Once considered revolutionary, women’s media is on the decline. How will the industry reinvent itself?
Audrey Hepburn graced the February 1957 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Her gamine features framed by a baby blue velvet whimple hat, Hepburn gazes back at the viewer demurely. A few years later, a new kind of wild-haired woman stared saucily out from the candy-colored covers of the same magazine. Depicting women as the picture of quiet femininity was suddenly a thing of the past.
In the 20th century, the women’s magazine industry was largely shaped by the work of Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem, disruptive pioneers who inspired women to own their sexuality, reproductive health, careers, and political voice through Cosmopolitan and Ms. magazine, respectively.
“[Y]ou have Gloria Steinem, whose agenda is politics, and Helen Gurley Brown, who is writing to the realities of women who want to lead that empowered life, political or not,” says Patti Wolter, Helen Gurley Brown Magazine Professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “The power of a good women’s magazine is one that says, ‘I can be the kind of woman I want.’”
Now, more than a half a century later, women’s media seems poised for another sea change. It’s facing a reckoning on many fronts: social media and influencer culture, an industry-wide decline in ad revenue, a push for inclusion and representation, and readers happy to consume politics with a side of what media scholar Janice Winship once called “mental chocolate.”
The biggest challenge facing the industry? Finding ways to illuminate the needs, hopes, and desires of readers for whom womanhood is just one, often decentralized, aspect of complex identities. And achieve that through content that’s as engaging as what their readers are creating and sharing on their own through sites like Instagram and TikTok—all while staying financially sustainable.
‘IT’S MORE THAN A MAGAZINE—IT’S A MOVEMENT’
Gurley Brown and Steinem stepped into a media environment that was overwhelmingly male—even within women’s magazines. Ladies’ Home Journal had a male editor-in-chief, a fact that led to an eleven-hour sit-in by a hundred women. Female journalists wrote about “women’s” topics like cooking, fashion, and homekeeping.
The success of her 1964 book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” catapaulted Gurley Brown into the role of editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. She reinvented the family magazine, founded in 1886, from a publication that prioritized women’s domesticity to a glossy publication for ambitious and sexually liberated modern women.
The power of a good women’s magazine is one that says, ‘I can be the kind of woman I want.'
“Helen Gurley Brown, in a surreptitious way, said ‘you can control your life, and maybe you do want to please a man, but you can do it on your own terms,’” says Marilyn Greenwald, professor emerita at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
According to Wolter, Cosmopolitan’s greatest strength was the way it took taboo topics like sex, dating, and STDs and made it okay to talk about them.
“Society has told us that we have to be private about that,” says Wolter, whose past roles include managing editor of Mother Jones and editor-in-chief of The Neighborhood Works, a nonprofit magazine about community organizing. “The beauty of Cosmo was that they said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ And Cosmo still does that. They still do some phenomenal things.”
While Cosmopolitan brought visibility to women’s inner lives, Gloria Steinem founded Ms. in 1971 as an extension of her public activism around women’s rights. “One of our taglines is that Ms. is more than a magazine, ‘it’s a movement,’” says Katherine Spillar, executive editor at Ms. “It has been a central component of the contemporary feminist movement in the U.S. but [in] a global sense as well.”
Despite different vantage points, both magazines furthered the women’s movement and sought to support women who felt “alienated from some or all traditional feminine roles” and were attempting “to live outside of the old assumptions,” Stephanie Harrington wrote in her 1974 New York Times piece, “Ms. versus Cosmo.”
Society has told us that we have to be private about topics like sex, dating, and STDs. The beauty of Cosmo was that they said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’
But over time Gurley Brown and Steinem’s legacies diverged. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour, revolutionary in their time for frank discussions of women’s reproductive health, contraception, and sexual pleasure, now over-index on sex, relationship, fashion, and beauty topics. At the same time, overtly feminist publicationss like Ms., as well as third-wave feminist magazines, Bitch and Bust, capture a narrower market.
“I would distinguish between feminist publications and women’s media,” says Linda Steiner, a professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “I don’t feel that because a magazine serves a largely women’s audience and may be largely written by women and edited by women and be about women’s issues [that means] that they are feminist.”
