A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman's Magazine, 1800-1914

A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman's Magazine, 1800-1914

A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman's Magazine, 1800-1914

A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman's Magazine, 1800-1914


Like the corset, the women's magazines which emerged in the nineteenth century produced a `natural' idea of femininity: the domestic wife; the fashionable woman; the romancing and desirable girl. Their legacy, from agony aunts to fashion plates, are easily traced in their modern counterparts. But do these magazines and their promises empower or disempower their readers? A Magazine of Her Own? is a lively and revealing exploration of this immensely popular form from its beginnings. It is at once a chronological tracing of the history, a collection of intriguing case studies and an intervention into recent debates about gender and sexuality in popular reading.


As a clever middle-class girl I was taught that I should despise women's magazines as silly if not pernicious. When I grew up and became a feminist activist and academic, I still had mentors who argued that such reading perpetuated my ideological oppression as a woman (Friedan 1965; Greer 1971). Then in the mid-1980s as popular culture began to be rescued for progressive politics I, like other feminists, began to explore the illicit pleasures of these magazines and our hate-love relationship with their endlessly repeated promises of transformation (Winship 1987). In the 1990s these ambiguities still remain unresolved and 'post-feminist' Naomi Wolf describes such magazines as simultaneously oppressive of women and the only chance for a female form of mass culture (Wolf 1990:548-85).

All these critics stressed the importance in late twentieth-century culture of the 'women's interest magazine', a category which includes a third of British periodicals (Mintel 1986). There is some exciting recent writing on these contemporary magazines and their cultural significance (McCracken 1993; Winship 1987). There is no similar body of work on how they came to occupy their crucial place in popular reading and in the contested meanings of our femininity. Yet these titles, their characteristics and their cultural significance are the products of a specific cultural and material history. Understanding that history should enable us to locate ourselves politically and theoretically as late twentieth-century readers.

Cynthia White's Women's Magazines, 1693-1968 opened up the field of study in 1970 and there have been useful studies of particular magazines or short periods since (Adburgham 1972; Shevelow 1989). Four of us jointly wrote a brief history which, like Whites book, traced the form from its beginning to today (Ballaster et al. 1991). However, there is still a notable absence of historical research and writing on women's magazines and, as I have discovered to my cost, such work is very difficult, both in methodological and practical terms. Theoretical work on periodicals as popular texts is still relatively undeveloped despite their importance. Where it exists it is in cultural and media studies and in relation to late twentieth-century texts. The practical problems of this historical research are also daunting, mainly because of the sheer mass of material involved.

This book seeks to continue the task of making good the absence of history from both popular and scholarly accounts of women's magazines. I have taken a

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