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.

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.

We still seem to have trouble resolving the conflict from the 1970s. Feminists continue to rightly complain of being pushed out of the more “serious” sections and worry that being discussed alongside the day’s fashions leads to more focus on their clothes and makeup than their ideas, and stories on “women’s issues” that hit the front pages are often still written by men. Is it any wonder that women’s magazines and websites still appeal? They provide space for women to talk to each other, since we’re still too often left out of the conversation in front of male audiences.

Until women’s news (and women reporters) are given equal footing in all the sections, we’re going to keep seeing the dilemma of one style editor, who complained to Mills that women would ask her to cover news stories in her section. “[I]t belongs in the front section or the city section, not my section. I have my own mission. Should I turn my section back into a ghetto of women’s news?”

 

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist in New York. She is the former media editor at AlterNet, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, the Guardian, Dissent, Jacobin, and other publications. You can find her on Twitter @sarahljaffe