"Feminists do the best Photoshop": the independent women's magazines getting it right

As <em>Bust</em> magazine celebrates its 20th birthday, Anna Carey writes in praise of the women's magazines that avoid the diets and the circle of shame in favour of stuff women might actually be interested in, like swearing and graphic novels and femini

The first time I saw an issue of Bust, back in 1998, I thought it was too good to be true. The cover showed Jon Spencer, frontman of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and his equally cool wife Christina Martinez of Boss Hogg, and the cover line read “This is girls on sex. Any questions?” The magazine’s tagline was “For women with something to get off their chests”, and it was aimed at young women who loved indie music and feminism and charity shop dresses, who had grown up with zines as well as Just Seventeen. It was, in fact, aimed at people like me, and I loved it.

This week, Bust will celebrate its 20th birthday with a party attended by former cover stars Kathleen Hanna and Gloria Steinem. The magazine’s survival is particularly impressive given that back in 2001 it was briefly bought by a publishing company that then went, well, bust. But co-founders Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel bought back the title, and now release six issues of Bust every year. Everyone from Mindy Kaling and Beth Ditto to Helen Mirren and Missy Elliott has graced its cover; Tina Fey did so in 2004 and wrote about the shoot in her memoir Bossypants, saying “feminists do the best Photoshop”.  

But perhaps what’s most surprising in an age where we’re constantly being told print is dead is that Bust is not alone. In fact, the last few years have seen the emergence of several new independent women’s magazines, from the dreamy Oh, Comely and the elegant, grown-up Libertine to the fresh, funny Frankie. These aren’t lo-fi zines; they’re all beautifully designed and produced on high quality paper. They’re not trying to be hugely political or radical, and they follow the classic women’s magazine template; they have fashion spreads and features on new products. They just assume women are interested in reading about stuff like swearing and graphic novels and feminism and space travel.

Recently on this very site Rhiannon and Holly wrote about their ideal women’s magazine, and in many ways these titles fulfill their requirements. They’re not perfect, of course. Most of them are quite white, straight and middle class (although Bust has always showcased a comparatively wide range of ages, sexualities, body types and ethnicities). And Oh Comely and Frankie can tend towards the twee, which is fine by me but which some may find off-putting.

But they’re all smart and imaginative, and they don’t lecture or berate their readers. Oh Comely’s motto is “Keep your curiosity sacred”, and the latest issue includes pieces on both pregnancy and Mogwai. The beautiful first issue of Libertine had a “space and science” theme; the second issue’s theme was history. Recent Frankie features include a history of big hair and a homage to female anger; the latter’s author writes, “Maybe I’d be smiling more if I didn’t live in a world where even the action of my facial muscles is supposed to be pleasingly bland and non-threatening. Didn’t think of that, did you, weird old dude at the fruit market!”

I cherish these titles. It’s not that I don’t love internet publications – I’ve been writing stuff online since the nineties. But magazines are special, which is why people keep starting them. Nothing beats the tactile and aesthetic pleasure they inspire, and I love that, unlike a website, each issue is self-contained, an individual parcel full of potentially interesting and beautiful things. I love the whole idea of magazines. I just want them to be, you know, good. I want to feel like they’re written for women like me.

On the rare occasions when that happens, I fall in love. It happened a few times in my teens and early twenties, when I was besotted by the groundbreaking American teenage mag Sassy, hilarious British glossy Minx and, before it descended into self-referential smugness, former Sassy editor Jane Pratt’s women’s magazine Jane. I’m 37 now, and I’ll probably never feel as strongly about magazines as I did back then.

But I look forward to every issue of these new ladymags. They not only give me something lovely to look at, they entertain and inform me. They may inspire me to spend money, but it’s more likely to be on the books and music recommended in Bust’s extensive review pages than on clothes or make-up. Unlike some mainstream women’s publications, these magazines don’t make me dissatisfied or irritated. They make me want to make more and read more and do more. They make me happy. I hope they all last for another twenty years.

Now read about the ideal women's magazine, as imagined by Rhiannon and Holly 

 

Tina Fey's "Bust" magazine cover from 2004. She wrote in her memoir that "feminists do the best Photoshop".
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.