The day after Hillary Clinton landed a devastating blow to Donald Trump over his history of sexism and crass comments about Alicia Machado at the first presidential debate, Cosmopolitan released an eerily well-timed profile of the former Miss Universe contestant.
It’s a slice of a new brand of feminist media afloat — one that’s not afraid to be political. Hillary Clinton has noticed.
“Look, she wrote a post for the Toast,” New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister told me earlier this summer about Clinton’s farewell post to the now-shuttered site home to feminist musings. “She has been very interested in young feminist writers in a way that suggests to me she understands that there is another media in play and it’s a feminist media.”
There has been a tangible shift in the kind of content produced by women’s magazines in recent elections. In the past decade, publications have shifted from a period of fluff election coverage in the early aughts to a platform for impactful political content, from interviews with important figures in the election to sharp policy analyses.
For instance, Katy Tur wrote an essay for Marie Claire on her experience covering Donald Trump for NBC, which captured the harassment from the campaign trail:
Trump called me naïve. He told me I didn't know what I was talking about. He shamed me when I stumbled on a question. And when the cameras shut off, he was furious. He didn't like my questions, which were direct, or my tone, which was conversational.
But women’s media often faces the obstacle of not being taken seriously in the political landscape — yes, even in an election that saw presidential candidates arguing about the size of their penises.
“If [Katy Tur’s piece] had been in The Atlantic it would have been perceived in a very different way,” Morra Aarons-Mele, the founder of Women Online and former Democratic political consultant, said. Perhaps it would have broken out of the old-media stigma of frivolity placed around women’s magazines.
Recognizing the power of women’s media, however, can prove consequential for candidates looking to mobilize young female voters.
Pieces that would be huge scoops in more mainstream outlets
This campaign season has seen a spate of insightful political pieces in women’s media — some of which have been overlooked by political pundits and news analysis sources alike.
When you start to look, you’ll see some the most formative pieces of this election cycle — major interviews and editorials:
- Cosmopolitan’s Prachi Gupta has had a triad of striking interviews in recent weeks, including an interview with Ivanka Trump on parental leave, which ended abruptly after Gupta pressed Ivanka on some holes in her proposed policy and resulted in Ivanka’s worst news cycle of the whole campaign. Cosmo also published an interview with Chelsea Clinton about Trump’s attacks on Bill Clinton’s infidelity and Hillary Clinton’s health and a profile of Alicia Machado.
- President Barack Obama penned an op-ed about his feminism in Glamour in August:
Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard. … It’s important for them to see role models out in the world who climb to the highest levels of whatever field they choose. And yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.
- Essence editor in chief Vanessa K. De Luca interviewed Hillary Clinton before the debates on how she plans to address issues important to black women — and how Clinton plans to energize the African-American vote after eight years of President Obama.
- Marie Claire published an in-depth story about the intersection between women voters and the gun debate, a traditionally male-dominated subject, partnering with the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and surveying more than 5,000 women on what they think about gun laws.
- In July, Marie Claire’s sister publication in Mexico ran a cover story asking Ivanka Trump to “protect us from your father.”
- Alex Kuczynski wrote the first profile of Melania Trump this election season for Harper’s Bazaar, which shed light on Melania’s relationship with Donald Trump and with the presidential campaign:
"I'm choosing not to go political in public because that is my husband's job. I'm very political in private life, and between me and my husband I know everything that is going on. I follow from A to Z," [Melania] affirms. "But I chose not to be on the campaign. I made that choice. I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me."
- Lenny, Lena Dunham’s feminist blog and newsletter, published an interview with Hillary Clinton, an op-ed about gun laws by Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and an interview with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, among others.
- And the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller wrote a profile of Huma Abedin for Vogue, capturing the woman behind the first female major party presidential nominee.
Some of these pieces reached an audience in the political press. But a lot of them didn’t. And nearly all of these interviews or pieces might be considered huge scoops in more mainstream publications.
Women’s magazines are publishing “seminal” pieces, says Lea Goldman, Refinery29’s editorial director and former executive editor at Marie Claire.
