The “Women’s Pages” Go Online: Good or Bad News?

Forty years ago, feminists demanded that special “women’s pages,” which featured fashion, society and cooking, be banished from newspapers. Instead, they insisted, newspapers should mainstream serious stories about the lives of women throughout their regular news

Forty years later, the new media have re-segregated women’s sections. The good news is that they are no longer about society, cooking and fashion. Most are tough, smart, incisive, analytic and focus on events, trends or stories that the mainstream online news still ignores. The bad news is that they are not on the “front page” where men might learn about women’s lives.

Does this trend signal success or failure? As an early activist in and scholar of the women’s movement, I’m concerned that all we have gained after four decades are stand-alone feminist online magazines and web sites and the “right” to have separate women’s sections embedded in other magazines. These are the women’s pages of 1969 redux, even though these sections promote a broad array of serious subjects from a strong feminist perspective. Nor are all the editors of these online men who have cast women as “the other.” Many are feminists who, for whatever reasons, have created these special women’s sections., for example, has Broadsheet, which produces excellent stories about issues or trends that affect half the population. has Double X, (originally a stand-alone section, now a blog), which recruits talented and thoughtful women to write stories that offer an important feminist perspective. has a “Woman Up” category that is a collective women’s blog. OpenDemocracy, a British online magazine, has 50/50, a separate section that focuses on news stories about women around the world.

The list is long. Many are web sites or magazines that have their own special women’s section. Even The New York Times, to the surprise of many journalists, reprints an online series from the International Herald Tribune called the Female Factor. Here you find fascinating articles that belong with the regular news, about women in corporations, political news from Germany, or problems faced by the newly retired. But because they focus specifically on women, and are online, they are mostly unknown to readers of the print version of The New York Times.

Some online magazines have no obvious special section. In order to access news about women on Truthout, for example, you have to go to “issues” and then click on “women.” (When did half the population turn into “an issue?”) The Huffington Post tends to place blog posts about women and “women’s issues” in the Style or Living section.

Consider the Inter Press Service, which describes its mission as:

Giving a voice to the voiceless–acting as a communication channel that privileges the voices and the concerns of the poorest and creates a climate of understanding, accountability and participation around development, promoting a new international information order between the South and the North.

Women, however, do not appear on the regular Inter Press Service. Instead IPS Gender Wire, a separate magazine, provides outstanding news about women’s lives around the world. In each issue, IPS Gender Wire repeats the fact that:

Women do not get half the media’s attention, or an equal voice in expression– only 22 percent of the voices you hear and read in the news today are women’s. In its stories IPS redresses this huge imbalance – covering emerging and frontline issues while asking an often forgotten question: What does this mean for women and girls?

The news stories that appear on IPS Gender Wire have focused on political opportunities for women in Senegal, investigated whether Namibian women are being sterilized, discussed women’s debates in Lebanon about whether to don the hijab or bikini, and exposed sexual assaults against detained female immigrants by guards in Texas. And it never stops reminding readers that women are “Half the world’s population, but not with half the share of wealth, well being and opportunity.”

Think about it. Many of these sections are terrific and cover wonderful stories. They are not about fashion, cosmetics and wrinkle cream. But do men read them when they are clearly “marked” for women? I don’t know, but the party line from writers and publisher is “of course.” True, some of my male journalist friends know about some of these sites. But I can’t find many ordinary men who regularly read these online magazines who even know that IPS Gender Wire exists, or who regularly click on Broadsheet. And most of my female friends have never even heard of The New York Times’ Female Factor.

The quality of the writing and analysis in these “separate sections” is quite high. So what’s my problem? My concern is that gender equality will only emerge when men are educated about women’s lives and when women stop being quarantined as “the other.” Why aren’t stories that explore women’s responses to the Taliban or Islamism, reproductive health issues, new forms of contraception, the growing majority of women in American higher education, or the estrogenic impact of cosmetics on women’s health mainstreamed on the “front page” as part of the news about foreign policy, national security, ecology, pollution or health care?

True, when the story is about the appointment of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the story automatically lands on the front page. But not when honor deaths kill hundreds of women in Pakistan.

The educated online audience reads a great deal about wars and conflict and I would be the last to deny the importance of these stories, whether they are about Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Thailand. But it is rare that we also read about the women and children who suffer the “collateral damage” of these military battles or who constitute the majority of refugees or displaced persons.

Off the record, those who write for these “special sections” freely admit to me that some of the publishers of the magazine would rather not cover these women’s stories “on the front page.” Since they won’t speak on the record, I can only tell you that writers for these sections are happy to have an oasis in which to offer a feminist perspective on the world events, where they don’t have to fight editors who still view women as “the other,” and where they can expose, debate, and re-think how we would re-organize the world “if women really mattered.”

As a result, they are resigned to write for a segregated news section because it allows them to publish such stories, provides them jobs, and gives writers opportunities to publish important stories about half the world’s population.

So what would success look like? Right now, we have countless stand-alone women’s news magazines and web sites such as Women’s eNews, Feministing, Jezebel, the Ms. Blog and RH Reality Check. Or, we have these special women’s sections embedded in the new gender apartheid of online news magazines.

Success, in my view, will come when women’s news is mainstreamed. News about women is linked to the health of the planet, the education of half the world’s population, the reproductive opportunities for or constraints on half the world’s people, the hidden injuries of sex, the violence against girls and women, and the poverty of women and children.

By now, most international organizations have embraced the fact that elevating women’s status though education and reproductive choice results in a higher living standard for an entire population. Sadly, that widespread and obvious consensus has not yet penetrated the news media. We will know we’ve succeeded when every magazine asks of every news story, as IPS Gender Wire does, What does this mean for women and girls?

Crossposted from Talking Points Memo.

Above: “A Woman Reading A Newspaper” (1891), oil painting by Norman Garstin. Public domain.