Guest post: The Femagazinist Initiative

// 23 April 2009

Charlotte Cooper, from Subtext Magazine, talks us through a project to support feminist magazines over ‘women’s’ mags

subtextcover.gifThe Femagazinist Initiative gleefully caught my eye this week when I noticed it’s Facebook group was using a cover from an issue of Subtext as it’s image. Roused with joy and excitement I went on to head-noddingly agree with everything the page was saying,

Fed up with seeing the same old women’s magazines in doctors and dentist surgeries?

We’re encouraging women to buy and subscribe to feminist magazines and zines such as Subtext, Bitch, Bust and Ms.

Then when you’ve read your magazine we want you to leave it in a public place for others to read it.

When we launched Subtext in 2006 and can remember hoping we’d hang in there, but I was never sure. Making magazines is hard business, and the magazine death watch has been going on since 2001. The recent economic squeeze has seen countless big titles crash and burn, and feminist magazines have even more stacked against them.

Money is a big issue: feminist magazines are very likely to be independent prints, it’s hard to sell adverts because you don’t want to compromise your copy and the companies that you do want to support don’t often stretch to a marketing budget, or can’t grasp the magazine’s ideals or audience.

Britain’s most prolific feminist magazine was probably Spare Rib, launched in 1972, it produced an aesthetically pleasing cover to rival women’s titles of the time, and tied up the information in a news style layout that added weight to its exploration of gender roles. When it folded in ‘84 it left a whole in the British market unfilled until, well, I’d like to think until Subtext graced the magazine race with its presence in 2006.

cover of latest makeshift issueThe US’s longest running feminist title Ms. Magazine launched in ‘71, and still produces interesting, engaging and wonderfully relevant work today. The other main titles in the terms of US feminist publishing come in the form of Bust, founded in ’93, Bitch, founded in ’96. Bust is well sustained with advertising and franchising, including editor Debbie’s fantastically popular Stitch n Bitch line. Bitch however plays much the same field as Subtext, self sustaining, reader supported publishing, but with lots of experience and time under it’s belt Bitch is proving to be the ideal model (if we can all get our readers to empty their pockets to fill the odd $40,000 deficit when it arises). One of the most recent additions is make/shift, which “creates and documents contemporary feminist culture and action by publishing journalism, critical analysis, and visual and text art”.

Feminist magazine’s need readers support. Though not blacklisted, we all fall into a funny gray area where we go almost unnoticed by the mainstream, put off by the initial hail to feminism and the fact that we can’t afford to get stacked on WHSmith’s shelves, or have the vocal clout to get heard by Border’s.

And so, to the point. Buying a copy of your favourite feminist magazine, or even better subscribing to their yearly output, is a great way to share the love and support the production of magazine’s which build confidence and speak directly to women who want more than diet fads and vacuous comment. Leaving them in surgeries, dentists, hairdressers, your cousins bedroom is a great way to surreptitiously spread the good word once you’re finished, and one we’d highly recommend if you can tear yourself away from the read. If the market is going to flourish, if these magazine’s and the new one’s arising all the time are to survive we need to support them or, sadly, revert to whatever form the big publishing companies sell us.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 23 April 2009 at 7:02 pm

Off Our Backs is being re-launched in June this year. OOB was first launched in 1975. Also do not omit Rain and Thunder which is still being published.

OOB has a website giving full details of the new launch. Rain and Thunder also have a website and both news journals welcome international as well as national subscribers.

terese // Posted 23 April 2009 at 9:10 pm

Great idea!

Make/Shift is an amazing magazine. It’s from the US, but I really recommend taking out a subscription if you can to support them so they can keep publshing.

Also, Outwrite (a newspaper, not magazine though) was a great feminist anti-imperialist anti-racist publication in the 1980s which I always want to mention whenever I get a chance.

And with my feminist history geek hat on just gotta correct: Spare Rib did not fold in 1984, it was around until 1992 or 93…

Charlotte // Posted 24 April 2009 at 1:27 am

You are correct, 84 was when they lost O’Sullivan. Spare Rib folded in 93.

Make sure you don’t just post your fave mags here, take them central to the facebook page and spread the word.

Kez // Posted 24 April 2009 at 8:46 am

Terese is right, Spare Rib definitely did not fold in ’84, I clearly remember it in the late ’80s….

Jennifer Drew // Posted 24 April 2009 at 9:41 am

I inadvertently gave wrong information concerning Off Our Backs. Off Our Backs is a news journal by, for and about women. It has been published since 1970 thereby making it the longest surviving feminist newspaper in the United States.

rah // Posted 24 April 2009 at 10:19 am

I agree that Make/ Shift is amazing, particularly in the way that it foregrounds anti-racist, class, health & spirituality, disABLED politics & queer politics. I particularly appreciate how the magazine creates a space where our relationships to each other can be re-visioned as a kind of everyday politics central to feminist action.

