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Beyond Slingbacks & Sex Tips: The Future of Women’s Media

History of Women's Media

The death of Cosmopolitan magazine founder Helen Gurley Brown in August 2012 inspired a reassessment of the American media landscape. Writers on women-founded media outlets like The Huffington Post and Jezebel shared their grief and their reflections on the current state of writing for women. “Let’s face it,” wrote Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey, “if it weren’t for HGB popularizing—hell, institutionalizing—her philosophy that it was not only OK for single women to enjoy sex, but that it was part of a larger, important issue of self-actualization, publications like Jezebel wouldn’t exist.”

“The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.”

I didn’t know much about Helen Gurley Brown until that summer. Like most young female writers, I recognized her as one of the trailblazers of women’s editorial journalism. But my knowledge ended there. I was never a Cosmopolitan reader, and in any case, by the time I was old enough to flip through its pages, Gurley Brown had handed over the reins to her successor, Bonnie Fuller. The woman I saw memorialized in every print and online publication during the summer of 2012 sounded so much more interesting and culturally significant than I had ever imagined. Reading through her obituary in The New York Times, I was surprised to learn about the strong influence of her book, Sex and the Single Girl. I was also impressed by the impact of her tenure as Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief. Championing women’s sexual agency and pleasure, Gurley Brown reshaped Cosmopolitan from a highbrow literary journal into a magazine targeted towards career-oriented women fighting for the rights that would define second-wave feminism—among them, birth control. “How could any woman not be a feminist?” she asked. “The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.”

Empowerment and identity politics were a big part of Gurley Brown’s editorial strategy, and as Cosmopolitan hit a new stride, other women’s magazines were launched to emulate (and compete with) the message Gurley Brown developed. Co-founded by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Ms. Magazine was part of this new crop of publications. Beginning as a New York Magazine insert in 1971, Ms. quickly became a powerful signifier of women’s rights activism, delivering on its intended mission of “translating a movement into a magazine.” Its first run of 300,000 copies sold out in just eight days and its subscriber base grew to 26,000 in a matter of weeks, surprising the more mainstream media outlets that doubted the magazine’s staying power. Over the course of the next few decades, Cosmopolitan and Ms. continued to grow and develop alongside competing publications like Vogue, Elle, Redbook and Woman’s Day. Though these magazines had been around longer, the popularity of their more progressive counterparts forced them to redefine their own editorial strategies.

Cosmopolitan’s more recent focus on fashion and sex tips has been cited as an example of everything that’s wrong with women’s media.

If Cosmopolitan’s revolutionary impact sounds surprising in the context of its current incarnation, that’s because the magazine Gurley Brown created is certainly not the one that exists today. Cosmopolitan’s more recent focus on fashion and sex tips has been cited as an example of everything that’s wrong with women’s media. Responding to this criticism, however, the magazine has recently attempted to move away from its sexually-charged image, changing the tone of its content by hiring writers such as Jill Filipovic and Lane Moore, known for their strong coverage of gender and politics.

The ongoing evolution of Cosmopolitan speaks to changing attitudes towards women’s sexuality. While an uncensored and unapologetic focus on women’s sexual pleasure was once seen as empowering, it is now considered reductive, taking attention away from more significant issues including women’s roles in politics and business. But Cosmopolitan was one of the first places where women’s issues were written about openly and honestly, for women and by women. And though the magazine has been accused of taking a somewhat cavalier approach to more serious topics, its appeal endures, suggesting that these topics are still timely and significant, even if the ways in which they are being discussed are changing.

Following a more politically-oriented path, Ms. was instrumental in expanding the conversation about women’s issues including abortion, domestic violence and the Equal Rights Amendment. After its initial 15-year run as a nonprofit publication during the 1970s and 1980s, the magazine moved into a for-profit model, changing ownership several times until it was bought by the Feminist Foundation Majority in 2001. Although Ms. continues to have a regular publication run, its impact in recent years has diminished as digital journalism has surpassed print in reach and popularity. Like Cosmopolitan, its legacy continues to be felt in the strong voices of female writers across the media landscape.

“That has made me hyperaware of how [media] creates for us the idea of normal, whether or not normal is accurate.”

The impact of magazines like Ms. and Cosmopolitan throughout the last 50 years has highlighted the increased demand for women’s visibility in the media. According to Steinem, this is because media creates and reflects cultural values—being visible in the media means being visible in the culture it represents. “It’s hard to think of anything except air, food and water that is more important than the media … I’ve spent most of my life working in the media,” Steinem said in a 2014 interview with The New York Times. “That has made me hyperaware of how it creates for us the idea of normal, whether or not normal is accurate.” In recent years, the idea of normal has been challenged and redefined, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality. The legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., and the resulting media coverage, has signified a clear shift in what is considered normal in the context of romantic relationships. Even more recently, the popularity of celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox has led to a heightened awareness of the issues facing the transgender community and increased acceptance of transgendered people.

The most recent report states that 62% of all bylines across Internet, print, TV and news wires belong to men … “Media on all platforms are failing women.”

