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The New Woman: 150 years of women’s magazines

Asiya Islam and Owen Brittan have co-curated an exhibition of women's magazines in India and the UK for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

At the hairdressers or in airport lounges, we may casually flip through glossy women’s magazines. Some of us might go to the local news vendors to pick up the latest copy to get the exclusive scoop on the Kardashians. Those in London might be happy with just their free copies of the Stylist. Skimming past the advertisements, perfectly sculpted bodies and expensive accessories, we may not realise the significant role that women’s magazines have played through the years in not only representing but also creating the image of the ‘New Woman’. Constantly subject to change, as well as to anxiety and desire, the New Woman is indeed not that new.

For an upcoming exhibition, we’ve been charting the history of women’s magazines, particularly the look and feel of their covers, in India and the UK from the late 19th century to now. Becoming more colourful and visual over the years, the covers not only show emerging ideals of femininity, they also reflect the social and political climate of the time.  Trends in women’s magazines in the UK and India show significant differences before ultimate convergence in the late twentieth century.

It was in mid-nineteenth century Britain that women’s magazine readership first expanded from the elite to the middle classes. Although today’s reader would recognise the columns on fashion and ‘Agony Aunt’ sections that explored risqué subjects like sex and courtship, that same reader might be struck by the principal focus on the concerns of the household in most women’s magazines, such as The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and The Ladies’ Treasury.

Similarly, in India, the black and white Grihasthya (The Household) and Grihini (The Housewife) appealed to the domestic sensibilities of women. Grihasthya went to the extent of maligning the social reformer Pandita Ramabai as a man-hater in its pages in 1888, a move that backfired with the male editor receiving many letters of complaint from the magazine’s women readers. Perhaps as a reaction, the early twentieth century saw an an increase in women’s authorship and ownership of periodicals in both Britain and India. The Victorian era ‘New Woman’, emerging at the turn of the twentieth century, saw changes in women’s dress, physical activities, education and employment, along with an increased focus on leisure activities.

While Victorian ideals did not quite proliferate in India, The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, launched in 1901, carried articles on both Queen Victoria and the social reformer Pandita Ramabai. The verve of social reform was also very visible in many famous Urdu women’s magazines of the time. Khatun, for example, was launched in 1906 by a husband-wife team to encourage Muslim girls’ education. Social reform gave way to the fervour of nationalism in women’s magazines in the 1920s and 30s as women became closely involved with the nationalist movement against colonialism. Chaand (launched in 1922) featured articles from leading women of the time. In Britain, concurrent to the launch of British Vogue in 1916, the World Wars evoked changes in gender roles as women proliferated in the workforce.

Despite being relegated back to the home at each war’s conclusion, women brought their new skillsets and scientific knowledge back to the home, with women’s magazines coaching and teaching professionalisation of the household along the way. Perhaps as a result of friction resulting from changing gender roles and the growing strength of the Second Wave of Feminism, the 1970s saw the launch of iconic feminist magazines Shrew and Spare Rib, featuring editorials and content that campaigned on issues ranging form ending gender discrimination and unequal pay to more legal protection from domestic abuse.

However, in India, political and nationalist fervour started dissipating from women’s magazines in the post-independence period. Manushi (1968) was the only explicitly feminist magazine of the time. Although initially Femina (launched in 1959) featured the likes of Indira Gandhi (the first woman Prime Minister of India) on its cover (1961 and 1974), it soon gave way to lavish glamour, fashion and style features. Femina, along with Gladrags, Woman’s Era and New Woman, went on to launch the image of the modern Indian woman in the public psyche in the post-1990 liberalisation era.

Thanks to globalisation, by the 1990s, with some latitude for language-specific exceptions, the feel, covers and content of magazines in both countries began to converge. Stroll down the magazine aisle of your local shop in either London or Delhi and you are likely to find little difference. Indeed, in our research, we came across nearly indistinguishable copies of staples like Women’s Health, Vogue and Elle. As mainstream glossy women’s magazines concur on style, fitness and glamour, the internet is providing a new avenue for the expression of feminism. The Ladies Finger in India and The F Word in the UK are both targeted towards young women. Will the future of women’s magazines be charted through the internet?

*Asiya Islam [2015] is a PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge scholar at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. Owen Brittan is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. The Festival of Ideas exhibition and talk takes place on 21st October