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Terry McDonell: How Women Changed the Media

10 minute read
McDonell is the author of The Accidental Life and former editor of many magazines, including Sports Illustrated, Esquire and Rolling Stone

Besides the top job—editor in chief, it was usually called—there were five key masthead positions on every magazine: art director, managing editor, copy chief, research editor and photo editor.

At every place I worked except Sports Illustrated, at least three (and often four) of those five jobs were done by women. At Rolling Stone, the three editors directly below me, the art director and the photo editor were all women—and they were not “the kind of girls who get high with their cats,” as I once heard female staffers at RS described.

It might sound condescending, sexist even, to write that those women were all creative and tough and thoughtful beyond any cliché about making the trains run on time (although they did that too), but that’s the way I remember them. “She’s a great number two” was what you heard about strong women editors, which was usually true, but at the same time there was nothing more patronizing. Tellingly, applying the same praise to a man would have been devastating—which underlines a lack of fairness when it came to moving to the top of the masthead.

Magazine mastheads have always reflected the lack of equality in the separate-but-never-equalness of the men’s and women’s magazines themselves. You could define the difference by the amount of so-called service they ran. Women’s magazines were full of advice and how-to pieces, many written by women who would have preferred covering politics to comparison-shopping for panty hose. Men’s magazines were understood to be more serious and ran journalism and important fiction. Perhaps men didn’t need any advice.

Until the 1960s, most of the women’s magazines were even edited by men, most notably John Mack Carter, a diminutive Kentuckian and “bluegrass evangelist” for women’s magazines, according to Advertising Age. John Mack, as he was known, arrived at work one morning in 1970 to find his office at the Ladies’ Home Journal occupied by dozens of feminists demanding his resignation, as well as services like day care for staffers’ children. Some were sitting on his desk smoking cigars. He wasn’t about to give up his job, but he listened for eleven hours. “There was more discrimination than I thought,” he said later.

John Mack also edited McCall’s and, ultimately, Good Housekeeping—the other top women’s titles in the “Big Three”—making him theoretically the most important shaper of women’s magazines from the 1960s into the ’90s, when he stepped down. They were “badly behind the times,” he told the New York Times in an interview in 1963. “They were using baby talk to communicate with their readers.” But the earth had already moved, so to speak, in 1962 when Helen Gurley Brown, a forty-year-old advertising copywriter and self-described “mouseburger,” published Sex and the Single Girl.

It was an immediate best seller, although, preposterously, Helen was barred from saying “sex” during her afternoon television appearances, which made it impossible for her to mention the book’s title. She was soon a favorite on The Tonight Show, where she told Johnny Carson, “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” And maybe Natalie Wood, playing Helen, even slept with Tony Curtis’s character in the movie—which contributed further to what Helen called “the hullabaloo.”

It was a moment. Helen worked up a prototype of a women’s magazine and started showing it around. Gone were the etiquette tips and recipes. Her frank and hilarious observations about young women were both shocking and obvious. Of course they liked sex, and wasn’t it more interesting than the search for the perfect Jell-O salad? These women needed a magazine, and Helen became editor in chief of Cosmopolitan in 1965 with no editing experience. In its initial incarnation, in 1886, Cosmo was a “first-class family magazine”; it later became literary, publishing writers like George Bernard Shaw and Sinclair Lewis. But by the 1960s it was in economic free fall. Helen’s prototype and energy made her new Cosmo an immediate success. Her first issue sold out, featuring an article on the (then-new) birth control pill. She said her readers were single career women, and she was the first magazine editor to suggest having it all: “love, sex, and money.”

Helen’s Cosmo was famously ridiculed to be about orgasms, but it was also about health, careers, self-improvement, celebrities, fashion and beauty, and about being clear about what you wanted. Running pieces about orgasms was just smart editing: take something that is true but not talked about (premarital sex) and blow it out: Sleep with the boss? Why not?! Feminists branded her as anti-feminist at first but most came around: Don’t use men to get what you want in life. Get it yourself. If P. J. O’Rourke was a pants-down Republican, Helen was a feminist in a minidress and fishnet stockings.

When I arrived at Hearst to edit Esquire, Helen was the star of the company. In the late sixties and early seventies, Helen’s Cosmo made greater profits than all the dozen or so other Hearst titles combined. That year, 1990, her newsstand sales averaged over two million copies and total ad revenue was over $150 million, not counting the 27 foreign editions. She asked me to take her to lunch (an important distinction for Cosmo girls), and told me over her salad that the most important attribute for an editor was confidence. I wasn’t to let our adorable Hearst executives buffalo me. And I should stay close to my readers. One way Helen stayed close to hers was by riding the M10 bus down Central Park West to work every morning. And you know what? Those readers liked it when she got a little outrageous. And liked it best when they got real information.

