Q. What Do Women's Pages Know About Women ? A. NOTHING

March 9 1963

Q. What Do Women's Pages Know About Women ? A. NOTHING

March 9 1963

Q. What Do Women's Pages Know About Women ? A. NOTHING


WHENEVER I TAKE a close look at the women's pages in any one of the five Canadian newspapers that come into my house every weekday, I get the curious feeling that the people responsible for publishing them (and their tone is set by male publishers, not lady editors) must all belong to some kind of antiquarian society devoted to the preservation of the notion that women are sweet, seemly, shy — and stupid. For none of these men — 1 sometimes fondly imagine them as little old Edwardian gentlemen in watchfobs even though Ï know they're tough young guys in hornrims — seem to believe that women really live in this era of challenging change and nerve-racking realities. Instead, in the collection of cliches and claptrap, of syndicated syrup and trumped-up trash they call the women's pages, the editors and publishers of newspapers are apparently trying to reach some long since vanished female who measures out her days dispensing kindliness in tea gowns and sandwiches on silver salvers, preoccupied m a i n 1 y with the length of this spring's skirts or the content of this Sunday's supper menu.

These pages, it seems to me, are not only unreal and outmoded, they're insulting. They project a picture of women as an inferior

One reader’s advice to newspaper editors: for heaven’s sake wake up to the fact that women are often just as smart as people

sex, living inferior lives. They deny all the progress women have made in this century, all the victories we have won in the long war to he recognized as people.

Now if you happen to he skeptical or imperturbable or male (I'm told that something less than ten percent of the men who read newpapers ever glance at the women’s pages), you may think I’m exaggerating. To dispel that idea — and to shore up my con-

tention that the women's pages are an insult to women — let me offer some empirical proof.

For one long week late in January. I read women's pages with care. Besides my five regular papers (the Ottawa Citizen and the Journal, the Toronto Globe and the Star, and the Montreal Gazette), I bought the Toronto Telegram and the Montreal Star. Furthermore, just to be sure that I wasn't reflecting an Eastern big-

city bias. I went into a library and took a look at four or five copies of each of more than a dozen newspapers from the Halifax Clironicle-Herald to the Victoria Times.

What I found in these Canadian dailies was more than ample evidence that their editors have been following faithfully a dictum laid down for women's page reporters in Paris last November. Addressing an International Press Institute seminar, a successful publisher of Swedish women’s weeklies named Mikael Katz solemnly declared that the subjects that interest women are food and fashion first, children and medicine second. (There was no indication that women might be interested in men, or any other abstractions.)

Certainly, if you take the papers I looked at as a guide to Canadian women's interests, Mr. Katz would seem to be right. Nearly every one of them spends a good deal of wordage on food, through a regular column of recipes that feature compelling items of news under such bold headlines as EGGS CALL FOR CAREFUL SHOPPING and TWO WORLDS BLEND IN ITALIAN FiSHSTiCKS. Then too. almost all of them devote much space to fashion (DESERT LOOK IS MILLINERY NEWS or SILK JERSEYS Continued on page 56

Continued on page 56


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"Hostesses are always glowing; a stomach is always a tummy”


ENTS’ SUPPORT) or medicine (TODAY’S HEALTH: ECZEMA, a column that ended with the endearing promise, TOMORROW: WARTS).

Just as important on most of the women’s pages I analysed were long columns devoted to the doings of what used to be called society (who was seen at the doctors' wives’ association theatre night and what was worn at the ballet; when the election of officers at the Anglican women’s auxiliary comes up, and why pink wigs were

donned at an Art Gallery tea). All of these constants were lashed together by various other irregular columns, most of them syndicated and many of them American, describing how to lose weight through diet and exercise, how not to grow old, how to act as a guest at a formal wedding for forty, how to tell if you’ve been slighted by your next-door-neighbor’s dog and so on. There also appeared occasionally in some of the newspapers special features for women from the wire serv-

ices at home and abroad, delineating the dreary details of some smalltime politician's wife’s domestic life (PC PRESIDENT’S SPOUSE STAYS IN BACKGROUND) or adding fuel to international feminist folklore (.JAPANESE WOMEN ADVOCATE RETALIATION AGAINST MATES).

Now you may very well ask at this point, what’s wrong with all this? Surely these are the things women are most interested in and if they aren’t, why do the papers publish them?

