The Women’s Library in east London’s Aldgate is a fantastic source of historical and cultural information. For this show, it has drawn on its extensive magazine archive, starting with the first women’s periodical, The Ladies’ Mercury, which launched in 1693. Intriguingly, not much seems to change. Hairstyles and hemlines come and go, but the messages on the covers are similar. There’s worthy and practical, like the 1929 cover of Woman and Home, where a husband sporting trench coat and pipe beholds his bescarfed lady half way up a stepladder (there’s a bit of Romeo and Juliet in this one). And then there’s the overtly sexual. Even in its 1972 launch issue, Cosmopolitan’s cover displayed a deeply cleavaged blonde alongside the cover lines ‘I was a sleep-around girl’ and ‘How to turn a man on when he’s having problems in bed’. 1972 was also the year that feminist bible Spare Rib arrived and offered an altogether different version of womanhood – reportage-style, uncoiffed, and black and white. But even that boasted the cover line ‘How to grow up in the bosom boom’. The content of most women’s magazines – particularly today – is so uninspiring as to be insulting to any reader’s intelligence, but that’s not to put their design down. From Woman Today in the 1940s to the illustrated music magazine Boyfriend 20 years later, these are graphic nostalgia trips for even the most hardened feminist.
Between the Covers: Women’s Magazines and their Readers is at The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, Old Castle Street, London E1, until 25 April 2009