Steinem’s passion for media led her to join forces with actress Jane Fonda and former Ms. editor Robin Morgan to establish the Women’s Media Center (WMC) in 2005. An advocacy group designed to make women more visible in mainstream media, WMC publishes a yearly report that asses the current state of media and identifies existing problems—the first being a lack of representation. Although women make up 51% of the nation’s population, they are consistently underrepresented across media platforms including journalism, film and gaming. The organization quantifies representation through metrics and compares these numbers to reports from previous years. The most recent report states that 62% of all bylines across Internet, print, TV and news wires belong to men, with the widest disparity occurring in evening broadcast news. To emphasize their findings, WMC’s 2015 report states unequivocally: “Media on all platforms are failing women.”

These failures takes several forms. In addition to the pervasive lack of representation, there is also a significant shortage of women’s voices on more mainstream news outlets. As a result, women-centered topics are often covered by men and rarely given the attention they deserve. A recent New York Times feature on body image highlighted this imbalance. Commenting on the muscular physique of top-ranked female tennis players including Serena Williams, the article focused on how these athletes struggle to retain a sense of femininity when their bodies are publicly critiqued. It sparked widespread criticism that emphasized the sexist nature of the story. But since this criticism came from niche outlets targeted to women, it did not have the same reach or impact as the original story.

Rachel Larris, WMC’s Communications Manager, believes that there are several ways to increase representation. “A main goal of the Women’s Media Center is to educate and change the existing media structures,” she says. According to Larris, this requires a two-pronged approach: providing outlets with ways to reach out to female experts, and training these experts on how to interact with the media. “Our WMC SheSource database of women experts is about making women experts known so that journalists and bookers can’t say they don’t know any women to call upon,” she explains. As for the experts themselves, the goal is to make them “more visible and powerful within the existing media structures.” Following this approach allows WMC to provide mainstream outlets with the resources to increase women’s bylines and TV air time, with the goal of narrowing the current gender gap.

In addition to changing existing structures, advocacy groups also favor the creation of new outlets. “Creating new platforms is absolutely one route—and with each new expansion of media women come in and create more,” Larris explains. “I’m particularly a fan of podcasting,” she continues, “but there are plenty more new types of media that grow and expand and provide new opportunities for previously unheard voices to tell their stories.” For its part, WMC has developed several platforms designed to increase attention to women’s issues. These include “WMC Live with Robin Morgan,” a radio show with one of the center’s founders, and F-Bomb, a feminist pop-culture blog for a younger audience.

New platforms have also proliferated across digital spaces over the past decade, as print publications have largely been replaced by online equivalents. Beginning in 2007 with the launch of Jezebel, a Gawker Media property geared towards young women and branded around the concept of “no airbrushing,” these platforms have thrived on immediacy and shareability. Websites like Slate Magazine’s Double X, The Hairpin and xoJane have become forums where women’s issues are discussed and debated, and where the lack of representation in more mainstream media is addressed. With the increase in women’s media spaces, the field has become self-reflective, questioning the editorial value of soft topics like fashion and lifestyle. This is not to suggest that those topics have fallen by the wayside. Far from it, in fact. Rather, as the field has expanded it has also diversified, creating a media landscape that caters to a broader female audience and is the subject of its own critique.

Although these outlets don’t necessarily shy away from writing about soft topics, they do so with a critical eye, often presenting multiple viewpoints on the same issue. This is particularly the case with regard to fashion and sex, topics that are tackled repeatedly with a focus on inclusion and diversity. When former xoJane beauty editor Cat Marnell wrote about using an emergency contraceptive as her main form of birth control in 2011, her article was shared, discussed, and critiqued all over the women-focused spaces of the Internet. And while most of those who responded disagreed with her point of view, the conversation evolved to include follow-up articles from Marnell and other writers discussing the realities of sex and birth control for young women in the new millennium.

Comment threads and moderated discussions have created communities that shape editorial decisions as much as they shape the readers themselves.

The conversations that took place as a result of Marnell’s article also reflected the social structures of emerging media spaces. Comment threads and moderated discussions have created communities that shape editorial decisions as much as they shape the readers themselves. Although this symbiosis has always been present in the relationship between media and consumer, the ability to connect readers and editors in an immediate and sustained way has amplified its power, making publishers more accountable for their editorial decisions.

Three years after Helen Gurley Brown’s death, women’s media seems poised for another reassessment. As new platforms offer new opportunities and challenges, reflecting on the ever-changing landscape is imperative for developing productive conversations. The recent shift in Cosmopolitan’s editorial strategy, and the popularity of articles like Marnell’s, suggest that while sex and fashion continue to be important topics for women, coverage of these topics now focuses less on pleasure and more on how they intersect with broader social issues. This is partly because Gurley Brown’s efforts mean that women’s sexual agency is no longer a revolutionary idea. It’s also because the current political climate has rekindled an interest in women’s reproductive and professional rights. Above all, the shift shows how far women’s media has come in the past 50 years and reminds us of the importance of filling in the gaps as we move forward.

View a timeline of “The History of Women’s Media.” “Beyond Slingbacks & Sex Tips: The Future of Women’s Media” is a feature that originally appeared in the Future issue.