In 1924, Florence Riddick Boys tried to convince American editors to include her syndicated ‘Woman’s Page’ in their publications. She suggested that, ‘It will mark you as a man who is progressive and awake to women’s needs’. While this recognition of women as readers was indeed a form of progress, ‘women’s pages’ as a special interest section were set apart from the ‘rest of the paper’.
From the 1870s to the 1970s, most Australian newspapers ran a section directed towards a woman reader written from a woman’s perspective and edited by a female journalist. These women’s pages were always surrounded by advertisements. The rise and fall of the women’s editor’s ‘empire within an empire’ provides insight into female journalists’ industrial situation, as well as a window on to gender relations in colonial and post-Federation Australia.
The first mention of a page for women in an Australian newspaper was in Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer on 7 June 1851. ‘The Sense of Being Married’, a man’s account of the devotion and care that English wives showed their husbands, appeared about 20 years before the advent of women’s pages. Similarly, in May 1859, Empire carried a ‘Ladies Column’.
The first women’s pages established as regular features in local publications were in the Australian Town and Country Journal, which from January 1870 until 1907 ran a ‘Ladies’ Column’, and the Illustrated Sydney News, which followed in May 1870. From January 1884 to April 1885, the News column brought together home and empire for Sydney readers with a column recording ‘Home Life in England, by a London Lady’. It was a potpourri of snippets and jokes, including a warning to lovers about kissing vain ladies, following a craze for wearing false ‘india-rubber’ lips. A few months later, it transformed to ‘London Ladies’ Gossip’, which remained in print until 1887.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Woman’s Column’ appeared in early 1888, and also reported on overseas fashions until November 1891. In the mid-1890s, the Queenslander ran a ‘Ladies’ Column’ edited by the poet Mary Hannay Foott. The issue of 2 November 1895 comprised a page of advertising for mail-order goods aimed at women that included ‘ventilating corsets … specially adapted for our Queensland summer’. From 1898, the Melbourne Argus provided a section titled ‘Woman’s Realm’, which appeared weekly.
In the early 20th century, women’s page editors became responsible for content. In December 1905, the Sydney Morning Herald instituted a ‘A Page for Women Notices’ asking for contributions ‘from women preferred … not exceed[ing] half a column in length’. In July 1918, following the retirement of women’s page editor Florence Baverstock (who had succeeded Alexina Wildman at the Bulletin), the Herald announced that, ‘Publication of the “Page for Women” on Wednesdays, has been suspended until after the war, but the features will be continued from day to day.’
The rise of department stores in tandem with the fashion industry saw the metropolitan dailies’ women’s pages and their editors flourish in the 1920s. From early in the decade, the Sydney Sun’s Connie Robertson edited a women’s page every day except Saturday, when it was a fourpage women’s supplement.
Despite the shocks of the Great Depression— or perhaps because of them—developments in printing in the early 1930s contributed to the ascent of new magazines for women, and experienced women’s editors were poached from newspapers, including Robertson, who edited Woman’s Budget and then Woman from 1930 until 1936. Jean Williamson, who had succeeded Baverstock at the Herald, ran ‘A Page for Women’ until she left to work for the new Australian Women’s Weekly in June 1933.
The next phase of women’s pages paralleled World War II, when women and women’s issues were drawn into the war effort. In 1941, the Argus included an item on child-care centres under the section title ‘Women to Women’ and the Sydney Morning Herald changed its layout to accommodate ‘Women’s News’. In February 1943, Connie Robertson, back at the Herald, was described as ‘Our Staff Correspondent’ when she reported on army women ‘Learning to “Man” Searchlights’. The end of the war effort meant more printing stock for advertising. By November 1945, Robertson was back on the fashion round, predicting ‘The Shape of Hats to Come’.
The Argus continued its women’s page until its last issue on 19 January 1957. A feature on that day presaged the rise of another powerful consumer figure—the teenager—with beauty advice from a ‘London cosmetician’: ‘What’s the use of teenagers buying a unit of expensive make-up, when their continuous late nights make complexions wrinkled and SO tired!’
The demise of women’s pages was signalled in March 1971 when the Sydney Morning Herald’s women’s section became ‘Look!’ under Suzanne Baker’s editorship; however, after two years as editor of the openly feminist section, Baker left when she was instructed by news editor David Bowman to reinstate social news. Further women’s editors were appointed at the Herald; the last was Christine Hogan in the mid-1980s. Reflecting on her time as the editor of ‘Look!’, Baker quoted Newsday’s David Lowenthal: ‘Women’s pages should be a thing of the past. They are frivolous, non-substantial and insulting to women.’ Yet, as Baker also pointed out, ‘The women’s section is the part of the paper that isn’t tied to inherited ideas of what an “event” is.’
These changes were reflected more widely in the Australian press during the 1970s. On 11 August 1982, the Australian Women’s Weekly was able to proclaim to its readers that ‘Women’s pages have taken on a new look’. The Weekly’s survey of 16 women’s section editors at Australian newspapers found that about a quarter had transformed their women’s pages into a ‘magazine section … set out to inform as well as to entertain’. While there were still staff broadly responsible for content aimed at women at broadsheets such as the Canberra Times, Melbourne’s Herald, Adelaide’s Advertiser, the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald, these papers no longer had a named women’s section; instead, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, they introduced ‘lifestyle’ and weekly magazine sections. Another group— mainly tabloids and rural newspapers such as the Land—continued to include women’s pages, although they were now much more focused on lifestyle topics and androgynously titled to implicitly attract male readers—for example, ‘Scene’ at the Sunday Telegraph and ‘Tempo’ at the Sun-Herald. The sexual revolution via women’s magazines was being felt in newspapers like Brisbane’s Telegraph, where women’s editor Debra Camden had recently introduced a weekly ‘beefcake’ photograph feature, ‘Man Friday’. Other innovations included editorial policies to address issues of interest to working women, cover changes to rape and domestic violence laws and provide sex education, resulting from long struggles waged by feminist journalists such as Sylvia da Costa-Roque at the Brisbane Sunday Mail and Jill McFarlane at the Sydney Daily Mirror.
The debates over dedicated women’s sections have continued in the age of online media—for example, when Fairfax Media launched a new women’s news portal in 2012, Daily Life. Immediately, a welter of online comment appeared, ironically referencing the site via the hashtag #dailywife, and thus rekindled a debate about the marginalising effect of a ‘new gender apartheid’. Both these digital publications and the lifestyle sections that have now universally replaced the women’s pages remain tied to their 19th-century inheritances.
REFs: S. Baker and S. Clinch Baker Papers (SLNSW); P. Clarke, Pen Portraits (1988); http://www.womenaustralia.info/exhib/cal/intro.html.