‘THERE ARE NO WOMEN’S MAGAZINES THAT CAN SURVIVE WITHOUT BEAUTY ADVERTISING’
Still, Steiner believes that there is “diversity among women’s magazines [and] diversity in the genre.” Martha Stewart Living (really, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.) and Real Simple harken back to early women’s magazines—including Cosmopolitan’s original incarnation— by centering on women’s domesticity. Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire lead with fashion and celebrity but have long delivered sophisticated content at the intersections of the arts, foreign affairs, and politics. One thing these glossies, particularly their print editions, have in common is a codependent relationship with the beauty industry.
Beauty ads generated revenue for women’s magazines, but also for other media properties owned by parent companies like Condé Nast and Hearst, explains Wolter. This ensured that other publications never had to choose between style and substance—in a predominantly male industry, women’s labor co-opted to support men’s pursuits and interests, writ large.
“The women’s magazines have always been supported hugely by the beauty industry,” says Wolter. “There are no women’s magazines that can survive without beauty advertising. Magazines like Ms. and Bitch are predicated on not taking those kinds of dollars [so they are] handicapped in a pretty big way as to what dollars are available to them and what budget they can operate on.”
To generate the money needed to stay operational and bankroll other magazines, women’s magazines ran more and more beauty articles and sex tips. These may have felt revolutionary in the Gurley Brown era, but diet trend pieces and how-to-please-your-man content haven’t aged well. Articles like Glamour’s 2015 listicle, “13 Little Things That Can Make a Man Fall Hard for You, which the magazine quickly retracted due to criticism, feel decidedly regressive. Additionally, by myopically portraying sex and beauty as the province of the young, fit, and white, women’s magazines may have also limited their subscriber base and ad revenue.
“Black women over-index in the beauty industry,” says Darian Harvin, who writes Beauty IRL, a Substack newsletter that covers beauty and pop culture through a political lens. “We outspend white women like it’s our jobs, all day, especially in hair. The fact that… we are an oversight in beauty media doesn’t even feel beneficial for them. It seems like they’ve missed—we’ve missed—an opportunity for a long time.”
Black women over-index in the beauty industry. The fact that we are an oversight in beauty media doesn’t even feel beneficial for them.
Two decades into journalism’s digital revolution, the “dollars for eyeballs” ad revenue model isn’t paying out for anyone. “[W]e have been watching this collapse for several years now,” confirms Wolter. By April 2020, ad spend was already down $80 million for U.S. media due to the global pandemic, reported industry trade magazine, Women’s Wear Daily.
While the shift to online and the pandemic have antiquated the traditional ad revenue model across the industry, women’s magazines seem poised to lose the most, says Harvin, an industry veteran who has worked for BuzzFeed, Yahoo, NBC, Vox, and Teen Vogue. “I don’t know how much longer any of this is going to exist,” she says. “The women’s magazines are obviously going to be first. We’re the most disposable.”
The loss of advertising revenue may be less of a blow to magazines like Ms., Bitch, and Bust, which eschewed most ad dollars in the first place, but their financial outlook is still grim. Without significant money from advertisers or corporate sponsors, the three magazines use everything from charitable donations to craft fairs to continue publishing. Ms. revenue’s streams are particularly hard to trace. The Feminist Majority Foundation owns, publishes, and makes grants to Ms., and Katherine Spillar helms both. In addition to subscriptions, Bust and Bitch count on community engagement for revenue. Bitch runs a donation-based, members-only community called The Rage, while Bust hosts the Craftacular indie makers fair a few times per year.
In a way, these magazines have become victims of their own success in making feminism mainstream. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of American women identify as feminist, which would have been unheard of in the 1970s. Publications from papers of record to nonprofit outfits like ProPublica frequently include feminist perspectives, so women look to them for political coverage. “I read The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I don’t need a women-specific magazine for these issues,” says Wolter, while Steiner “couldn’t get through my week without The New Yorker.”
