Working Housewives and Superbitches: British Women’s Magazines of the 1970s

Features / November 6, 2018

Part One: Jackie and Woman’s Own

Over the next several weeks here at Mutant Towers, Richard McKenna and Amy Mugglestone are going to look at a variety of British women’s magazines from 1977 and 1978 to find out what they (the magazines) can tell us about how British women of various ages and backgrounds saw themselves, and how they were seen by the publishers that targeted them. First up: Jackie (November 11, 1978), a magazine for teenage girls, and Woman’s Own (September 2, 1978), a long-running magazine for young women.

It was a strange time for the UK, as the post-war consensus that had defined the country’s sense of self since the Second World War began to fray. During ’77 and ’78, the country celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, firefighters and workers at British Leyland went on strike, and seven more women were murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper. We celebrated the birth of the first “test tube baby,” and ITN’s Anna Ford became Britain’s first female newsreader.

Several TV shows which would become iconic for the British aired for the first time, including Citizen Smith, Children of the Stones, The Professionals, The Krypton Factor, Pennies From Heaven, Blake’s Seven, and Grange Hill, and The Black and White Minstrel Show was broadcast for the last time. The Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks, Abigail’s Party opened in Hampstead Theatre, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began airing on Radio Four, 2000 AD was launched, and Brits were, like everyone else, flocking to see Star Wars at the cinema. 

The Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act, both passed in 1975, nominally protected women from discrimination at work, and from being fired due to pregnancy, but women would not be able to apply for loans or credit in their own names until 1980, a year after the election of the country’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, at the head of a conservative government—which for many was a bittersweet victory for feminism.

At the time, Richard McKenna was a small boy living in South Yorkshire, and Amy Mugglestone was a fetus living in a womb.


MUGGLESTONE: I should probably start by admitting that I don’t read many magazines these days. I’ve always seen them as in some way trying to tell you how to be a woman, and having been one for almost forty years, with varying degrees of success, I don’t really trust anyone who claims to definitively know.

I guess my peak magazine-reading period was during my early teens—so, mid-1990s—when I felt like I needed all the help I could get. I’d always been a tomboy when I was little, but puberty intervened unreasonably early, and by the time I was eleven I was basically a fully-grown woman who occasionally still pretended to be a tank. I was also quite a nerdy child, and when I discovered teen magazines a few years later, I’m sure there was a part of my teenage brain that thought, “Text books on how to be normal! I shall do well here!”—and I read their articles with real seriousness, although of course most of them were filler dreamed up at the last minute by harassed journalists.

But this is the thing about teen magazines. They’re usually seen as silly and frivolous, but those particular harassed journalists had an important role to play, however unqualified they might have been. Of all the people setting themselves up as experts on how to be a woman, the teen magazines were most likely to be taken at their word. A nation of suddenly-busty, not-busty-enough, too-tall, too-short, probably-slightly-spotty teenagers clamored to know if their nipples were weird, if missing their period meant they had been chosen as the vessel of the Christ-child, or if a boy’s testicles really exploded when he got an erection and you wouldn’t have sex with him.

That was my experience reading Just Seventeen in the nineties, anyway. I was interested to see how our copy of Jackie compared. Obviously I expected it would be less sexually explicit, but I guess I’d also assumed there would be correspondingly less boy-lust, and that really wasn’t the case. If anything, Jackie was even more boy-focused than Just Seventeen, which is actually pretty difficult! Just Seventeen at least had some sassy girl idols we were supposed to admire (Clare Danes’s character in My So-Called Life was one, and Darlene from Roseanne), but almost everything in Jackie centers around boys.

And to an extent, sure, that’s the point. I’d be full of shit if I pretended I didn’t buy magazines for the boys (although I guess the girl idols might’ve provided some crumbs for queer girls, for whom the experience must have been pretty alienating). Teen magazines appealed to adolescents curious about things they were too embarrassed to discuss (and their decline has coincided with a more open attitude towards sex on a societal level: nowadays girls just kick straight in with Cosmo), but Jackie doesn’t mention sex a single time (unless we’re given The Talk by The Professionals’ Martin Shaw in the missing center page interview), despite everything in the magazine propelling them towards situations in which they will need to understand about sex.

Clearly, for the Jackie reader, a boyfriend is a desirable thing. It’s taken for granted that she has, or wants one, or at least goes on lots of dates. Most of the featured correspondents and fictional characters have boyfriends, and where his age is mentioned, the boyfriend is older. Couples are shown making out. On the other hand, the Jackie reader is not supposed to show an interest in sex. According to Wikipedia (shut up, everyone uses it!) the majority of reader letters were questions about sex, but none of these were published in the magazine, with correspondents being sent secret sex leaflets instead, because shhhhh! Sex is rude!

