Feminine Agendas: The Historical Evolution of Feminism as Reflected in the Content of American Women's Magazines

By Kyra Gemberling
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2014, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 1/3 |


The purpose of this research is to identify trends and themes that reflect feminist values in American women’s magazines throughout history. The goal is to show that feminism was an frequently discussed topic in American media as it gained prominence and validity over time. This research draws primarily upon secondary sources, such as scholarly journal articles. Most research on this topic was conducted by analyzing magazines published during various time periods and by discovering general themes. By showing how feminism was represented in women’s magazines, this research highlights the role of media in reflecting America’s ever-changing political and cultural landscape.


Magazine journalism in the United States has undergone a significant transformation from its early origins to present day, especially for women’s magazines. From the late 18th century with the publication of the first women’s magazine, The Lady’s Magazine, to the late 20th century with the publication of the first feminist magazine — Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine — and onward, women’s magazines have made gradual yet impactful changes over the years to better reflect an ever-changing society. Specifically, women’s megazines have served over time as a strong indicator of feminism in the United States.

For example, women’s magazines of the late 1700s often included embroidery patterns to make clothes, reflecting a focus on female domesticity in 18th century society. But the 1970s brought on a wave of female independence at home and in the workplace, and magazines began publishing articles on such topics as how to balance a full-time career while starting a family. By examining these changes in content themes, it is possible to trace the values that women’s magazines provided for their audience to reflect the new cultural and political landscape women faced in America. American women’s magazines echoed the evolution of feminism in the United States from the 18th century to present day, and appealed to a progressing female society.

The American magazine industry has a rich history nearly as unique and eventful as the history of the United States itself. Benjamin Franklin intended to publish the first magazine in the country, General Magazine, in 1741, but he was beaten when American Magazine was published a mere three days earlier. The first women’s magazine, The Lady’s Magazine, which was published in 1770, contained literary and fashion content as well as embroidery patterns. The mid-1800s saw such popular magazine titles as The Economist and The Atlantic (both are still around today), and in 1902, McClure’s Magazine began the famous muckraking era with the article “Tweed Days in St. Louis” by C.H. Wetmore and Lincoln Steffens. Henry Luce started Time, the first American newsmagazine, in 1923, and Seventeen became the first magazine devoted to adolescents in 1944.

The debut of Rolling Stone in 1967 demonstrated the popularity of special-interest magazines, and in 1993, Wired magazine arrived on the scene, publishing content dealing with all sorts of topics to appeal to an audience of varied interests. In recent years, magazines of all types have been geared towards all sorts of audiences, but the transformation of American women’s magazines in particular has likely been one of the most visible and memorable historical evolutions in the print news industry.

A major goal of this research is analyzing whether it was only magazine authors who set the feminist agenda throughout U.S. history. The major trends that resonated in women’s magazines can be divided into three distinct time periods based on notable changes in feminist-minded — or, in some cases, non-feministminded — magazine content.

The first period, the early 1770s to roughly the late 1860s, which marks the early beginnings of women’s magazines in the United States, saw these periodicals either succeed or fail at making a lasting impact in society. Studying this period reveals the notion of female civic participation, which was done specifically when women expressed their voices in society by directly authoring the magazines or indirectly through these authors. The authors’ ideas and the female readers’ voices interacted: Female authors determined a certain agenda for their audience, while the contributions of audience members guided what they want the agenda to be.

The second period, the early 1870s to the late 1970s, witnessed huge changes in the political and cultural landscape of the nation. It was the responsibility of women’s magazines to keep up with these changes in order to help readers adjust to and prepare for new lifestyles. Household and marriage-focused content in the 1940s and 1950s shifted to academic and career-oriented content in the 1960s and 1970s. The magazines saw a gradual shift from female domesticity to female independence.

The third period covering the 1980s to present day characterizes a modern era in which women have many more options in society and in media consumption. Women now can read more feminist-minded content and support the ideas of feminism, but do not necessarily have to identify themselves as feminists, thus giving rise to the “I’m-Not-A-Feminist-But” generation. By focusing on the major themes that characterize each period, the author can more easily identify the ways American women’s magazines reflected feminine ideals during these periods.

This research attempts to answer the questions proposed in the introduction by reviewing scholarly articles on this topic, ranging from American feminist movement, to the history of women’s magazine journalism, to feminism as reflected in media, to overall trends in the history of feminism and the history of women’s magazines. The author creates a rough timeline for women’s magazines to categorize their reflection of feminist movement.

Period I: Female Civic Participation in the 1770s to 1860s

During the time when the United States was just beginning to gain its footing as a nation, women’s magazines were also slowly beginning to find a place in early American society. It is widely known that the mindset of society at this time was largely male-dominated, and women were often viewed as the “second sex” and deemed biologically second in importance. This hierarchy of genders based on what society saw as natural differences between men and women resulted in a male hierarchy in nearly every aspect of life, such as politics, religion and the workplace. Because of this, some modern scholars of feminism assert that, in the 19th century, American society had not yet begun to progress towards female independence. These scholars also believe that the domestic ideology associated with women was largely produced by men and received by women — particularly women readers of popular literature and women’s magazines.

