WOMEN S PAGES IN AUSTRALIAN PRINT MEDIA FROM THE 1850s

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1 Justine Lloyd WOMEN S PAGES IN AUSTRALIAN PRINT MEDIA FROM THE 1850s Abstract For a roughly a century, from the 1870s to the 1970s, most Australian newspapers ran a section directed towards a woman reader written from a woman s perspective and edited by a female journalist. The rise and fall of the women s editor s empire within an empire provides insight into female journalists industrial situation, as well as a window on to gender relations in colonial and post-federation Australia. This history matches wider struggles over the notion of separate spheres and resulting claims for equality, as well as debates over mainstream news values. This article investigates the appearance and disappearance of women s sections from Australian newspapers, and argues that this story has greater impact on contemporary digital formats than we perhaps realise. In 1924, Florence Riddick Boys tried to convince American editors to include her syndicated Woman s Page in their publications. She suggested that A woman s page in your paper will give it a high tone. It will mark you as a man who is progressive and awake to women s needs. (1924: 17) While this recognition of women as readers was indeed a form of progress, women s pages as a special-interest section were set apart from the rest of the paper, addressed to an unmarked male reader. The women s pages represented women as a group outside the flow of modern life reported in news events. These pages figured a never-ending round of parties, attended by strikingly silent, well-dressed women, contained strict directives of wifeliness and womanliness, and seemed to assume that women were active only when consuming. For roughly a century, from the 1870s to the 1970s, most Australian newspapers ran a section directed towards a woman reader written from a woman s perspective and edited by a female journalist. These women s pages were always surrounded by advertisements at times even composed only of advertising. The rise and fall of the women s editor s empire within an empire provides insight into female journalists industrial situation, as well as a window on to gender relations in colonial and post- Federation Australia. This history matches wider struggles over the notion of separate spheres and resulting claims for equality, as well as debates over mainstream news values. While a recent crop of studies has started to investigate the rich historical trajectories of women s contributions to print media in the twentieth century, particularly in the US context (Yang, 1996; Harp, 2006; Fahs, 2011), there is a longer story to be told here, and one that impacts on contemporary digital formats much more than we perhaps realise. As Alice Fahs recent monograph Out on Assignment acknowledges, the omission of women s pages from media histories may have as much to do with the relegation of women s culture to the back pages as it does with the gendering of the 61

2 public sphere: The woman s page was not an invention of newspaper women, after all, but instead was the creation of male editors seeking an expanded female readership. (2011: 13) Fahs therefore cautions us to read between the lines and listen carefully for the minor voices at play here: Media International Australia 62 [N]ewspaper women tended to downplay their work on the woman s page; they were embarrassed by its fluff and gush and seemingly endless features about society women or its silly decorating projects that involved making furniture out of boxes Yet we neglect the woman s page at our peril. For it is precisely because most newspaper women were hired to write woman s features that we find there a rich collection of these ambitious and intelligent women s writings about women s changing lives on topics not limited to jam and cookery. (Fahs, 2011: 13) This article seeks to sift through this collection and continues the process of looking at women s contributions to Australian media culture started in the 1980s by Australian cultural historians such as Patricia Clarke (1988) and Barbara Lemon (2008), and conveyed in a dramatic manner by journalists such as Valerie Lawson (1990). This work has been crucial to piecing together the diverse and contested history of women s pages in Australian print media. 1 The first mention of a page for women in an Australian newspaper was in Bell s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer on 7 June The Sense of Being Married, a man s account of the devotion and care that English wives show their husbands, appeared about 20 years before women s pages, so it was placed on the last page of the publication and betrayed its origins as a Paragraph for a Ladies Page. Similarly, in May 1859, Empire carried a Ladies Column, with copy from Le Follet, reporting that, At present it appears quite decided that there will be no great change either in material or make of dresses presumably in Paris (Empire, 26 May 1959: 8). The first women s pages established as regular feature local publications were in the Australian Town and Country Journal, which from January 1870 until 1907 ran a Ladies Column, and the Illustrated Sydney News, which followed in May The News column was a potpourri of snippets and jokes, including a warning to lovers about kissing vain ladies, following a craze for wearing false India-rubber lips to enhance thin ones (Illustrated Sydney News, 11 May: 14). From January 1884 to April 1885, this column brought together home and empire for Sydney readers, recording Home Life in England, by a London Lady. A few months later it transformed to the less dour London Ladies Gossip, which stayed in print until The Sydney Morning Herald s Woman s Column appeared in early 1888, and also reported on overseas fashions until its last appearance in November In the mid-1890s, The Queenslander ran a Ladies Column edited by the poet Mary Hannay Foott. The issue of 2 November 1895 contained an entire page of advertising for mail-order goods aimed at women (including ventilating corsets specially adapted for our Queensland summer and duty-free jewellery from Sydney) (Queenslander, 2 November 1895: 845). From 1898, the Melbourne Argus provided a section titled Woman s Realm, which appeared weekly under the aphorism Thou art a woman; And that is saying the best and worst of thee, attributed to the English poet, Philip James Bailey (Argus, 16 April: 14). One notable divergence from this mix of home hints and fashion notes from metropolitan Europe was Alexina Wildman s weekly satirical social observations for The Bulletin, published as the Women s Letter under the pseudonym Sappho Smith from April 1888.