But if that isn’t already confusing, our girl is also held responsible for boys’ sexual expectations, via nebulously-defined “flirtatious” behaviors. The closest the magazine comes to mentioning sex is in the “Boys…Boys…Boys!” section, where we’re warned that, “Boys don’t like girls who tease and lead them on. They don’t always understand that flirting is just good fun for a lot of girls who have no intention of going any further.” So, in summary, you should fantasize about boys, but you shouldn’t ask about sex, but you should stop acting in ways that make boys think you want sex. Even though you’re not supposed to know what that is. What the fuck, Jackie? I’m lost.

I’ll be honest, I thought this article would be a bit more “Ooh, look at their funny hair,” but I’m genuinely pretty angry with Jackie. I feel like these girls were cheated out of learning about sex on their own terms. Not only by Jackie, of course. It was, I’m sure people will say, a product of its time, but I don’t feel like that’s fully an excuse. Girls were asking them for help, and the editors acted like they couldn’t hear.

MCKENNA: I can’t help but see Jackie from a very different perspective: this edition came out when I was a schoolboy a couple of weeks short of turning eight and it and its peers were the magazines that my schoolfriend’s older sisters and my babysitters used to read. For that reason, like all the magazines here, really, it retains an impossible glamor for me, no matter how backward, tawdry, and cobbled-together it quite clearly is. Jackie in particular was one I longed to read, even though the ironclad gender ordinances of the late ’70s made that practically impossible. You couldn’t do it in public, like in a dentist’s waiting room; you probably couldn’t borrow one because friendships across the gender divide were, unfortunately, still rare. So, having no big sister basically meant that any contact with the inside of a Jackie was usually pretty fleeting.

It’s a weird artifact, that’s for sure, and one that feels like it’s trapped between two worlds—on the one hand, a bit of exciting, progressive-tinged “you can be you” dreaminess and on the other gloomy, damp, unsexy, sexist British pragmatism, which is summed up pretty brilliantly in ‘You Can Work it Out!’, the fifth part of Jackie‘s specials on careers: it oscillates madly, one minute telling readers “you don’t have to sentence yourself to any kind of work you know isn’t right for you,” only to then remind them that “prospects for young people and school-leavers are so gloomy.” It’s so weirdly pitched, sometimes coming across as quite adult and in other moments as unbelievably silly and juvenile, as if it’s talking to an eight-year-old. I don’t know if that reflects an attempt to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible for purely commercial reasons or whether it’s a reflection of what a teenage girl was presumed to be at the time. As far as I’m aware, there wasn’t really an equivalent for boys. We were just presumed to naturally shift from reading comics about the second world war to darts, motorbikes, aftershave and knowing how to chat up birds when we were 16.

I still find Jackie‘s mixture of disparate graphic styles—which is something you can see across all the magazines we’re going to look at and which typifies the time—extremely compelling, even exciting. It’s a clash that, in Jackie’s case, is made even more intense by the inclusion of comics.

Obviously, Jackie has a different effect on me because I’m in the privileged position of being able to look at it from the outside and not feel like it’s telling teenage me about who I am and what I should do, but you’re right: it’s obvious to modern eyes just how much of it is teaching girls how to fit in around what boys want. Even when it does point out the obvious and says that boys are “just as shy and unsure of themselves as girls,” it implicitly puts the onus on the girls to coach them through their difficulties. That does seem to be a thread that runs through all these magazines: men as both little-boy-losts that women have a responsibility to shepherd through the psychological difficulties of life, and as dominating, impulsive machismo trumpets who must be dealt with like some intractable, unalterable natural phenomenon. It’s like young women were being hit with a guilt-trip/submissiveness double-bind. How do you think Jackie relates to something like Woman’s Own magazine, Amy?

MUGGLESTONE: It’s weird. It never would’ve occurred to me when I was a teenager that boys were just as anxiously trying to find out what girls were like as we were them. I don’t think Jackie really hints at that, either. We’re told that boys have feelings too, but the only examples we’re given are things that fit within the narrow scope of traditional masculinity, like hurt pride and thwarted boners. In the article about the girl whose parents have separated, her brother refuses to show any emotion, and her boyfriend is bored and irritated when she turns to him for comfort. We’re not really allowed to consider that boys feelings are the same sort of feelings as ours, which seems like a shame for everyone. You also mentioned mixed-gender friendships being rare in the ’70s, and I think, on top of that, the early teens seem to be a time when straight kids, at least, self-segregate from the opposite sex and view them less as people and more as dreaded arbiters of desirability.

