Go on–admit it. You’ve looked at Ladies Home Journal at the dentists’ office. And maybe you’ve subscribed to a women’s magazine once or twice. Ever wonder how they came up with the health and beauty–fashion–decorating–fiction–cooking concept? They owe it all to Sarah Hale of the 1830’s. After an amazing love affair with her husband who cured her of tuberculosis before dying of pneumonia himself, Sarah started a magazine to make cash for her five children with the idea that women should be “improved for education and freedom.”
Not a single thing has really changed in the structure of “ladies” magazines (back in the day the word woman was considered crass). Have you ever noticed that these magazines have a tendency to scold? The do and don’t pages of unsuspecting women’s fashion mistakes come to mind. They aim to teach (sending the subtle message that we need to learn) how to be attractive, good cooks and smart–did I mention we need to remain attractive?
In Sarah Hale’s mind one of the reason’s the feminist movement of the 19th century was so slow in getting started was because the leadership was so damned ugly–no anorexic Audrey Hepburn or buxom Susan Sarandon to rally the troops. Sarah thought it best to lead subversively–through food, manners and sex (fashion). If you really think the Victorians were against sex, take a better look at the bustle. What do you think the men were looking at?
In her book The Lady Persuaders, Helen Woodward, writing in the late 1950’s complains that the educational material in women’s magazines “has taught women to be sympathetic and sorry for all kinds of people, but does not remind them that they must pay for their sympathy through increased taxes. Political parties, especially those which do not have a glamour boy candidate are worried about the women’s vote. They find it unpredictable because it is apt to be based on whim, and seldom on ideas or principles . . . But no matter how tedious and confused the magazine propaganda is, one object is clear. To pull down the man and to uplift the woman, to make the man more feminine and the woman more masculine.”
Here I admit that when I’m at the dentist’s office I rarely sift to the bottom of the pile of old magazines looking for Foreign Affairs or The Economist. No, I read back to front–recipes I’ll never try, craft projects with kids I’d never have patience for and what not to wear. Did I miss the section on the first lady’s cute little garden? I have five kids so I’ll catch up next time. There’s a weird comfort in these fluffy magazines that struck a chord right from the beginning in the 19th century. Are women fluffy? I must admit that I’m not sure if I was more embarrassed for women when Hillary Clinton resorted to pounding her fists and crying at the Benghazi hearings or when I found out women relate to the show Girls. Is embracing fluff something like embracing the word “bitch”?
I guess I need more education. The next book on my agenda is Century of Struggle–The Woman’s Rights Movement in America by Eleanor Flexner 1959– brought to me by the Militant Labor Forum. I think it will have a different slant.