3 Further changes took hold when women s page editors became responsible for content. In December 1905, the Sydney Morning Herald instituted a A Page for Women Notices, asking for contributions from women preferred not exceed[ing] half a column in length (SMH, 20 December: 5). In July 1918, following the retirement of women s page editor Florence Baverstock, who had succeeded Alexina Wildman at The Bulletin (Clarke, 1988), the Herald announced that Publication of the Page for Women on Wednesdays has been suspended until after the war, but the features will be continued from day to day (SMH, 12 July 1918: 4). The rise of department stores in tandem with the fashion industry saw the metropolitan dailies women s pages, as well as the power and celebrity of their editors, flourish in the 1920s. From the early 1920s, the Sydney Sun s Constance Robertson edited a women s page every day of the week except Saturday, when it was a four-page women s supplement (Lawson, 1990). Despite the shocks of the Great Depression or perhaps because of them developments in printing in the early 1930s contributed to the rise of new magazines for women, and the owners of these magazines poached experienced women s editors from newspapers, including Robertson, who edited Woman s Budget and then Woman from Jean Williamson, who had succeeded Baverstock at the Herald in 1918, ran A Page for Women until she left to work for the new Australian Women s Weekly in June 1933 (Clarke, 1988). The next phase of women s pages paralleled World War II, when women and women s issues were drawn into the war effort. In 1941, The Argus included an item on child-care centres under the section title Women to Women (Argus, 11 February: 6) and the Sydney Morning Herald changed its layout to accommodate Women s News (for example, 26 May 1942: 3). In February 1943, Connie Robertson, back at the Herald, was described as Our Staff Correspondent when she reported on army women in Learning to Man Searchlights (SMH, 23 February 1943: 4). With the end of the war effort came more printing stock for advertising. By November 1945, Robertson was back on the fashion round predicting The Shape of Hats to Come (SMH, 20 November 1945: 8). The Argus continued its women s page until its last issue on 19 January A feature on that day presaged the rise of another powerful consumer figure the teenager with beauty advice from a London cosmetician for young women to moderate their use of makeup and balance rock n rolling with adequate rest: What s the use of teenagers buying a unit of expensive make-up, when their continuous late nights make complexions wrinkled and SO tired! (Argus, 19 January 1957: 20) The pages demise in the early 1970s was signalled when the Sydney Morning Herald s women s section became Look! in March Suzanne Baker was appointed as editor, but only after she had first refused a job offer from then news editor David Bowman: I replied that I couldn t think of work I would like less I think women s sections are patronising and there is nothing in them that interests me. (Baker, n.d.: 10) After two years as editor of the openly feminist section, Baker left when she was instructed by Bowman (apparently relaying the wishes of the Fairfax family) to report social news (Baker, n.d.: 14). While further women s editors were appointed at the Herald, the last was Christine Hogan in the mid-1980s (Hogan, 1990). Reflecting on her time as the editor of Look!, Baker (n.d.: 11) quoted Newsday s David Lowenthal: Women s pages should be a thing of the past. They are frivolous, non-substantial and insulting to women. Yet, as Baker also pointed out, The women s section is the part of the paper that isn t tied to inherited ideas of what an event is. 63

