When the Washington Post decided, in January of 2013, to run a story about feminists’ disputes over Michelle Obama’s time as first lady, it ran in that magazine’s Style section.
In The New York Times in March 2012, Sarah Hepola’s profile of Gloria Steinem—complete with discussion of where the next feminist icon like her might be—ran in “Fashion & Style.”
And when the young (male) publisher of Jacobin magazine was profiled in the Times’s Books section in January, women editors and publishers at The New Inquiry protested—when their similarly intellectual publication was featured in the Times the previous fall, they had been in “Fashion & Style.” (Disclosure: I am an occasional contributor at Jacobin.)
Katie Baker at Jezebel called out the Times for the disparity in coverage of the two publications.
This is not to say that fashion is less important than literature. But The New Inquiry and The American Reader [another pub founded by a young woman] are not fashion magazines … Why did editors decide that only the female-founded magazines had more in common with Fashion Week than critical thinking?
The question comes up again and again, as women’s projects and concerns that have little to do with fashion nevertheless turn up in the Style pages. To answer it, we have to go back in time a bit and follow the history of the Style section—back to its origins in the “Women’s Page.”
According to Carolyn Kitch, professor of journalism at Temple University, the first regular woman’s page in a major newspaper appeared in the 1890s, in the New York World. Women’s pages quickly became staples of the newspapers, featuring society coverage, food and fashion, coverage of the burgeoning women’s clubs and more. Women reporters could get work there that they weren’t given otherwise. Kay Mills, in her book A Place in the News: From the Women’s Page to the Front Page, points out that having women covering the police and being out at night put off male editors, but having women out at night chatting up powerful sources at society balls never seemed to.
But at the same time, while reserving a separate space for “women’s issues” meant that things like parenting, fashion, and the beginnings of the feminist movement got column inches, the separation also demarcated the women’s page as the site of less newsy content, a “pink ghetto” that still persists.
By the 1950s and ’60s, a new breed of women’s page editors arrived on the scene. Mills describes journalists such as Dorothy Jurney, Vivian Castleberry, and Marj Paxson as remaking the pages, giving them “political bite.” Famed Texas political reporter Molly Ivins told Mills that Castleberry and her Dallas Times-Herald reporters “got away with murder because the … male editors never bothered to read it. They were writing about birth control. Abortion. But it wasn’t considered ‘real news.’ Even today it isn’t.”
“They were women talking to women, making issues relevant so that women were encouraged to speak out about them,” says Kimberly Voss, associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida. Voss maintains a blog devoted to Women’s Page history, which she describes as a “public history” project, a way to correct the idea that women’s pages were simply fluff.
“They were doing good journalism, they were just wearing hats and white gloves because that’s what society required of them,” Voss continues. “It was really quite revolutionary. They found a way to play by the rules and get things done.”
Yet the growing feminist movement felt that women’s issues were as important as the stories on newspapers’ front pages. Gloria Steinem famously complained when she was profiled by a women’s page editor—though Voss notes that two years after Steinem spoke out against the women’s page, she admitted that she had been wrong, that there was a place for women’s pages.
Kitch points out that Steinem and other feminist’s criticism of the women’s pages came at a time when women’s page editors were taking control and doing some of their most important work. Jurney, Castleberry, Paxson and others were covering battered women, new economic models for child care, birth control, and of course, the spread of feminism, and in much more depth than any front-page stories on these subjects. But by the time Steinem changed her mind, the switch—from women’s pages to style pages—was already too far along, and complaints like hers were part of the reason for the shift.
The first paper to transition was the Washington Post, on January 6, 1969. Ben Bradlee, then editor at the Post, told Mills that the reasons for the change were to “treat women as people and not as appendages to men,” as well as to organize the paper between work and leisure, rather than men and women.