cropped from the march 22, 1952, new yorker magazine cover

A New Wave of Women’s Pages

From silos to showcases, women’s pages have come full-circle.

I gloated a bit the day I noticed The Washington Post’s She the People blog finally did away with the smear of lipstick beneath the “She” in its logo. I so despised that little swipe of red texture.

An almagamation of political commentary and short posts about women in the news, this Post section had vexed me since its launch in January 2012. Its existence came to symbolize one of the more curious ways journalism is fracturing in the Internet age.

Women’s pages are making a comeback.

Back in 1972, the writer Joan Didion suggested in an essay for The New York Times that the women’s movement was “no longer a cause but a symptom” — the movement had become reactive not proactive. Sometimes I think of old-school women’s pages the same way. Those sections were rarely if ever fundamentally about enabling “the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it,” as Didion says.

Journalism has a long tradition of relegating women and other minorities to the back of the book. Women’s pages began in the first place because late 19th-century advertisers so desperately wanted to reach the group that held the purchasing power. The sections were populated with articles by “sob sisters” who wrote sentimentally about the news and by “stunt girls” who would go undercover to make headlines. Nellie Bly, who faked insanity to investigate a mental institution and later embarked on a race around the world, is a famous example of the latter.

Women’s pages later morphed into style sections, an evolution that helps explain some of the odd editorial decisions that persist. A 2012 New York Times story about feminist icon Gloria Steinem ended up in the Style section and, just last month, the Times placed a profile of women-in-tech advocate Rachel Sklar in Style. The insulting headline that topped the story online: “Rachel Sklar Tries to Become a Social Media Entrepreneur” — not is but tries to become. The print treatment wasn’t much better: “More Than Just a Social Butterfly.” The message is that men are entrepreneurs and women are butterflies who try to be.

It may seem like a dismal state of affairs for women in publishing at times, but it helps a little to remember some of the historical absurdities in journalism that make the status quo look better. For example, the National Press Club wouldn’t let women reporters ask questions until a lawsuit forced the matter in the 1970s. Think about that for a second: the 1970s.

“We were invisible,” Nan Robertson told C-SPAN in a 1992 interview about her book, The Girls in the Balcony. “I think it has a lot to do with ignorance, insensitivity, and the fact that nobody who has power and is part of the status quo will move or voluntarily give away any of that power without being pushed.”

While the ethos of women’s pages has somehow managed to persist in today’s media landscape, with fashion magazines reinforcing worn stereotypes, a new and different crop of women-centric content is emerging, too.

Jezebel has become a cultural force and conversation driver since Anna Holmes founded it in 2007. The Atlantic launched The Sexes late last year “to focus on issues that affect men and women, from the perspective of both genders,” which might also be called “everything ever.” When Slate’s Double X blog came along in 2009, it was an attempt “to create a savvy women’s magazine, the kind that we’ve long wanted to have to read,” one of the site’s founders wrote in a press release.

I get it. Anyone who has been in a newsroom with me in the past decade has probably heard me lament the absence of an Esquire-like magazine that isn’t ultimately for men. Is it so much to ask for a publication that acknowledges women, too, love exceptional journalism, reviews of Japanese whiskey, and a preview of next season’s trendiest blazers?

At least there’s a tiny bit of solace in the fact that Esquire was smart enough to publish Nora Ephron’s writing relatively early in her career.

“I have come full circle in recent years,” Ephron wrote for the magazine in 1972. “I used to think that anything exclusively for women (women’s pages, women’s colleges, women’s novels) was a bad idea. Now I am all in favor of it.”

Steinem, too, described herself as having come “full circle” on the value of women’s pages.

Jessica Grose unpacked some of the assumptions about women’s magazines and serious journalism in a New Republic story last week, concluding that “whatever the ultimate reason for the sidelining of women’s journalism, it’s ultimately just plain lazy to exclude women’s journalism from the upper echelons.”

I admire many of the writers and much of the work produced by women-focused sites. I found Lindy West’s piece about how to make a rape joke so essential that I turned off the radio and read it aloud on a road trip. (I wasn’t the one driving.) And for all my complaints about how The Washington Post brands and quarantines She the People, it has featured some thought-provoking work — including ideas about this very issue. I’ve also had wonderful experiences reporting and writing for The Washington Post.