4 These changes were reflected more widely in the Australian print media during the 1970s. By 1982, the Australian Women s Weekly was able to proclaim to its readers that Women s pages have taken on a new look. (Bowen et al., 1982: 38 47) The Weekly s survey of sixteen women s section editors at Australian newspapers found that about a quarter had transformed their women s pages into a magazine section, not specifically aimed at women set out to inform as well as to entertain (Bowen et al., 1982: 38). While there were still staff broadly responsible for content aimed at women at broadsheets such the Canberra Times, Melbourne s Herald, Adelaide s Advertiser, the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald, these papers no longer had a named women s section. Instead, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, they had initiated lifestyle and weekly magazine sections, such as Thursday s Good Living liftout edited by Chris Anderson at the Herald (Bowen et al., 1982: 43). Another group mainly tabloids and rural newspapers such as The Land continued to include women s pages, although they were now much more focused on lifestyle topics and androgynously titled to implicitly attract male readers for example, Scene at the Sunday Telegraph and Tempo at the Sun-Herald (Bowen et al., 1982: 38). Reverse sexism and the impact of the sexual revolution via women s magazines was being felt in newspapers like Brisbane s Telegraph, where women s editor Debra Camden had recently introduced a weekly beefcake photograph feature, Man Friday (Bowen et al., 1982: 38). Other innovations included editorial policies to address issues of interest to working women, such as sexism in the workplace, rape and domestic violence laws, and sex education, resulting from long struggles by feminist journalists such as Sylvia da Costa-Roque at the Brisbane Sunday Mail and Jill McFarlane at the Sydney Daily Mirror (Bowen et al., 1982: 39). The debates over dedicated women s sections have continued in the age of online media for example, when Fairfax launched a new women s news portal in early 2012, entitled Daily Life (Fairfax Media 2012; Fairfax s Daily Life Launches Today, 2012). Immediately, a welter of online comment appeared, ironically referencing the site via the hashtag #dailywife (Hills, 2012), and thus rekindled a debate about the marginalising effect of a new [online] gender apartheid (Rosen, 2010). Both these digital publications and the lifestyle sections that have now universally replaced the women s pages remain tied to their nineteenth-century inheritances. Note 1 Research for this article has been documented via an online list of articles at the National Library of Australia s (NLA) Trove database of digitised newspapers (Lloyd, 2013). This list is not complete, and is limited by the partial nature of the NLA s digital collection, but is designed to give a sense of key changes and patterns of coverage of women s issues in Australian print publications, and provides links to images of a range of articles cited above. References Baker, S. n.d., Selected Case Studies of Women Working in the Australian Media, unpublished typescript prepared for Women s Electoral Lobby Media Women s Action Group, Suzanne Baker papers, , and Sally Baker Clinch papers, , MLMSS 8062, State Library of NSW. Bowen, J., Whitlock, F., Maxfield, L., Cunningham, G., Douglas, K. and Rees, J. 1982, What Role Do Women s Pages Play in Today s Newspapers?, Australian Women s Weekly, 11 August, pp Clarke, P. 1988, Pen Portraits: Women Writers and Journalists in Nineteenth Century Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney. Media International Australia 64

5 Fahs, A. 2011, Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. Fairfax Media, About Us, Daily Life, 2012, Fairfax s Daily Life Launches Today 2012, mumbrella, Harp, D. 2006, Newspapers Transition from Women s to Style Pages: What Were They Thinking? Journalism, vol. 7, no. 2, pp Hills, R. 2012, On #dailywife and Writing for the Women s Pages : Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, Hogan, C. 1990, Mistress of All She Surveyed, and Then Some [Review of Connie Sweetheart by Valerie Lawson], Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May, p. 73. Lawson, V. 1990, Connie Sweetheart: The Story of Connie Robertson, William Heinemann, Melbourne. Lemon, B. 2008, Women Journalists in Australian History, The Women s Pages: Australian Women and Journalism Since 1850, Lloyd, J. 2013, A History of Women s Pages, Trove, Riddick Boys, F. 1924, The Woman s Page, in S.L. Williams (ed.), Women and the Newspaper, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, pp Rosen, R. 2010, The Women s Pages Go Online: Good or Bad News?, Ms. Magazine Blog, 17 June, Yang, M.-L. 1996, Women s Pages or People s Pages: The Production of News for Women in the Washington Post in the 1950s, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 2, pp Justine Lloyd is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Macquarie University. 65

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