Women’s magazines we have loved

Woman looking surprised, reading fashion magazine (B&W), (Close-up) Picture: George Marks

Woman looking surprised, reading fashion magazine (B&W), (Close-up) Picture: George Marks - Credit: Getty Images

It was Jackie, then Cosmopolitan, followed, until its demise, by Punch. Teen mags, women’s issues... and then anything for a laugh

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s: Woman reading magazine. Picture: Getty Images/George Marks

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s: Woman reading magazine. Picture: Getty Images/George Marks - Credit: Getty Images

Look on the shelves of any newsagent’s shop and wonder at the number of magazines aimed at women. Beauty, fashion, celebrity culture – they all have their own titles, plus there are the more traditional publications that take in broad sweeps, of (allegedly) women’s issues such as parenting, relationships, home-making and general loveliness. Of course, there are also magazines for men, increasingly covering the same territory.

But 2018 marks the 325th anniversary of the first women’s periodical. Mainly comprised of advice columns, it briefly hit the streets in the early months of 1693. Sad to report, The Ladies’ Mercury was not a runaway success.

Though it is regarded as the first women’s magazine, it was not actually called a magazine - it would be another 38 years before the term came into common parlance. It was created as a spin-off from The Athenian Mercury and lasted just four weeks. It didn’t instantly change the world but it was a start and, though it was devised and produced by a man, it was an important recognition that women had their own interests... albeit largely determined by men.

London author John Dunton was the publisher of The Athenian Mercury, which was the first major periodical in England or Scotland designed to appeal to both men and women. It dealt with all kinds of topics such as science, religion, love, marriage and sex and was designed as a public forum where questions were submitted by both men and women and answered by various writers. Because of the popularity among women of topics like love and marriage, the editor decided to devote the first Tuesday of each month to these subjects only, a policy that dated from June 1691. The idea was designed to answer “reasonable questions sent to us by the fair sex”. Thus, effectively, the first problem pages were born. (source: Wikipedia)

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On the continent, other publications were also taking account of women’s matters although they were not solely for women. For Dunton, however, The Ladies Mercury, was the natural next step. It promised to respond to “all the most nice and curious questions concerning love, marriage, behaviour, dress and humour of the female sex, whether virgins, wives, or widows.” It was fairly wide coverage although women who were none of the above were sidelined.

It was nonetheless a far-sighted aim. A single sheet, printed on both sides, you can’t help wondering if it might have done better if it had included a knitting pattern and a recipe for fruit cake. But there were soon to be more attempts at women’s magazine start-ups. They came... and they went. Then as now, some were doomed to have but a brief flurry of success before failing. The Female Tatler and The Female Spectator were among the titles that rose and fell within about a couple of years in the 18th century.

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But the magazine, as a genre, began to take a hold and, by the mid to late 19th century the market started to take on the shape it more or less maintains to this day. That is to say, there were the survivors and the mayflies – the ones that burn brightly for a time and then die.

The very early women’s magazine, to its credit, was a robust publication whereas, in the Victorian age it was often subsumed by domesticity and worthiness.

Many women’s publications in the mid to late 19th century tended towards the “housewife”. According to www.britannica.com: “All contained verse, fiction, and articles of high moral tone but low intellectual content.” When more empowering magazines emerged – eg those that espoused women’s rights – they tended not to last long. Britannica dates the great expansion of British women’s magazines to the mid-1870s when popular titles included Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion (1875–1912) and Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal (1875–1954), both supplied dressmaking patterns – I’m sorry I missed those! Such magazines reinforced the idea of the nuclear family in which the wife and the husband have their allotted roles. Woman were given advice about how to acquire those vital home-making skills – looking good (for your husband), smelling nice (ditto), cooking wonderful meals (ditto plus the kids); sewing, darning etc. These delights were paired with elevating poetry and prose.

And what sustains the needs of the inner woman? It must surely be the problem pages.

Oh, and about that problem page...

The first to have my full attention was Cathy and Claire’s in Jackie magazine. Teenage angst brought worries about how spots, lovebites (cover-up for both of those) and how to kiss (the occasional young man would also send in an anguished letter). The advice, if I recall, was to practice on one’s own hand or to simply relax and enjoy your first kiss. All very well but what if you wore glasses... and should it be eyes open or eyes shut?

Then it was my mum’s Woman’s Own where problems were more grown up but nothing compared to the full-on frankness of today. Rewind a century and there was a time when the content of the problem pages was so risqué (eg questions about whipping) that the agony aunt was nearly condemned to extinction. One question addressed to the 17th century Ladies’ Mercury asked where was the best place to find a husband. She was directed towards the plantations of the West Indies where there was, she learned, no shortage of eligible men.

Well, it was a thought.

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