Aronson argued the opposite, however, saying that the 19th century was much more progressive in women’s rights than many give it credit for. Specifically, Aronson said the publication of women’s magazines was one of the first major outlets for women’s voice in American society, and that “early women’s magazine readers left behind plenty of evidence that they operated in some creative, sophisticated, and self-authorizing ways.”1 Furthermore, Aronson stated that women, not men, predominately authored and edited early successful magazines and were actively involved in the editorial process. It was through the perseverance of these early women’s magazine editors, such as famous magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, that they were able to capitalize on the possibilities of a magazine for both women’s public participation and gender construction.

For instance, “Hale’s Boston-based (American) Ladies’ Magazine (1828-36), a $2.00-per-year monthly, was the first American women’s magazine to survive more than five years.”2 Hale made her motives for the magazine clear from the beginning, specifically by stating in her introduction to the magazine that she did not intend to “ ‘weaken parental authority,’ ” but she intended to teach women to improve on their moral and intellectual character in the company of other women within their social sphere.3 Though it seems that Hale may be covertly supporting conventional masculine privilege, she actually undercuts male authority by speaking to women from within a feminist-minded context, thus establishing an overall theme of female support in Ladies’ Magazine that women could turn to for encouragement.

In addition to the overall feminist tone in Ladies’ Magazine, women’s independence was furthered by the way Hale structured her magazine’s editorial content. For example, in her self-written book reviews, Hale “gave visible endorsements to women authors . . . [and] structured her book reviews in ways that validated women readers’ personal judgment of the virtues of literary texts.”4 Also, she often encouraged other women to speak out about their own lives in addition to frequently contributing to the magazine herself. When a male writer with the initials “U.R.” submitted a letter to the magazine in 1829 asserting that physically attractive women are more noticeable to men than ones with kind personalities, Hale recruited female readers to respond to the letter in the next edition. Many did, and one of them wrote to Hale, saying “ ‘Mrs. Hale — had you not so kindly invited me . . . in your last Magazine . . . I do not think I ever should have summoned resolution to appear in print,’ ” indicating that Hale’s tenacity encouraged female readers to voice their opinions in spite of potential consequences.5 Hale’s revolutionary vision was essential in starting a long line of women’s magazines geared towards what we know now as the feminist ideology.

In contrast to the types of news and feature content published in magazines today, early women’s magazines often published fiction and non-fiction literature/essays written by staff members or audience members. This was another method that enabled women to voice their opinions, whether they were the editors of a magazine or simply a contributing reader/writer who wished to take part in a feminine-minded conversation, thus allowing women to better dictate the female agenda of the time. In addition to the aforementioned book reviews and letters-to-the-editor published by Sarah Josepha Hale, Aronson discusses a non-fiction essay submitted to Ladies Magazine and Repository that also reflected feminist themes and values.

The 1792 contribution, “Thoughts on Old Maids,” questioned the judgmental cultural readings of unmarried women that had been carried over from the Old World into the new one without being transformed. This particular piece was “the first piece in American women’s magazine history to talk about the unheard-of possibility that a woman might live respectably on her own — but it would not be the last.”6 The writer asserts that female autonomy may result from adherence to society’s gender rules, but she still nevertheless moved to change the way in which woman must achieve this autonomy. This indicates that it was not only magazine editors in positions of power who wrote feminist-minded content, but contributing writers also wished to join the conversation in challenging female stereotypes and conventional attitudes in the 19th century.

Laura McCall also wrote about the feminist values expressed in early women’s magazine literature. Like Aronson, McCall challenged the idea that women were frail and dependent on men in 19th century society. She cited Godey’s Lady’s Book, published by Louis A. Godey in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878, as a publication that should be sharply scrutinized for allegedly preaching domesticity and submissiveness to 19th century female readers. But McCall admitted that this dismissal of Godey’s Lady’s Book may not have been entirely fair because, like Ladies Magazine and Repository, the magazine frequently published fictional stories that reflected feminist values, such as female independence and involvement in society.

Much of available 19th century literature played a critical role in reinforcing the woman’s domestic role by celebrating the joys of marriage and motherhood and providing models of the ideal woman that female readers were encouraged to emulate. But in Godey’s, there were a number of fictional stories that depicted marriage in an unfavorable light, such as a story in which the heroine “ ‘pined in the beautiful seclusion of her husband’s home’ ” and one could “ ‘scarcely recognize . . . the discontented wife who now moved languidly through the apartment. She despised the simple pleasures and homely duties she was now called upon to fulfill.’ ”7

In addition to these anti-marriage stories, McCall asserted that Godey’s did not often publish content that compared women to men or portrayed women as inferior. For example, when men and women were compared on the basis of their mental abilities, 22.8 percent of the female characters were depicted as intellectually equal, but in 73.3 percent of the cases, there was simply no discussion of this issue.8 Among women, 18.4 percent of them were depicted as equal or superior to men in their ability to take independent action, yet in 76.5 percent of cases, no comparison was made.9 Additionally, women were marked as superior in the areas of moral strength and caring for the home, but they also scored high in their knowledge and understanding of business and politics, “qualities generally regarded as bastions of the male sphere.”10 These characteristics of the magazine’s content indicate that Godey’s may have been in support of an early feminist agenda, as were many of the early successful magazines published in 19th century America.

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