“Nation” Editor: Women’s Magazines Are Like HBO’s “Girls”

She says all publications need to change the way they do things to attract more female writers — and that women’s magazines are more serious than many people think.

Major magazines have been under fire for years for their predominately male bylines. Last year, women wrote just 26.44 percent of stories at the New Yorker, 16.66 percent at Harper’s, and 12.5 percent at the New York Review of Books. The Nation, which Katrina vanden Heuvel has edited since 1995, did a little better — but not much, with 28.71 percent of bylines belonging to women.

Howard Greenstein / Via Flickr: howardgr

At last night’s Hillman Awards — which honors journalism that serves the common good and this year included vanden Heuvel among its judges — she said those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Vanden Heuvel pointed out that every other week, a woman writes The Nation’s lead editorial, which are always unsigned. She added that the magazine has more female columnists — including Katha Pollitt, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Naomi Klein — than many of its peer publications. Five of its eight columns are written by women — at The New Republic, a similar magazine with a progressive bent, just three out of 15 columnists are women.

However, she said that editors still needed to rethink “how we assign and the way we conceive of this world,” and “we need to think hard about how we nurture a generation of women writers working across a range of issues.” (GOOD editor Ann Friedman made a similar point in March when she urged journalists to use their professional networks to promote the work of female writers).

Women’s magazines, she argued, could have a role to play in this process. They do run serious journalism — she pointed to Lea Goldman’s award-winning piece for Marie Claire about fraud in breast cancer fundraising. She added that her 20-year-old daughter reads a lot of women’s magazines and finds serious ideas amid the makeup tips. “I would not dismiss them,” said vanden Heuvel. “I think one wants to subvert them,” she added — to criticize some of their messages without ignoring the useful things they do.

Vanden Heuvel likened women’s magazines, in some ways, to HBO’s Girls. She said that despite criticisms of its lack of diversity, the show was “connecting with all kinds of women.” Like women’s magazines, she argued, Girls is a pop-cultural “entry point” — a way to draw in a large audience of women so they can start thinking and talking about serious issues.

And of course, it’s not only women who can think about women’s issues. Vanden Heuvel noted that one of the night’s Hillman Award winners, a documentary about a woman incarcerated for over 25 years for murdering her abusive husband, was directed by a man.

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