On a point of ‘women’s vs feminist’ magazines, this was a major problem I had with the Women’s Library’s Between the Covers exhibition. The exhibition seemed to be making a distinction between women’s magazines as commercial, visible, speaking to ‘mainstream’ (let’s read ‘less political’) women and feminist (political, read dangerous and a compromise to public funding?) magazines. For example, in the exhibition there was huge amounts of space given over to publications such as Cosmopolitan, Women’s Weekly, Good Housekeeping and very little given to autonomous, grassroots media made by ‘feminists’, so here we make the distinction between women and feminists. It makes me ask, to mis-appropriate a phrase, ‘Ain’t I A Woman if I am a feminist as well?’ Magazines which enforce ideals of domesticity, standards of beauty, conservative sexuality and downright alienation are of course an important part of history, but can’t they be seen as part of the system that keeps behaviours in check, keeps women worrying about their bodies (but not in a helpful way) and supporting mindless consumerism? Commercial women’s magazines are the ideological props holding up the very worst that patriarchy can offer – they are the medium of its message.

The other things that griped me was the narrative they presented in the exhibition of ‘feminist magazines’. In the timeline Spare Rib was the only feminist magazine that was mentioned until the early 1990s when suddenly zines appear, suggesting that there was nothing inbetween or happening while Spare Rib was running (which as Terese points out, was throughout the whole of the 80s and into the 1990s). Yes, of course Spare Rib was significant. It had an amazing name and was sold in WHSmith. It disseminated feminist voices – not women’s! – far and wide which enabled political perspectives to have integrity and visibility without co-option. The magazine wasn’t perfect though, and the politics of it (in terms of race especially) are worthy of consideration in themselves as what they can reveal about the feminist movement from the 1970s – 1990s.

However, by presenting the narrative in a large, publicly funded institution, that feminist media production can be reduced to Spare Rib and zines is hugely disappointing, but says alot about how writers of public history can’t deal with the contradictions and complicated histories that are part of collective memory. It also says a lot about how publications driven by profit are deemed worthy of endurance & recognition because they are visible (and no doubt not made by angry women who want to tear those very structures of profit down), while the majority of media made by feminists from the WLM to the present – and there was SO MUCH!, honestly, we’re talking pre-internet when people made magazines….- remains invisible (zines, which are low budget publications complicate this point, I know). I think there was a grave missed opportunity with this exhibition to show that there

actually WAS, as much as there still IS, media made independently by women who are downright pissed off with the majority of media messages that the exhibition, by admission, continued to propagate. For there was so much edgy, political, aesthetically interesting magazines made by women-who-were-also feminists – Shocking Pink (Red Chidgey has recently uploaded the whole Shocking Pink collection at http://www.grassrootsfeminism.net, have a look and be inspired!) & Bad Attitude are my favourites, but there was also a magazine called Everywoman that run from the 1980s – 1990s, and a publication called Sybil which, I think was trying to recapture that WLM spirit in the late 1990s. Not to mention the countless local magazines, network information & politically specific magazines such as Red Rag. Honestly, loads – go to the Women’s Library, the Feminist Library or your nearest feminist archive and have a nose around. You will be inspired and amazed!

It’s also interesting to ask why zines are remembered, and why these other forms of non-commercial feminist media are not. In the case of zines, Between the Covers did manage to be responsible curators in the way that it established a form of publication that is largely invisible to the majority and pushed it into public view. It breaks down the idea that visibility = worth (usually enabled by capitalism), and acknowledges the conditions of production in which feminists, and maybe even women, make media. As Charlotte points out in her article, magazines are expensive to sustain, and making the magazine is often only half of the battle. Once you’ve got a ‘product’ you need to get it out there.

I also appreciate Charlotte’s call for greater solidarity amongst feminist reading communities to support autonomous media ventures, this could be extended by organising fundraising events in your town/ city for a magazine publication that you support. In this way everyone wins, because not only are you creating funds to support important projects, but you can also create pockets of independent feminist culture (have a film night, poetry reading, a skill-share, etc) where the world exists on your own terms – think of it like a mini-ladyfest that is constantly expanding in action. It makes ‘us’ stronger and more accountable to each other, because we are in creating networks of community and support (something the internet pretends to do, but really there is no substitute for real time relations, I’m sure you will agree) that will help sustain our actions in the future (I use ‘our’ somewhat jadedly, but I still hope for the possibility of an ‘us’, or, at least, multiple ‘uses’).

I do still feel like the media landscape of the contemporary feminist movement needs to be re-invigorated with a publication that engages head-on with issues of race, class, disability, sexuality, radical history, environmental issues, the police state and anti-capitalism, and creates a space where collective dreams of a different world can be made a reality.

Still, there is some good stuff going around presently, my favourite contemporary publications are the zine Race Revolt (www.racerevolt.org.uk), whose new issue on the theme of ‘Whiteness’ is available now, and Dublin based anarcha-feminist collective, The RAG (http://ragdublin.blogspot.com/), so it’s not all doom and gloom! But more, we need so much more.

Jess McCabe // Posted 24 April 2009 at 8:02 pm

@rah The exhibition seemed to be making a distinction between women’s magazines as commercial, visible, speaking to ‘mainstream’ (let’s read ‘less political’) women and feminist (political, read dangerous and a compromise to public funding?) magazines. For example, in the exhibition there was huge amounts of space given over to publications such as Cosmopolitan, Women’s Weekly, Good Housekeeping and very little given to autonomous, grassroots media made by ‘feminists’, so here we make the distinction between women and feminists.

