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From Ladies' Companion to Shrew: New SSC Periodicals (December 2000)

The past year has seen significant additions to the Sophia Smith Collection's already strong periodicals holdings. The new magazines reflect two widely disparate eras and audiences, but both are a boon to researchers seeking to augment and provide context for other archival sources, or as primary sources themselves.

The first set of periodicals, slated for discard by the Northampton's Forbes Library and the Springfield Library, added to our collection of general interest "ladies" magazines. The mid-nineteenth century saw a great increase in the number of magazines in general, and for women in particular. Ladies' Repository (1841-76), for example, was a monthly periodical devoted to literature and religion. In an 1841 issue an author editorializes:

"it is but a score of years since the ladies had scarcely any leisure…. In those times of sweet simplicity, it was not required nor expected that females should know much; they were only required to love and labor much. … Time breeds revolution. It has wonderfully changed the domestic habits of females…. We need a second revolution…in women's taste, or in her sources of enjoyment" (L. L. Hamline).

Ladies Repository, 1858
  Ladies Repository, 1858

From the mid-nineteenth century onward the popularity of these "sources of enjoyment" increased and women's magazines proliferated. Many of these volumes contain beautiful engravings and plates, sheet music, and fashion patterns, and their articles cover a range of topics of interest to nineteenth century readers--fashion, domestic subjects, romantic fiction, travel, and didactic essays. They are an excellent primary source for newcomers as well as senior researchers, for they illuminate reading habits, the publishing industry, advertising, and an entire nexus of well-known and obscure people and events of nineteenth century popular culture. In addition to the Ladies' Repository, the SSC acquired runs of Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly (1876-1905), and Peterson's (1846-88); and filled in some of the gaps in our runs of Godey's Lady's Book (1830-89) and Harper's Bazaar (1868-1913), "a Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction."

Periodicals produced by the women's movement of the late 1960s-early 1970s reflect a different era and set of concerns. Some of the newly acquired periodicals came to us as the result of the unfortunate demise of Third Wave, Northampton's last remaining feminist bookstore (Summer 2000). Other magazines were culled from existing collections. (Standard archival practice is to separate unrelated printed material from manuscript collections). The Women's Action Alliance, a now-defunct feminist clearinghouse organization, and Ms. magazine both collected special-audience and local women's interest magazines for their libraries. Our inherited collection contains sets of newsletters from women's groups in New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Cleveland, the Dominican Republic, and even Brooklyn's John Dewey High School.

Fighting Woman News, 1976
Fighting Woman News, 1976

Produced on shoestring budgets, these magazines generally have an austere aesthetic. They were typed, simply illustrated, and mimeographed. The editors of one Chicago newsletter of "anarcho-feminism," anxious to leave time for other forms of activism, were loathe to commit themselves to producing monthly issues. Its subscription policy and politics are stated follows:

"Siren subscriptions will be $2 for 10 issues, as a revolutionary "year" is a bit longer than a calendar year, and we'd like to fulfill our obligations. Siren is not a membership organization, a political party, or even a vanguard, but an attempt to integrate revolutionary feminism with anarchism as an expression of independent, anti-authoritarian feminism. We always welcome CASH and contributions…material, essays, feedback."

Such newsletters acted as bulletin boards in the days before internet postings and email distribution lists. They advertised events and products and publicized community issues, but above all were forums for discussing the ideological underpinnings of the women's movement. Small groups of women offered their own cultural criticism and invited and published responses from the community at large. In their view, such direct interaction, a distinctive feature of the feminist movement, subverted the mainstream sexist media and carved out a new audience not reached by traditional news sources. "Women's Liberation" periodicals also reflect the transformation of the women's movement over time in their evolution from spare, bare bones, hastily assembled publications to professional-looking, specialized feminist magazines. Common Lives/Lesbian Lives (1981-94), for example, highlights lesbian art, fiction, and poetry in a professionally bound and type-set volume. The appearance of Common Lives/Lesbian Lives illustrates the transition from a lesbian culture centered around small, isolated groups of women to one with a more national consciousness.

Our periodicals collection is entirely open to research. While these magazines are certainly useful to the "serious" history student, they are visually exciting windows into the past that will appeal to a history "layperson" as well. Stop by the Alumnae Gym to take a look.

- Amanda Izzo


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