‘THE LANDSCAPE HAS DEFINITELY CHANGED, AND IT KEEPS CHANGING’
Acknowledging that women are looking for more than just fashion and beauty content, many magazines are pivoting, positioning more intellectual topics a mere click away. Gurley Brown-esque magazines are running stories about body positivity, increasing representation, and including value-added social content: a YouTube video featuring a sex educator’s take on the sex scenes in “Bridgerton” tellingly runs after an ad for vegan, cruelty-free mascara.
Still, pieces about, say, crafting the perfect sext somehow manage to feel totally “now” and totally dated at the same time. The decades-long preoccupation with sex positions or locating your G-spot (oh wait, whoops! It doesn’t exist) is overwhelmingly cis-gender normative and ableist, if increasingly embracing of kink. This kind of “taboo toppling” is trending, according to data from Trix research partner sparks & honey.
“I think women’s mags have long gotten away with being lazy and kind of cheap because they can,” says Steiner, author of the book “Journalism, Gender and Power.” “No one is seriously saying, ‘Look, I want to subscribe to Glamour or Cosmo, but I’ll only do it if you give me better stuff.’”
Digital native sites, in contrast, integrate topical stories with fluff by design. Bustle and Refinery29, which have never purported to advance a feminist agenda, benefit from ad revenue and brand collaborations on social media, while simultaneously running grabby feminist and politicized content. Even Byrdie, a beauty product review site, has a “Trends & Innovation” vertical that features surprisingly substantive content about things like the history of the condom or the release of a new health platform for LGBTQ+ folks.
“The landscape has definitely changed and it keeps changing,” says Spillar, who has worked at the Feminist Majority Foundation since 1987. “And more and more of current magazines have a feminist bent to them…To appeal to modern women, you have to have a feminist sense, because the majority of women in America identify as feminist.”
It’s easy to write these sites off as opportunistically pandering to more issues-driven readers, but they have created a somewhat viable model in a turbulent media environment. Running stories about period poverty among homeless women next to pieces on red-carpet looks, Bustle grew to 50 million monthly readers in 2016, just three years after it started. (In contrast, 49-year-old Ms. has 1.6 million page views annually and almost 80 percent of their readers are over 40, according to their media kit.) Bustle’s parent company, Bustle Digital Group, grew more than 2,800 percent to a valuation of $46.3 million from 2014 to 2017. Today, they reach 84 million readers through nine media properties, including recently acquired legacy culture and fashion magazine W.
To appeal to modern women, you have to have a feminist sense, because the majority of women in America identify as feminist.
Other publications have been quietly reinventing themselves. During her nearly four-year tenure at The Cut, EIC Stella Bugbee expanded the New York Magazine vertical’s focus from fashion and celebrity to include politics, career, health, and gender. Though not explicitly women’s media, The New York Times Styles section has also evolved under the direction of Gawker alum Choire Sicha. These days, they’re running stories about inclusive fashion designer Christian Siriano’s pandemic-time activism, self-care for Black journalists, and how media crucified women celebrities in the pre-#MeToo era. These pithy topics are sprinkled with whimsical fashion DIYs to help readers avoid lockdown cabin fever.
Teen Vogue has undoubtedly had the biggest about-face. Notably, under the leadership of two women of color, Elaine Wentworth and Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the teeny-bopper fashion magazine started publishing pithy political coverage. (Wagner, the youngest EIC to run a Condé Nast property, recently moved to fill Stella Bugbee’s shoes at The Cut.) With op-eds like award-winning journalist Lauren Duca’s 2016 missive, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” Teen Vogue cemented a reputation as a source for nuanced intersectional political coverage so exceptional that even The New York Times noted it’s “genuinely radical in its content.”
Running stories like “How To Apply Glitter Nail Polish the Right Way,” which was 2016’s most-read piece after Duca’s, according to The Atlantic, didn’t make Teen Vogue any less attractive to feminist journalists seeking both a coveted byline and meaningful payment for their work. The latter is something that Ms., Bitch, and Bust, which operate outside the traditional ad revenue model don’t offer for online content. Those nail polish stories help Teen Vogue pay women.