“Marie Claire might not do the exposé on Trump’s campaign donations like the Washington Post, but it’s the women of the campaign that we are starting to meet,” Goldman said.
There has been a tangible shift recently in women’s magazines
Though one could argue women’s magazines are inherently political, with magazines like Ms. sounding the voice of women’s liberation in the mid-20th century, it’s no secret that toward the end of the century they earned more of a reputation for offering silly sex advice than a sharp political viewpoint.
But in 2014, Cosmopolitan magazine made a big statement: It was not only going to cover midterm elections and delve into politics with #CosmoVotes — its politics vertical — it was also only going to endorse pro-choice candidates.
“What we’re trying to say is, ‘Think about the issues that are important to you, and if you want to have a voice, then you need to use your voice. It’s all very well to sit back and complain, but you don’t have a right to complain if you don’t use your vote’,” Cosmopolitan magazine editor in chief Joanna Coles told Politico at the time.
The shift with Cosmopolitan, and with this growing spate of young feminist magazines, cuts through the fluff of the early aughts — what Aarons-Mele calls a “dead zone” for serious content in women’s publications — and allows for impactful political journalism with a pro-woman angle.
“I remember in the ’90s working on the election effort, there was always the token election coverage, but the difference was that it didn’t take a point of view,” Aarons-Mele said. “Women’s magazines, in the past couple of years, have resumed their mantle of where thoughtful journalism can live. For younger women they are normalizing being involved in politics, they are pushing a pro-choice, pro-women agenda.”
In an election where the Republican candidate has a long history of showing disrespect to women, it’s even harder for women’s magazines to sit on their hands. For Republican women, some of whom may not agree with women’s magazines’ more liberal-leaning policy issues like abortion rights, there’s a relatable message of empowerment. (Donald Trump’s hire in campaign manager Kellyanne Conway — a real leader for Republican women and author of What Women Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live — signals that he is at least aware that he has a problem with female voters.)
Quite simply, women’s magazines are making the more than obvious point that women aren’t stupid, Goldman says — their reporters can ask the tough questions and highlight hypocrisy in politics. “Yes, historically [women’s magazines] haven’t risen to the occasion, but readers expect more, and when they don’t get it they vote with their feet,” Goldman says.
And it’s not just the staid brands of Glamour and Cosmo but a new generation of feminist media outlets like Lena Dunham’s Lenny, Refinery29, or the Toast (which has since shut down). These new voices present a fresh and raw take for progressive millennial women — a “renegade sensibility,” as Goldman puts it.
“Women are looking for more venues where they can see themselves,” she said, and new feminist voices in the media are able to give old-media publications a good temperature read on what women are looking for.
Are women’s magazines starting to be taken seriously? Maybe that’s not the point.
On some level it’s hard to question whether or not these women-focused outlets are taken seriously. Taken seriously by whom?
“It’s a huge double standard,” Aarons-Mele will tell you. We certainly haven’t reached the point where Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire’s political reporters will be featured on Meet the Press as a serious voice over reporters from the Washington Post or the New Yorker.
But maybe that’s not the point; the fact that more weight has been given to politics in women’s magazines is influential. There is certainly an appetite among young women, especially young progressive women, and there is an incredible power to that.
“Women’s magazines are secret weapons,” Goldman says. “You get to read them in safe spaces, where you could address serious issues — sexual assault, abortion, wage equity.”
And the true test of seriousness is whether the focus on politics will mobilize voters, particularly millennials. Women’s magazines across the board have joined the #OurVoteCounts initiative to get out voter registration.
Clinton’s campaign seems to recognize this. “They have a growing operation that is reaching young progressives — young feminists. The cultural zeitgeist is so clearly with the Clinton campaign,” Aarons-Mele says. As it stands, there is no question Clinton has the lead with women voters, but she still has work to do with millennials. While about two-thirds of millennial voters view Trump unfavorably, many, still enamored of the Sanders campaign, are considering third-party candidates.
Harnessed correctly, feminist and women’s media could be Clinton’s not-so-secret secret weapon to get out the vote.