All this gives Jackie an anxious, claustrophobic air—for me, at least—and reading Woman’s Own is a breath of fresh air in a way I really didn’t expect it to be. It is essentially a housewives’ magazine, and so naturally gender roles are still quite prescriptive, but the typical Woman’s Own reader is married, or at least has been, and men tend to be viewed less with awe, and more with a sort of bemused affection.

“Good old-fashioned values” still prevail in some areas. The “working housewife” who writes to the problem page asking how to juggle her full-time job and household is pointed towards a book on how to prioritize, with no mention at all of asking her husband to help. But there are some hints that our reader is beginning to question society’s double standards. A correspondent on the “Your Letters” page teases her husband for happily paying a £45 for two hours plumbing, but balking at a £40 typist’s bill for several days’ work. There’s also a little poem addressed to men who say some women shouldn’t wear trousers (“But have you not seen / Yourself from the rear / And thought about wearing / A kilt, my dear!”).

I get the impression that these women are at a stage of their lives when men become demystified if only because they’re in the same house, doing normal human things, rather than brooding heroically on a cliff somewhere. And at a time when feminist ideas were beginning to gain traction, it seems that ordinary women were becoming open to the idea of more equality.

In places, Woman’s Own nurtures this embryonic sense of independence quite well. There are segments that actively encourage women to seek more freedom, including an article by the wonderful Claire Rayner about sexuality in older women. It’s a remarkably progressive piece, arguing that experience and assertiveness could be attractive in a woman, and that women could enjoy sex outside of serious relationships, with multiple partners if there was no dishonesty. But it’s written in in such a sensible, sympathetic yet non-patronizing way, that it wouldn’t alienate a woman who sewed her own clothes and cut her children’s hair. Rayner was one of a new breed of “Agony Aunt,” willing to tackle subjects most considered taboo. Her column in teen magazine Petticoat drew fire for encouraging masturbation and promiscuity as early as 1972, so right away you can tell she was doing a better job than Jackie. She died in 2010, shortly after the Conservative party gained power, allegedly threatening to haunt David Cameron if he messed up the NHS, so at least we know her spirit is getting plenty of sun.

There’s evidence that men, too, were benefiting from the slackening of gender roles. “Mary Grant’s Problem Page” has a section dedicated to male readers, which surely wouldn’t be there without demand. Evidently men had been having a sneaky read of their wife’s/sister’s/mum’s magazines, and wanted in on the emotional support network the girls had. You just know that if the boy with the painful foreskin had told his 1970s mates about his problem, they would’ve called him Throbbin’ Hood for the rest of his natural life, but Grant recommends a simple operation, and he no longer has to suffer in stoic silence.

I feel like my girl (or guy—I’m on to you!) is in safe hands with Woman’s Own, and I can relax and enjoy the nostalgia. There is a young, fun vibe that, again, I wasn’t expecting (these days the magazine has a much older feel to it, and a Hello!-lite obsession with the Royal Family). The fashion pages feature laughing twenty-somethings, and a ripped up zine-style layout, and there are adverts for holidays in California, which were still a rare and very modern thing when I was a kid.

There are some wonderful little bits of weirdness in there, too, that anchor everything so clearly in the late-’70s moment. There’s an article on how to give your kids that bell-shaped, quasi-pageboy haircut that everyone you know is modeling in their first school photograph. A reader has written in with an apparently sincere desire to share her recipe for bananas wrapped in ham, covered in cheese sauce, and served with salad, and the magazine, with equal sincerity, has published it. But the highlight for me is the short story “Superbitch,” a heroic attempt by three of the magazine’s feature writers to mimic the newly-popular erotic novels enjoyed by the liberated late-’70s woman, with the result being a genuinely confusing piece of absurdism, like someone made an AI read a bunch of Jackie Collins novels, then try to write its own.

This issue of Woman’s Own came out a few months before I was born, giving it that odd, haunted quality of being almost, but not quite, like the stuff of my earliest memories. That awful haircut all my friends had, the maternity dress in the Mothercare advert that looks like the one my mum has in photos where I’m just a bump. I guess with the focus being a little more on kids and the home it’s likely to be more familiar to people our age. You were actually on the outside in ’78, Richard—is it bringing back any childhood memories for you?