I see it the other way around: personally, I think the concept of a ‘women’s magazine’ is fundamentally ridiculous and essentialist, and damages women. They’re not really ‘women’s magazines’, they’re magazines aimed at a particular demographic of women, with a specific set of interests, which in labelling themselves as somehow catering to half the population lean towards categorisations of what being a woman actually is.

rah // Posted 25 April 2009 at 7:49 am

I’m not disagreeing with you there Jess, what I’m saying is that these powerful, public and visible representations of ‘women’s culture’ or ‘women’s history’ actually reinforce the essentialised, idealogical version of ‘woman’ mediated through the covers of commercial ‘women’s’ magazines.

What I am saying is that ‘feminist magazines’, in the context of that exhibition, sit rather uncomfortably with this notion of ‘woman’ and as such, feminist media production and visibility is simplified and excluded within collective memory (public history projects being an important site where collective memories are passed on and shared).

Also, if woman is essentialised, what about ‘feminist’? Or is there a presumption that there is enough room within the feminist demographic for the diversity of vocies to be heard as it is a political movement, in the words of make/shift, in ‘motion’?

ShropshireLass // Posted 25 April 2009 at 12:01 pm

Thank you for this timely blog – and the comments. In the newsagents the other day I was looking, despairingly, for something interesting to read and I found nearly every magazine wanting. I will follow up the suggested titles and hopefully subscribe to one or two.

Gemma // Posted 25 April 2009 at 1:56 pm

So is it not possible to get hold of these in larger branches of Borders etc? Is the best bet to buy an online subscription?

Jess McCabe // Posted 25 April 2009 at 6:12 pm

@Gemma I think you can get hold of Ms and Bitch in some Borders

Janice // Posted 26 April 2009 at 12:25 am

Whilst I enjoy reading feminist tiltles and am supportive of all efforts in this area. I’d like to see a mainstream women’s magazine that rejected the celeb watching, fashion obsession, preening and so on.

I’d like a magazine that was intelligent, well presented and well wrtitten of a neutral political standpoint. Something that my granny would be as likely to pick up as any actoive feminist.

The state of women’s mainstream mags is deplorable and given their falling sales figures the arguement that this is what women want holds little water.

Sabre // Posted 27 April 2009 at 1:09 pm

I don’t think a magazine classified as feminist would become mainstream, for reasons already identified. What would be lovely is a magazine for women that incorporates feminist perspectives but isn’t just defined by it. I say this because feminism is still a dirty word to most people! However if there was a magazine with some sort of sub-heading like ‘For women who are interested in more than fashion and celebrities’, it could work. The crucial feature would be the differing content – no make-up/hair/clothes tips other than maybe practical stuff like knitting, fun ways to personalise clothes or recycling. Celebrity bits would be limited to talking about inspirational people who have actually DONE something worth talking about. Career case studies of women in unusual or male-dominated professions. Short stories submitted by readers. Serious political stuff mixed with light and easy-to-read articles. Health-related articles could be allowed, like info on smear tests, periods and sports/exercise, definitely no boob jobs or anti-ageing tips! Advertising could be allowed but limited to companies that meet certain standards.

I like feminist magazines but can’t see them becoming mainstream anytime soon. The political nature is too offputting, feminism as a word has negative connotations, and most women want magazines that are escapist and not too heavy. A mainstream feminist magazine today would have to be feminist in a more subtle way, combining serious articles with ‘fluff’ – something you can read in the bath without too much mental effort! That’s what the most popular women’s magazines today do.

Last thought: there are a few small feminist magazines (like Subtext). Why not combine forces?

Jess McCabe // Posted 27 April 2009 at 1:42 pm

@Sabre I guess to me, the question is, what goes in a magazine aimed at women? Is there a way to aim a magazine at 50% of the population without it being reductive and, well, a bit insulting?

Sabre // Posted 27 April 2009 at 1:59 pm

@ Jess, good question, I was pondering this in the bath a few days ago! I wondered whether women even need any lifestyle magazines at all. Also no one magazine can satisfy all women, so the ideal situation would be where there are a range of magazines catering to different people. The problem today (I believe) isn’t that there are magazines full of fashion, celeb gossip, weddings, babies and housekeeping, it’s that they dominate and there’s slim pickings for women who want something else, a magazine that recognises its main audience is women, but that those women don’t want to be stereotyped in the traditional patriarchal ways.

Going to my previous comment, womens magazines today contain interesting contrasts. I picked up Glamour a few months back (OK I buy it every month, it’s my secret shame!) and found an excellent article calling for women to stop bitching at female celebrities in the spirit of sisterhood. Opposite the article was an advert for some anti-ageing cream and at the back was their regular feature ‘do’s and dont’s’ of fashion, looking at what celebs had been seen wearing lately. This seems to be the standard thing for Cosmo, Glamour et al – good articles about issues like rape, the pay gap etc, coupled with mindless fashion and beauty and (worst of all in my opinion) heteronormative sex advice, usually some way to please your man. Cosmo is the worst!

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds