D.C. Diary: The Women’s Pages

Feb. 20, 2000
Newseum, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.
2 p.m.

The image of femininity certainly has changed over the centuries. As women played an important role in shaping the way society progressed through history, written communication spread the rise of women’s concerns and issues throughout the years.

Starting with the late 18th century, women’s magazines have flourished as they portrayed the changing attitudes of femininity. The Newseum, located in Arlington, Va., recently opened Reflected Lives, Directed Lives: American Women’s Magazines, an exhibit, which will run until April 30. The display, located on the second floor, examines the role of women in society reflected by women’s magazines. From political views to household-related subjects, these periodicals revolutionized the magazine world, altering it from one of only men’s literature to one of women’s too.

The display takes viewers from the beginning of the history of women’s magazines to present day. Beginning in 1972, The Lady’s Magazine was the first magazine to target an all-female audience. It covered issues such as health, self-identity and fashion, many of the issues that are still explored by magazines today. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, these subjects were associated with moral purity, but now they evolved into discussions of individuality and psychological and physical well-being.

Issues beyond the body and mind also have been major points of interest to women’s magazines. The Woman’s Political World, founded in 1913, advocated political and social change of the era. Women wrote for or against issues of their days. Although not as popular as the homemakers’ magazines, these magazines directed many women to take a stand and promote women’s suffrage and equality. The rise of the working woman came soon after.

Women became the primary household purchasers in the 20th century economy, making 70 to 80 percent of family decisions, according to the exhibit. This development increased the interest of advertisers in the magazine industry. While magazines of the 1800s relied upon reader subscriptions for revenue, the purchasing boom of the 1900s made advertisements the lifeline of most modern magazines.

Fashion also acquired a prominent role in the world of women’s magazines, beginning with the fashion-based magazine Portfolio in 1807. Models and actresses began to pave the way to the perfect figure, which soon became a controversial subject. Throughout the years, readers questioned magazines’ use of models that promoted unhealthy body images, from the 19th-century hourglass figure to today’s ultra-thin look. Sexuality started to play an important part in women’s magazines when publishers discovered that sex sells.

The exhibit leaves visitors with a few thoughts to ponder upon their departure. The ever-changing genre of women’s magazines will evolve in the future. What shapes will they take? What pitches will they make? Who’s lives will they direct? Will their impact on women’s lives increase or decrease? Who’s ideas will they reflect? Either way, the questions are worth asking. From Cosmopolitan to Sports Illustrated for Women, women’s magazines already have established themselves as a powerful force in shaping the way women view their society and themselves.

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