Tag Archives: women’s magazines

Letters to the Editor / Писма до Редакцията

Last month, I wrote a post on the grande dame of Bulgarian woman’s magazines, Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY). While working on a longer essay on Zhenata DNES as it was published in 1960, I thought I would offer some tidbits from the January-April issues of that year. However much things have changed the world over since 1960, much does—as the saying goes—stay the same.

The Letters to the Editor column is not offered in every issue, but the Zhenata DNES editorial staff clearly take the time to guide their troubled readers with lengthy and detailed responses. Here is a letter from a 19-year old who has fallen in love with an older, married man. The answer is quite firm about how she must proceed.

What to do?

I love a married man with two children. He also loves me. He and his wife haven’t understood one another for many years. He says that he agrees to divorce, but is scared that I am unable to care for his children who he loves very much. But it’s not like that. I love the children, I constantly think of them and him. I often walk to the school in order to see them without them knowing.

In spite of being 19 years old, I think that if I become their mother I will look after them as one should and I will love them even more. But the father of the children sees my love and now is hiding himself. He says that he has to break off everything. But I can’t do that and am even more infatuated. B.I.B–Pleven

Answer

When a love is wrongly directed, it ordinarily carries more regrets and grief. Naturally at your age, you should come to love some appropriate for you young man. When you connected with this married man with two children, of course you hoped that he would marry you. You hoped, but not he as well. Now that your relationship has deepened and he is faced with the need to decide, he starts to pull back. So think for yourself—did this father really just now notice that he has two children and that you won’t be able to raise them? This is simply a specious pretext to break a frivolously started connection that already weighs on him.

Even if you were to marry this man, the situation is not going to be a happy one. The two children are already older, students, presumably the difference between you and them is no more than ten years. They will never be able to forget the mother who gave birth to them. For them, no matter how old you grow, you will always be the “the other woman” who drove Mama from the home.

Now it seems to you that you will never be able to go on without this person. But time will pass, your mind will ease, you will forget, and you will be satisfied that you didn’t take a mistaken step in your life.

The editors include reader letters raising a wide range of topics, many quite sensitive. Communist countries took pride in promoting women’s equality in the workplace and in the professions, but ideology tended to leave the domestic front untouched. In practice, this meant that women could work all day as doctors, factory floor managers or building railroad lines, but still be expected to cook the meals and do the laundry. Whether in 1960 Bulgaria, there was still somehow an ethos of empowering women in their personal lives is hard to say, but the editors at Zhenata DNES not only legitimize their readers’ desires to take their lives into their own hands but urge them to take action.

One reader wrote in desperation of the terrible physical abuse she endured from her husband and the admonition of all around her that divorce was too shameful to consider. The editors at length advise her that while marriage required a spouse to compromise to some degree, in no way did it require one to tolerate abuse; she should ignore those around her, obtain a divorce, and live a life worthy of her. Another young wife married at age 15 and left school, but enjoys books. However, her husband hates books, maintains that wives don’t need them, and forbids her to read. In a lengthy and detailed answer, the editors encouragingly explain that books are valuable and for everyone—not simply the well educated. They propose a strategy in which the wife should try to find out her husband’s interests (say, metallurgy or agriculture) and get books for him to read either on his own or by the two together, thereby gradually acclimating him to the value and pleasure of reading.

A related column offers readers the opportunity to ask health-related questions to be answered by a doctor. The idea that purging the body provides health benefits didn’t start with today’s celebrities, but has gone in and out of fashion since perhaps time immemorial. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the older brother of the Corn Flakes™ inventor, presided over a sanitarium whose aim was to cleanse patients of the toxins in their bodies—chief among the methods used was the application of many enemas. European wellness culture had its own love of the purge and the cleanse, so it’s not surprising that one1960 Zhenata DNES reader asked, “Is it harmful to frequently use laxatives?” “Yes,” firmly said the doctor Zhenata DNES had answer such questions, “instead drink mineral water containing sulphur, for example the Sofia mineral water.”

A Communist country can have an uneasy relationship with the idea of material possessions. On the one hand is the idea of communal and national ownership, on the other the belongings of an individual. One the one hand is the idea of raising the standard of living to meet or exceed that of the capitalist West, on the other is the ability to produce products that can accomplish just that. A periodic Zhenata DNES column promotes household items that a woman cannot really run her household effectively without. In one issue, “Необходими помощници в домакинството” (“Necessary helpers in the household”) begins:

The more kitchen pots and utensils a homemaker has at her disposal, the more pleasant and easy her work will be, the less time she will use in preparing food, and the better hygiene requirements will be met…

No brand names are being proffered, but the message is clear—you need to buy more things so your life will be better. Were state factories making those vaunted kitchen pots and utensils? Could they be found in state stores in enough quantity? Could my mother-in-law, in 1960 living in one room with my father-in-law and using a communal kitchen, even find a place to store more than an absolute minimum of household goods? If readers submitted such questions, Zhenata DNES didn’t find it politic to publish them.

The Woman Today / Жената Днес

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.

spam-and-limas”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.

Ladies' Home JournalThe 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.

1960_01In 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.