Helen never carried cash, at least not when we went to publishing receptions, as we did sometimes. At some point during what were always cocktail events, she’d ask for “a fin for the ladies’ room.” The next morning there would arrive by messenger a crisp five-dollar bill and a short thank-you in her beautiful hand. Before she died in 2012, she and her husband, film producer David Brown, had donated $30 million to establish the Brown Institute for Media Innovation as a joint venture between Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Stanford University School of Engineering. When I heard about that, I thought of Helen riding the M10 to work while black radio cars were dropping the other editors in chief in front of the Hearst building. And I doubt it still shocks, but when I read a recent Cosmo headline about penis size, I noted that the piece also included real information, the kind Helen always insisted on: “[Ed. note: the average penis size is 3.61 inches flaccid and 5.16 inches erect.]”

The women I worked with when I was a young editor didn’t read Cosmo or any other women’s magazines except Ms. and the fashion titles—and I looked at those, too. They read what I read: the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the Face, the New York Review of Books, the Paris Review, New York, the Village Voice, the New American Review and the newspapers. Most of those magazines are still around and if you look at the mastheads you will find many women executive editors, deputy editors, managing editors, Web editors, mobile editors, art directors, copy chiefs, research editors, photo editors . . . Too bad only two of those magazines are edited by women (Harper’s editor Ellen Rosenbush; Mother Jones editor in chief Clara Jeffery).

But before we put another nail in the self-carved coffins of the magazine business, note that two warhorse legacy titles now have women running the edit: Susan Goldberg at National Geographic and, at Time, the exquisite writer Nancy Gibbs, who was hired there as a part-time fact-checker in 1985. Vice magazine’s editor in chief is former intern Ellis Jones, who when she got the job in 2015 said, “Expect writing by even more female correspondents; expect new fiction and photojournalism and columns by big-name writers; and expect even more in-depth reports from global hot spots.” That same year the Guardian got its first female editor in chief, Katharine Viner. Marcia McNutt became the first female editor in chief of Science Magazine in 2013.

If you look at digital-first operations, you see more women: Yahoo News (Megan Liberman, editor in chief ); Slate (Julia Turner, editor in chief ); CNN Digital (Meredith Artley, editor in chief ); Politico (Susan Glasser, editor); and Refinery29 (Christene Barberich, founding editor in chief ). And forget not Arianna Huffington, on top of her eponymous website that for the second year in a row (2015 and 2014, according to the Women’s Media Center) had the highest percentage of female bylines: 53 percent of contributors were women. Those same years, the awarding of bachelor’s degrees in communications (where journalism usually lives) was even more lopsided: men 37.5 percent, women 62.5 percent; master’s degrees: men 32.4 percent, women 67.6 percent.

These are all rosy developments but other appallingly less optimistic research (by the Nieman Foundation) shows that back in 1998, 36.9 percent of journalists were women; that figure was 37.2 percent in 2013. Two years later, the Women’s Media Center analyzed 27,758 pieces of news content (TV, print, Internet, wires) and found that 62.1 percent was produced by men. As Ms. Magazine cofounder Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Women’s magazines have been covering so-called women’s issues—abortion, sexual health, domestic violence—for a long time, and often out in front of newsweeklies and newspapers run by men and subject to both gender-driven cluelessness and editorial arbitrariness. At the same time, it is very hard to find female journalists who buy into the idea of women’s issues in the first place. That these issues are only for women because they are covered more aggressively in magazines like Marie Claire or Elle is a distinction as absurd as the idea that nobody reads them. But then . . .

Robbie Myers, editor in chief of American Elle since 2000, has a story about giving a Delacorte Lecture at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2008. She talked about the mix of stories and fine writing that gives her magazine its distinctive voice. During the requisite Q&A, a guy raised his hand. “I had no idea that you did ten thousand words on Senator Obama,” he said. “How do you feel about the fact that nobody reads it?”

Myers pointed out that she had an audience of 20 million across print and digital in the United States alone and that American Elle was the largest syndicator of content in the Elle network of 45 editions. “We have hundreds of millions of women around the world,” she said. “I’m sorry that you think we’re nobody.” The last time Myers told this story, it was for a 2015 piece about her in Women’s Wear Daily, so “nobody” probably read that, either.

From the book THE ACCIDENTAL LIFE by Terry McDonell, copyright 2016 by Terry McDonell. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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