Jean Taylor, who became editor of the Los Angeles Times’s “View” section a year after its 1970 founding, complained to Mills that it was women who considered her section unimportant. “We artificially had to put esteem into women’s sections by bringing men in, by running stories all people would be interested in.” This also included hiring male writers. Marj Paxson was laid off in 1970, after getting an award for her work at the St. Petersburg Times’s women’s section [now the Tampa Bay Times]. She was then hired as women’s editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin only to see her job there disappear in favor of a “Focus” section with a male editor. She told Mills, “We were not considered capable of directing this new kind of feature section. That was man’s work.”
Susan Miller, in Journalism Quarterly in 1976, analyzed women’s sections from 1965 and lifestyle sections from 1975 and found that the newly-renamed sections had shrunk in size, while “Entertainment” coverage had increased. And in 1972 a group of women editors filed a lawsuit against the Post, claiming that four women had been laid off from the women’s/style pages in two years, and no corresponding hires had been made in the paper’s “hard” news sections.
In a paper titled “Newspapers’ transition from women’s to style pages: What were they thinking?” in Journalism, Dustin Harp analyzed the conversation in journalism trade publications about women’s and style pages during the time that many were shifting. She found that the transition “was little more than a name change, and certainly not an attitude change.” Editors and reporters “believed that women’s and style sections were interchangeable.” Yet they were letting women go and bringing on more men, suggesting that what had happened was more a narrowing of women’s place in the news than a broadening of the horizons of “style.”
Or, it could have been a revamp in order to gain new advertisers. Advertising had been important since the birth of the women’s page. Kitch points out that the pages were born alongside the race for mass circulation. Massive monopoly dailies were fueled by advertising dollars, and publishers needed to draw new eyeballs while avoiding offense.
By the 1990s, newspapers were edging toward the rapid decline that we’re all too familiar with these days, and some of them circled back to a renewed women’s section to attract readers. Voss worked for the Chicago Tribune’s revamped women’s page, WomaNews, in the 1990s, and recalls that when she told sources that she was writing for the women’s section, many of them were pleased, thinking her story would be pro-woman, rather than repeat the sexist problems of much of the rest of the media. And yet she also garnered criticism from a few fellow reporters for working there.
Today on the Web, women’s websites are thriving and many popular news and commentary sites maintain a women’s section. Ruth Rosen criticizes this tendency, writing, “My concern is that gender equality will only emerge when men are educated about women’s lives and when women stop being quarantined as ‘the other.’”
But the history of the women’s page shows us that women-only sections are all too often the only places, as Voss says, where women don’t run into the same sexist coverage. Writing on women in mainstream news today often repeats the same tropes feminists have been fighting since they first complained about being sidelined onto the women’s page. Women like the New Inquiry’s Rachel Rosenfelt have their clothing discussed alongside their magazine; even Hillary Clinton is not immune from mention of her “pale pink lipstick.” During the 2012 election cycle, male politicians seemed to be unable to stop saying horrific things about women and rape—Voss notes that we’re hardly in a “post-feminist” era, and there’s still a need for a place for women talking to women about the issues that matter to them—particularly when those issues are treated as trivial, still, by the male-dominated media.
“We tell journalism students that [style] is not real news. It’s quite a gendered message that the things women care about are still not as important,” Voss says, pointing out that even “soft” subjects that are supposed to matter to men, like sports, are not considered frivolous the way “fashion and style” are. The women’s page was in a way analogous to the sports section, she notes—but the discussion of Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin’s desire, as a child, to play professional basketball is not seen as demeaning to him, while comments on Rosenfelt’s miniskirt seem to undermine her professionalism.