I avidly read the column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in my grandmother’s monthly Ladies’ Home Journal magazine whenever we visited her. I was in elementary school when this interest was sparked so either I was precociously preparing for what might lie ahead or being a voyeur into other lives in perhaps the most conservative way possible. “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and idly looking at the covers while waiting my turn in the grocery line are the sum total of my experience with women’s magazines.
Recently, however, I bought two 1942 copies of women’s magazines as a birthday present for my mother—the idea being that she could browse and see what her mother may well have been reading in the year my mother was born. There was also the aspect of seeing how far women have—and have not—come. Leafing through them at this remove of time piqued my interest. As I noted in an earlier post, it is often true that I find myself thinking about or surprised by steps that seem to inexorably lead to Bulgaria. My brother-in-law was a fashion and interior photographer and Bulgarian women’s magazines were often clients.
Some of the women’s magazines in the United States have been around since the 19th century. Ladies’ Home Journal managed to last 131 years before it acknowledged it could not be saved and folded in summer 2014. Given the category’s monthly publication schedule, news is not the business of women’s magazines, be they considered “service” or fashion, for suburban mothers of young children or urban singles. The operative question is the “how to.” How to dress, how to cook nutritiously, how to diet, how to save time/how to shop, how to travel, how to improve sex/relationships/appearance/parenting as a verb/maximizing time to oneself because you deserve it.
”Women’s service” magazines were traditionally aimed at stay-at-home mothers with a need for laborsaving devices, relationship-preserving ideas and innovative ways to satisfy children clamoring for food. There are plenty of recipes that would never be included in an actual cookbook, courtesy of the ads for various canned and packaged food that encouraged women to just add lima beans to spam for an instant wholesome meal.
Looking at the vintage copies made me wonder about the existence of such magazines in Bulgaria and how Communist ideology and control affected the approach to Bulgarian women with children clamoring for food and who had concerns about appearance, relationships, and laborsaving devices despite living in a worker’s paradise with a standard of living that was constantly sold as far higher than that in the mythically degenerate West on the verge of collapse. But who wouldn’t be still better off with a washing machine and canned pork seasoned with potato starch and sodium nitrite?
Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY) is perhaps the oldest women’s service magazine in Bulgaria still in publication. From its inception in the mid-1940s, the monthly magazine is now—according to its website—“a 70-year institution for generations of Bulgarian women.” For the first 45 of those years, it operated in a highly-restricted environment under a government that viewed all media as key to maintenance of Communist party power. After all, Vladimir Lenin had clearly said in 1901: “A newspaper should not only be a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.” Like all publications, Жената ДНЕС was in many ways a means to a political end.
But not entirely. If the publication had to meet political standards, Жената ДНЕС as well had to be sufficiently interesting, relevant, and appealing to the women it targeted. The cover, the features, the regular columns, the supplements, the photography were carefully planned to be familiar and recognizable enough to build readership and distinctive enough to attract purchasers at the newsstand.
The differences between, say, Ladies’ Home Journal and Жената ДНЕС in the latter’s first 45 years are clear. For most of those years, the cover of Жената ДНЕС displayed only the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date and number, and the notation “published by the Committee of Bulgarian Women.” The price of each issue must have been noted at the newsstand because it appears nowhere on the cover. It’s not at all clear how to obtain a subscription, though subscriptions to magazines were possible. There are no advertisements anywhere. This may seem obvious in a Communist country, but in fact the government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was careful to set up a number of branded products in such categories as cigarettes, book series, alcohol, household cleaners, and sweets. Advertisements did appear from time to time in other media.
The January issue of Ladies’ Home Journal displays the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date, and the following cover lines: Pat Boone Talks, The Burning Eye Condenses Complete Novel In This Issue, How to Lose 125 Pounds and Stay Thin, Lovable, Wonderful Dr. Spock, and Teen Age Report to the Nation Are They Beat…Boho…or? The four-color, glossy paper issue is filled with advertisements.
In many ways, however, the magazines are strikingly similar. Principally they are aspirational. They show people and lifestyles to aspire to and direction on how to achieve those aspirations. The January 1960 issue of Жената ДНЕС shows an airbrushed pretty woman with stylishly short hair, red lipstick, and blue earings perfectly matching her blue sweater. Her age is indeterminate—anywhere from late 20s to early 40s–maximizing the number of readers who could see themselves in her if they could just find out where she got that lipstick. Turn the page and you see the very first article “More Women in Leadership Positions in [Agricultural Collectives].”
Yes, even in 1960 in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria women are promised that they can have it all; they can lead the country to a new stage in agricultural production and when they’re done can look perfectly put together with nary a wrinkle or sunspot from all that outdoor hard physical labor.
Turn the page and celebrate the “50th Anniversary of the International Day of the Woman” with a two-page spread of three short pieces. One shows a historical photo a well-dressed young beauty, born of a poor family, who rose—just as surely as the Жената ДНЕС reader might similarly rise—to become a brave revolutionary serving now as an example to all women. Another is titled “Towards Freedom, Towards Light,” as aspirational as a headline could possibly be.
Leaf through further pages and read a variety short fiction, a poem or two, a first-person account of a factory weaver and her trainees. International affairs are not ignored with a dutiful spread on some doings in the Soviet Union. “By demand of our readers,” there is a profile of Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-American singer famed for her five-octave range; Жената ДНЕС was careful to excise the “American” half of that identity, despite Sumac being an American citizen by the time the profile appeared.
Television was praised though almost no Bulgarian at that time had seen one. Reader letters are given their due as are education of preschool children, hygiene in flu season, and advice for the housewife. A cartoon has one man complaining to another “The more women rise up in leadership, the more it’s frustrating that they are always busy.” The issue makes space for a “Style” section with photos of modern fashions credited to the West German sewing magazine Neue Schnitt, the monthly Sybylle from East Germany (“the Vogue of the East”), the French Modes & Travaux (a monthly dating back to 1919), and the Sofia Style Center. The closing spread offers recipes, including nutrition for the breastfeeding mother, and ideas for cardigans and pullovers for everyone in the family.
The parallels between the two publications are clear and unless one counts paper and printing quality, it’s difficult to say that is one is more sophisticated than the other or serves its intended public better. It seems no matter the time period or the political environment in which they operate, women’s service magazines are an institution for generations of women. No matter how many recipes have been served up or fashion advice disseminated, how many relationships saved or leadership positions flaunted, the women’s service magazine reader is always in need of a little more help.