Is there still a place for women’s pages in the media?

Not for us ladyfolk the stern black and white logic of the business pages! Not for us the brain-taxing Sudoku, with its spiky numbers and glaring empty boxes, says Natalie Guest.

This week, the Telegraph has unveiled its new women’s pages, entitled (CRINGE ALERT) “Wonder Woman”; a section offering “irreverent and intelligent writing about politics, business, family, life and sex.” An introductory blog explains:

All too often ‘women’s content’ is either lipsticks and handbags or BMW - bitching, moaning and whining about the ‘plight of being a woman’ – a tone of coverage this generation of women rarely identify with or enjoy reading.

Wonder Women, with its raft of brilliant writers defined by their reactive, witty and honest style, aims to articulate views which will get both women and men fired up, shine a light on individuals, issues and stories people will want to discuss with their mates down the pub and crucially, make readers laugh too.

Definitely a laudable goal, and one which those of us sick of “lifestyle” pieces about dieting and manicures can certainly identify with. But is there still a place for so-called women’s pages, and isn’t there something a little regressive about the entire concept?

The argument most often raised against women’s pages (along with women’s television programmes, and women’s radio shows) is that they are necessarily divisive, bringing with them an implication that women aren’t welcome amongst the other pages of the paper, and must be relegated into their own glossy pull-out harem. Not for us ladyfolk the stern black & white logic of the business pages! Not for us the brain-taxing Sudoku, with its spiky numbers and glaring empty boxes! No, the women need their own special place, full of pretty pictures of shoes (ALL WOMEN LOVE SHOES) and tearful confessions about lost love (ALL WOMEN LOVE TEARS).

As Wonder Women rightfully points out, the view of womanhood espoused by these pages is all-too often a patronising and outmoded one. We’re still dealing with a 50s housewife hangover, where every article is built around how to please a man, or make a good pavlova. Pavlovas have no place in modern-day society. I mean, what even IS a pavlova?

In an ideal world, of course, the media (and, indeed, society at large) would have embraced diversity enough for us not to need segregated content. Unfortunately, that’s a long way off – and if we said goodbye to the women’s page, many important topics simply wouldn’t be covered at all. And with current policies disproportionately affecting women and threatening to erode female bodily autonomy, drawing attention to women’s issues remains as important as ever – which includes covering the superficial as well as the serious.

The difficulty lies in changing the editorial view of what a “women’s page” is; whilst the Telegraph’s manifesto for Wonder Women hits all of the right notes, we’re only two days into publication and they’re already making missteps and lapsing into old bad habits. Take the “Board Babe” series, for example; a weekly column penned by an anonymous high-powered business woman, which raised eyebrows and prodded gag reflexes in the Twitter-sphere today on the publication of their very first article: Secret Diary: Our Board Babe on Naked Ambition. Go ahead and read it; I’ll wait.

Pieces like this are misogyny masquerading as empowerment: the “Board Babe” is set up as a challenger to the patriarchal status quo of the business world, whilst simultaneously being patronised and belittled (in this case, mostly by the sub-editor who chose the headline, although the article is fairly problematic in itself). Despite our writer having ascended to the top levels of the boardroom, she’s still referred as a “babe”, a term that both sexualises and infantilises at once. Her ambition is “naked”; as is she, underneath that trouser suit - because just in case you’d forgotten, women are there to be looked at. And (despite the fact that she presumably has a high degree of expertise and business savvy within her field), the piece is marketed as a titillating “confessional”, as though she’s moonlighting as a high-class hooker in her lunchbreak.

But it doesn’t have to be like this – and there are some real rumblings of change. With the growing popularity of blogs such as Vagenda, Jezebel, The F Word and Bad Reputation, we’re seeing a real desire for writing that deals with the issues of being a woman in a way that’s genuinely funny, fierce, intelligent and empowering (let’s call it the Caitlin Moran school of feminism, for now). From the Vagenda team’s six-figure book deal, to the success of Lena Dunham’s smash HBO hit Girls, to Moran’s own How to Be a Woman, all signs point to the fact that the more mainstream press is sitting up and taking notice of what we’ve known for a very long time: that women are hungry to read things that matter to them, written by people that they identify with.

So, is there still a place for women’s pages? For me, the answer is an unequivocal “YES” - but they need to be progressive, not regressive. Let’s see more women’s pages focusing on what we are, and what we want to be, instead of on what we used to be made to be. Ladies of the world take note: the time for pavlova is over.

The photo is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence. You can view the original here.

In the future, there will be no pavlova. Image from Flickr/AnnCN, used under Creative Commons.

Natalie Guest is a London-based blogger, writing about feminism, current affairs and pop culture; just like all the other girls. Follow her on twitter @unfortunatalie

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.