damaging and criticising sphere, but encourages them to be a part of a wider, equal, inclusive and welcoming society.