Before I try to answer these questions, J’d like first of all to make a couple of things clear. The first is that 1 don't really think women's pages should be entirely abolished (though inside and outside newspaper offices there is a growing body of people who advocate just that). I believe there are still, and probably always will be, certain subjects in which women have a particular — though hardly exclusive — interest. But 1 am objecting to the trivial content of these pages, to the style in which they're written and to the publishing philosophy on which they’re based.

Surely one of the silliest, oldest cliches in the newspaper business is the notion that there is some special way to write for women. Yet this idea is still being put forward in newspaper offices and journalism courses. It was expressed publicly most recently by the same Mikael Katz mentioned earlier, who told the Paris conclave that because women are emotional and subjective creatures they need to be “sheltered from shattering realities,” and writing for them should be managed “in a nice, quiet happy way.” What this seems to mean in practice is that women's-page writers lean heavily on certain adjectives (hostesses arc always glowing, gowns arc ever dazzling, dances arc so often divine) and reject straightforward nouns (a husband is always the head of the house or the man in your life, a stomach is always a tummy, never a belly or a bulge). Few women’s-page writers seem capable of escaping a burbling or girlish or whimsical tone (“Well, gals, now we know the worst” — the worst being the intelligence that waists this spring are fitted — or “let's face it, kiddos, breakfasts are a bore”). Every once in a horrifying while one of them will succumb to some such stupefying inanity as this (which appeared recently in the social columns of the Toronto Star): “Maurice Chevalier who at the age of ten went to work as a carpenter and has since become an international French entertainer, did not show up at a party last night.”

That reporters are allowed — in fact encouraged — to write in such a

manner seems to indicate, to me anyway. the subconscious contempt with which newspaper editors and publishers view the women's pages. (Very often the contempt is open: all women writers are called, by the pea-brained among the press, “sob sisters" or “newshens" and at the Toronto Star. I'm told, the string of offices that house the women's department reporters is referred to as Peacock Alley.)

“The way to get along in the women's department." says a friend of mine who used to work in one, "is not to think of it as a news centre at all but as the public-relations section of the paper. It's a cheap way for the publisher to show that he's a stalwart community-minded citizen by mentioning a lot of peoples names and running bits on child care. Profit, it might be added, is also a consideration. Many papers charge premium rates for ads placed on women's pages by department stores, jewelers and reducing salons who realize that women control some seventy percent of the purchasing power in the nation. Whether or not these advertisers are getting their money's worth is a debatable point. Newspaper publishers jealously guard their readership figures, but in one set shown to me in confidence by a metropolitan daily editor, almost twice as many women were interested in the news and entertainment pages as in the women’s section.

Whenever the women's department does manage to produce some item of genuine interest (and this was told to me both by the editor of an Ottawa paper and by a girl in the women's department of a Toronto daily), it's almost always lifted by the city editor and stuck up in the front of the paper with the rest of the legitimate news. A good example of this kind of piracy which contributes considerably to the general deadliness of the women’s pages occurred in late January when the Associated Press sent out to its subscribers an exclusive interview with Jacqueline Kennedy, expressing her views at the end of two years in the White House. But the Ottawa Journal, instead of putting this on the women's pages where it very obviously belonged, and where it ran in two or three American papers I looked at, published it on their prestigious page seven with other background editorial features.

An even more disturbing fact is that reporters working on the women's pages arc paid at a lower scale than those on general assignments (and this is written right into the agreements of the Newspaper Guild, the reporters' union). Under such discouraging conditions, it's little wonder that, as an Ottawa newspaperman told me, “You can almost be sure that anybody in the women’s department is either an old warhorse too incompetent, or a young kid too inexperienced, to move on. After working there a few months, anybody with half a brain starts to pester the editor to be transferred."

Now none of this convinces me, as 1 said earlier, that women's pages should be abandoned. I still believe it's possible to put out a women's section that is lively, newsworthy and read. To do this 1 think editors will

have to realize first of all that over the last forty years there's heen a revolutionary change in the way women live and that editors have a responsibility to lead this revolution, not to trail a couple of decades behind it. They should know that women are no longer nesting females with few interests beyond the mechanisms of the home. They can vote. They've been educated in the same classrooms as hoys. Married or not, many of them have to he self-supporting.