MCKENNA: “Bringing back any childhood memories” would probably be understating it a bit—I feel like I’m being strafed with madeleines: I wouldn’t have believed that something that I’d dismissed from my memories as being the epitome of squareness could evoke a mood so powerfully. It’s reminded me that in my childhood, the Woman’s Own of the late ‘70s figured as a symbol of modernity—something I saw the cool, self-possessed women I seemed to be surrounded by were always leafing through, engaging with the world around them in a way that I found exciting. Looking at it now, I can remember why: when you picked up a copy of Woman’s Own in that dentist’s waiting room, it felt as though it was humming with a kind of energy that was more in line with the futuristic vistas that obsessed me than with the grotty realities that surrounded us. Whether it played the same role in your zeitgeist if you were a woman or a girl, though, I have no idea.

I realize that saying Woman’s Own feels oddly punk-y is going out on a limb somewhat, but that was part of its charm to 8-year-old me and, surprisingly, it remains so today. Maybe it’s just the hodgepodge of graphic design styles and fonts that, though likely just some bit of market-researched cynicism, feels oddly freewheeling and almost fanzine-ish, unlike the deathly quality of institutional British magazines of the day like the Radio Times, the BBC’s listings weekly. It also harks back to a time when astrologists were still a draw for readers, and tended to position themselves as being a bit closer to the paranormal than to the life gurus they nowadays resemble. Woman’s Own’s prognosticator was archetypal debonair ‘70s astrologist Leon Petulengro, who came from an illustrious dynasty of Romani media stars (his dad was astrologist, horse trader, writer and “The Famous Broadcasting Romany” Xavier) and who—while we’re on the subject of ‘70s weirdness—traveled the UK with a troupe of trained chimpanzees to promote the British equivalent of St. Januarius’s blood: PG Tips tea.

Superbitch definitely hints, however tangentially, at a desire for agency and excitement, but the grim, illustrated trawl through cookery failures (“What Went Wrong”) demonstrates that life for the Woman’s Own woman was not all glamor, freedom, and starsigns (even though the list of putative errors on show does feel pretty representative of depressing UK food norms circa 1978 as I remember it). Despite this, you’re totally rightWoman’s Own feels less stifling and in a way actually more rebellious than Jackie: obviously, in comparison to anything modern it reads like the Old Testament, and there’s plenty of retrograde flower arranging and human interest guff in there, but there’s so much less of the muted undertone of obligation and guilt, and an almost DIY vibe of possibility.

The adverts are a narrative in themselves: the greenhouses, make-your-own-rugs, pregnancy tests, towels (no tampons), retail catalogues, and packets of fags seem to hint at a world that is vaguely coalescing as women start to impose a version of themselves that goes beyond the housewife/sexpot trope. Another thing that is striking is how much less emphasis there used to be on women’s bodies and faces: counterintuitively, if you compare it to what you rightly point out is its royalty-and-gossip modern incarnation, Woman’s Own 1978 seems in some ways almost more developed.

MUGGLESTONE: You’re right, it really does seem more progressive in places! I guess the late-’70s were a time of changing attitudes, and it’s surely during a period of change, rather than after it has taken place, that we’re presented with the greatest number of possibilities. It seems to me that our Woman’s Own reader has realized that some traditional standards of femininity aren’t working, and, if she can’t fall back on tradition, she’s forced to think a bit more about where she wants to fit into the world. She still has the ancient dichotomy of the virgin and the whore (or the housewife and the sexpot, to bring it up to date) somewhat in mind, but she seems open to the idea that she can pick and choose a little from each.

Since then, I think consensus has solidified upon a new standard of femininity that’s a relatively fixed hybrid of the two: a woman who is sexy and confident, but with a hint of vulnerability so as not to be threatening; an impossible blend of Joan Collins and Bridget Jones, who wears killer heels in the boardroom, and chats about her love life with gal pals over lunch and prosecco. And of course, this woman is freer in almost every respect than the ’70s woman, but she’s no more real than the “perfect housewife” of the past, and modern magazines, at least, seem less willing to stray from their ideal. So now, instead of aiming to be a charming hostess with perfectly-risen soufflés (don’t be rude!), we strive for the perfect bikini body to put into the that little black dress. Of all the magazines we’re going to look at, I think Woman’s Own most inhabits that exciting liminal state. Cosmopolitan seems already to be settling into the new ideal, while our magazines for older women are quite happy with the way things were, thank you very much.

Speaking of which, our more traditional magazines are what we’ll be looking at next time: one pious and proper, and the other worldly and wicked. For now, we’re off to reload the madeleine cannon in readiness for a veritable volley of nostalgia, along with some unexpected smut, as we examine the surprisingly racy stuff your granny used to read.

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