But there is a gigantic difference between siloing off women — both women writers and coverage of women — and elevating them through a thoughtful platform.

It’s patronizing to create something “for women” that is, by design, off to the side of the main product. For example, here is a ballpoint pen and here is a ballpoint pen “for her.” (However if you need a pen and there’s only one available to you, you’re going to use the one you have.) But what if the product designed for ladies is not the same thing in a different package, and is actually valuable in and of itself?

“I’m actually kind of torn about it,” New York magazine writer Ann Friedman told me.“Women are not a hobby or an industry. Cordoning off women the way you cordon off sports or business [sections] makes no sense. It’s going to look totally ridiculous when we look back on it in decades and decades.”

Yet for now, this cordoning off is still a “potential pathway to mainstreaming issues that have traditionally been seen as only of interest to a smaller group of the population,” she said. Whereas women’s pages traditionally reinforced the many ways women were being kept separate from the mainstream, many women-centric sites today are finding ways to instead amplify voices and perspectives that were previously sectioned off from broader audiences or not being shared at all. Editorial structures of the past discouraged this kind of sharing. But editorial structures are changing and audiences are being redefined.

“That’s another hard thing,” Friedman said. “What type of woman are you talking about? The best women-centric sites are more narrow. The Washington Post purports to cover all of the news in this regional area but it’s got to put women in politics in a special section?”

It turns out the decision to launch She the People was as much about business as it would have been in the 19th century. Raju Narisetti, an incoming senior vice president at the new News Corporation, was managing editor at The Washington Post when She the People started. He says the blog was a kind of “sideways” strategy for hiring and expanding coverage on key issues at a time when money was exceptionally tight.

“It is hard to broaden the core when most editors including me were given pretty significant cost cutting measures,” Narisetti said. “And if it’s a unique enough property, you might be able to attract different sets of sponsors.”

In other words, launching a women’s section might not be about women at all, but rather a revenue strategy or a way to get around other funding barriers.

Narisetti says then-national editor Kevin Merida modeled She the People after Narisetti’s success hiring Ezra Klein, whose Wonkblog quickly became a must-read. “I brought him in as a blogger reporting directly to me,” Narisetti said, “so it went around hiring the business staff.”

Three years later, The Washington Post saw She the People as a similarly nimble way to start something new outside of the structure of a slow-to-change newspaper bureaucracy. Still, Narisetti cautions that the editorial sides of major news operations are rarely so strategic about their audiences.

“If you fail to get women to read what you produce 90 percent of the time, it doesn’t matter if you add a new blog,” Narisetti said. “They’ll always remain on the periphery.”

Maybe now is a good time to acknowledge what could be perceived as irony in me tackling this topic for LadyBits, a women-centric collection on Medium.

There are a few key reasons why I see LadyBits as different than the traditional women’s page. For one thing, Medium is all verticals. There is no “main” coverage and off-to-the-side coverage. The site is one big network of niche, with content upvoted and largely socially distributed. And Medium is just one place you’ll find LadyBits content. It’s a niche editorial structure that houses content that (hopefully) appeals to all kinds of readers.

You probably didn’t get to this article by beginning at the LadyBits section front. Maybe you arrived here through a link on Twitter or on Facebook, or maybe you saw it crossposted to another section of the site. Homepages were once the Internet’s answer to print’s A1 above the fold. Increasingly, not so much.

“The general-interest magazine is so over beyond over,” Friedman said. “Niches are important. But any piece of journalism that’s good is going to fit in multiple categories. The way more future-oriented digital publications are organizing their sites now makes a ton more sense: Which filter do I want to apply to the news I get?”

So much has changed since Didion wrote that essay for the Times in 1972. (It was published in the “Books” section, by the way.) But it’s painful to consider the resonance — more than 40 years later — in her critique of how ineffective it can be to discuss gender within “particularly narrow” framing; by keeping it separate from the mainstream.

“They were being heard, and yet not really,” Didion wrote. “Attention was finally being paid, and yet that attention was mired in the trivial. Even the brightest movement women found themselves engaged in sullen public colloquies about the inequities of dishwashing and the intolerable humiliations of being observed by construction workers on Sixth Avenue.”

Perhaps the value of women’s pages today is that they reveal how rapidly old-media structures are dissolving, and how ultimately good that is for everyone. When all coverage is fractured and distribution is more democratized, maybe the best and most important work really will rise to the top.