‘PEOPLE WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS COMPLICATED GLOBAL WORLD’
The way women access their news has also changed. Instead of going directly to a favored publication, Pew Research data show that more than 70 percent of Americans look to social sites for their news. Women, in particular, find news on Instagram and Facebook, whose algorithms populate their feeds with content from like-minded sources. At the same time, millennial and GenZ women are reshaping how we perform feminism and femininity online and IRL, through content they create themselves and share through social media, newsletters, and self-funded magazines and newsletters.
This has opened up space for historically marginalized women, who have long been excluded by traditional publishing. According to a proprietary report Trix commissioned from sparks & honey, which uses AI tech to identify and forecast trends fomenting online, mainstream culture is increasingly embracing groups previously considered “other” or “outsiders.”
For folks like these, even the most seemingly banal and frivolous content is political. Black hair is so political it even has its own law. An article on the impact of eyeliner becomes deeply meaningful when penned by a trans woman. Even evergreen fashion week coverage is topical when highlighting Indigenous designers dismantling cultural appropriation within the fashion industry. Depicting beauty and style that does not conform to the archetype of western white womanhood has always been a revolutionary act.
That being said, fixating on feminism is beside the point for many younger millennials and GenZ women, who are transforming women’s content through multimedia channels and unique packaging. Leandre Medine Cohen founded Repeller (formerly Man Repeller, now defunct) to literally divorce women’s sartorial choices from the male gaze, and “shaped the way millennial women dress,” wrote GQ last year.
Award-winning British magazine gal-dem publishes intersectional political content; however, its value proposition is bucking the “tendency within feminism for its face to be quite white and middle-class,” founding editor Liv Little told The Guardian in 2018, by giving women of color and marginalized genders a voice. This is particularly salient at a time when, according to sparks & honey data, gradually more people are starting to understand identity markers like gender and sexuality as part of a spectrum rather than binary terms.
Kristen Jones didn’t have feminism in mind when she founded Black glamour magazine Mae Jones. “Although normalizing Black-women in luxury might be seen as radical and part of the feminist movement by some, I just want to create pretty imagery,” she says in an email.
Harvin also points out apps like Super Great, for beauty product reviews, and Yoni Circle, which promotes women’s healing through storytelling, where women are “finding new ways to convene,” what “feminist media was supposed to be about” in the first place.
I don't know if they’ll either go away, or they’ll just continue to diminish in relevancy, which is what is happening right now.
“This is now what is happening within women’s media,” continues Harvin, whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, The Cut, and The New York Times. “[I]t’s not just a blog. It’s not just a website. It’s not just a glossy magazine. It’s looking like Instagram pages and TikToks. It’s a lot of curation, too, and it’s newsletters.” For Harvin, everything from micro-blogging on Twitter or long Instagram captions “or things that feel complete” all fall under this broad penumbra of women’s media.
The global pandemic compounded the existing complexity of the media landscape, which makes it difficult to forecast what’s next for women’s magazines. While readers flocked to news sites for coronavirus coverage, digital ad dollars had already declined by 33 percent by April 2020, according to Women’s Wear Daily. Lockdown orders and mask wearing made it “much less important to wear makeup and fragrance,” says McKinsey & Company in an industry report.
Globally, 85 percent of beauty spending happens in brick-and-mortar stores, and online sales didn’t make up the difference in revenue, which also has implications for beauty ad spend. Last year, Cosmopolitan lost readers, though other women’s magazines like O and Good Housekeeping saw overall audience gains. Ebony magazine is back from bankruptcy and new women’s magazines like Lux, a sexy take on socialist feminism, are continuing to crop up.
“I don’t know if they’ll either go away, or they’ll just continue to diminish in relevancy, which is what is happening right now,” says Harvin. “I think that even if they don’t go away, even if Condé [Nast] is always in the towers downtown, how much will it matter to my life? And to my money?”
Still, some experts say that whether they find it in a glossy magazine, on Instagram, or they make it themselves, women are likely going to continue demanding intellectual feminist content with a side of escapism.
“Given the traumatic times we’ve had for the last five years and especially in the last eight months [becoming] more political,” says Steiner. “People [may] want to get more involved and do more and learn more about this more complicated global world we are living in and also want to cocoon themselves and have a refuge.”
If women’s media can deliver that, maybe their readers can finally have it all.
Kate Willsky and Breena Kerr contributed reporting.