(Three out of ten married women in Canada arc now in the labor force: in the next decade this proportion may he doubled.) Even if they are fulltime housekeepers, they have mental needs that can't he entirely satisfied with delicious little details on how to boil broccoli.

Having reached this basic conclusion. editors have to go one long step further and recognize that it isn't necessary to write up or down or sideways to women. They have to apply

to women's pages the same ruthless standards they use in judging other news. They should stop thinking that it's permissible to print columns and columns of fill, gleaned from institutional news releases and the trivia that comes in on their wires. (Often syndicated columns hang around in newspaper offices for weeks before they're finally shoved onto the presses. One brainless cluck from Hawaii named Hcloise who writes a column of hints on how to save string

was allowed to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to the readers of the Ottawa Journal during the third week in January, in a column that began “Hey you all — thanks from the bottom of my little southern heart ...’’)

Editors shouldn't think that their responsibilities to the local community end when they run the names of officers elected by women's organizations. They should stop thinking that long lists of guests at cocktail parties and teas are of interest to anybody outside a smattering of snobs. (One encouraging step in this direction has been taken in the last year by the evening papers in both Toronto and Ottawa, all four of which are now charging for wedding announcements, instead of running page after page of descriptions of peau de soie and pink gladioli.)

They should hire some intelligent women columnists who understand their readers and are able to write well about their own communities. There are such women in this country hut the only ones writing for women’s pages seem to work for the Toronto Globe and Mail. That paper’s women's section is, incidentally, the only one in the country that makes an attempt, although it's only once a week, to tackle intelligently in full-length features the large problems — such as our antiquated divorce laws, our hopelessly muddled welfare setup, our inadequate arrangements for the children of working mothers — that particularly concern women. None of the other dailies seem to be aware that a woman might have to cope with the legal difficulties that can accompany widowhood, or be forced at the age of forty to find a job as a typist: and if they are aware of these things which crop up in some real woman’s life every single day, they are making no effort to provide her with information that might help.

1 don’t mean to imply, by making

all these sober suggestions, that the traditional subjects like food and fashion ought to be shoved off the women's pages altogether. Almost every V, woman I know is interested in one or the other or both. But they are by now so overworked that I think they should be tackled far more deftly and less often. It isn't impossible to write intelligently about food. This was proven long ago by Helen Gougeon Schuil, a Montreal cook and sometime columnist, who can tell how to bake pork chops in a bed of Spy apples in prose that makes the mouth water and the heart yearn. It seems to me that a paper would be far better off to publish once a week the kind of information that a really good — and literate — cook can give, instead of deling out every dreary day yet another hint on how to make mileage with canned mushroom soup or yesterday’s leftovers.

As for fashion, I think newspapers ought to bolster their quarterly dispatches from writers concerned with what the haut monde will be donning in Paris next autumn with some concentrated and useful information on what you can buy in Winnipeg right this minute. This approach to fashion writing is taken with enviable intelligence and admirable wit by Katharine Whitehorn, who writes a clothes’ column every Sunday in the London Observer. (She once said her function on that esoteric weekly was to "get some corsets in amid the culture.”) Miss Whitehorn doesn't concern herself constantly with minuscule changes

in the shape of sleeves, though she's shrewd and quick to describe what she thinks a farsighted woman would -be wise to invest in if she wants a coat that will look chic two seasons from now. She very often does tell her readers what to buy to cover themselves if they're fat or poor or plain. She isn’t afraid to name a manufacturer whose frocks fall apart at the seams the third time they’re worn and she often comes back from the races at Ascot and states unequivocally that fat middle-aged ladies, U or otherwise, ought never to deck themselves out in cabbage-rose prints and cartwheels.

In brief, Katharine Whitehorn is capable of writing on women’s subjects without assuming that her readers leave their brains in a hatbox whenever they turn to her pages. This is. in essence, what I’m saying here: that it's high time newspaper editors stopped pretending that women are mindless, boring boobs, and started providing them with the kind of news they have a right to expect.

Miss Whitehorn herself went even further in a recent Observer column on this very subject. She suggested hopefully that if women’s news were written intelligently and well, it's possible that even men could become interested in it: and then, oh happy time, there might appear in some ideal place, some ideal paper in which "women could read the sports pages and men could, without pain, read the fashion and cookery pages and writing for women by women about women would vanish from this earth.” ★