Until recently, women had a sizeable platform through which to share their views and concerns in the mainstream media. Now, with dwindling revenue exacerbated by the coronavirus downturn, is the voice of modern feminism has being silenced? By Jane Caro and Polly Dunning.

The decline of women’s media

The number of publications targeting women is in decline.
The number of publications targeting women is in decline.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Himbrechts

The past decade saw an explosion of media written by, about and for women; media that focused on the realities of our lives and the issues most affecting us. It coincided with huge gains for the feminist movement and largely through mass media directed towards women, “feminist” itself was rebranded. Even Tony Abbott said he was one. The word, and the fundamental ideas it signifies, have, at least in theory, become mainstream.

It is a chicken–egg relationship: did the explosion of writing by and for women cause a surge in the feminist movement? Or did the surge in the movement cause the media explosion? In truth, neither could really have existed without the other.

Reading other women writing about their experiences and interrogating them in a cerebral and feminist way helped many of us to wake up to what was going on. Would the fight to remove abortion from the New South Wales Crimes Act have become so energised if we had not read about the fact that it was still illegal? Would we be having conversations about enthusiastic consent or sexual harassment in the workplace if we hadn’t read about how the system works to protect perpetrators? Would we be as disturbed about family violence and coercive control if we had not been able to read women’s real-life stories?

In this, the explosion of women-oriented media in the early 21st century had echoes of the famous consciousness-raising groups of 1970s feminism, which were similarly accompanied by groundbreaking feminist publications, such as Ms. magazine in the United States, Spare Rib in Britain and the shorter-lived but still influential Australian equivalents, including MeJane, Refractory Girl and Hecate.

And just as it did in the ’70s, the past decade’s consciousness raising got women angry. And it got women active. Reading about the lives and perspectives of other women became part of daily routine, and many women were offered the opportunity to write about the realities of their lives for the first time. The contribution of so many previously marginalised voices inevitably enriched both our culture and our public conversation.

But now, much of it is gone. The Hoopla, Australia’s bureau of HuffPost, Whimn, ABC Life, 10 Daily, BuzzFeed Australia and many others have been lost entirely, while much of the mainstream print media has similarly dropped their women-centred sections, including RendezView in News Corp papers and the Corporate Woman column in The Australian Financial Review.

Those that remain, including Daily Life, have generally lost their feminist edge. And women’s magazines themselves, once the powerhouse of Australian publishing, are quickly disappearing. Bauer Media recently closed eight mastheads, all but one aimed at a female audience. While a few online publications are still standing – Women’s Agenda, Mamamia, The Big Smoke and SBS Life – and there remain a number of women’s magazines on sale, on the whole media aimed at women has been decimated.

The reason so much media has all but disappeared, particularly in the past six months, is largely financial. Julia Zaetta, former editor of Better Homes and Gardens, says that June and July were some of the worst months for advertising revenue in history.

Inevitably, that means that something has to go. But that choice is also a value judgement.

“As long as the industry and media companies were making money out of these sites, they were prepared to give women their little corner of the paper,” says author and columnist Clementine Ford, “but because the industry as a whole is suffering, not a lot of investment will be put into making sure women survive it. But if it were men who were suffering, people would be a lot more concerned about it.”

Despite the collapse of advertising revenue, though, the lucrative potential of women’s media remains, says Jamila Rizvi, chief creative officer for Future Women. “Women have the major purchasing power, which means media aimed at women was, and is, highly profitable.”

According to Rizvi, feminist media is popular and readership was and is up, but she also points out that advertisers aren’t always as enthusiastic as readers. “Feminism scares advertisers off,” she says. “There is a disconnect between what women want to read and what advertisers want to appear next to.” Which could explain the retreat of many remaining publications into the safer territory of wellness, beauty and diets.

Women’s Agenda contributing editor and executive director of The Parenthood Georgie Dent argues there is a residual prejudice stemming from the era when lifestyle and female-centric stories were relegated to the “women’s pages” of newspapers. “I think there is still that lingering assessment that women’s media is sort of light, trivial, not hard-hitting news, and therefore … it is easy for decision-makers in media who are white, male and middle-aged to think, ‘Oh well, that’s just fluff and therefore we don’t need it.’ ”

But some are more optimistic about the widespread closures. Academic Jenna Price, columnist for the Nine newspapers and The Canberra Times, sees it as a sign of success – women’s issues are now covered in the news pages, rather than being corralled into women’s media. Jacqueline Maley and Kate McClymont’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations regarding former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, Price says, are an example of how issues that affect women have become front-page news.

But Dent worries about the loss of a spectrum of women’s voices in the media, especially given the disproportionate economic effect Covid-19 has had on women. “In reality, there’s probably never been a more urgent need for as many female voices as possible,” she says.

Journalist and writer Sarah Malik says women are often “the writers who can help us understand global movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, the rise of white nationalism and [the] Christchurch [massacre], the failure and machismo of male leadership during Covid-19”.

“[These are] political currents much of mainstream media – mainly white and male – never saw coming and didn’t have the language to deconstruct,” she says. “Racism, rape culture, intersectionality, white privilege, trans rights, the sexuality spectrum: this language comes from academia, but it is derived from the experiences of people from the street, it filled the blogosphere and was picked up by some – now defunct – progressive media and helped people understand the currents of their changing world.”

Of course, the culling of female-centred and feminist publications began long before Covid-19. The pandemic has just accelerated the trend. But the Covid-19 media contraction has seen devastating job losses in the industry, affecting many women. There are now more freelance writers out there, and far fewer opportunities to get published.

Nick Bhasin, former opinion editor of 10 Daily, worries it is the loss of writers who are just starting out that may be the most devastating in the long run. “At 10 Daily, it was my job to find new voices, and I think any publication left standing will try to do that,” he says. “But if you have fewer publications, it means fewer editors, and then fewer voices get heard … which leads to less diversity.”

This lack of diversity is also reflected at the senior end of media companies. Catherine Fox, previously the AFR’s Corporate Woman columnist, points out the recent “Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories?” report, which found all Australian national television news directors are white men. Since the report’s release, and in the wake of revelations about bullying and racism within its newsroom, SBS has appointed Mandi Wicks as its director of news and current affairs. While Wicks is only the second woman to hold this position, there are still no television news directors from a non-Anglo-Celtic background.

Marina Go, previously chief executive of Private Media, now chair of the Super Netball Commission, laments the lack of women at the top of major media organisations, especially those who are actively pushing for change.

She says she has seen the characterisation of women’s interests as icing rather than cake also play out in the world of sport. While the men’s football codes are all back despite the pandemic, driven largely by broadcast rights pressures, the women’s versions – so celebrated when they launched – have not returned. The only female sport that has, Go says, is the female-dominated and female-run netball.

Sarrah Le Marquand, editor-in-chief of Stellar and Body+Soul, says the shift in Australia’s media risks pushing women into writing as a hobby, or abandoning it completely. “I think it will make for a duller environment,” she says. The pandemic’s spike of “mental health issues is an argument for more lifestyle content, not less”, says Le Marquand.

It’s a compelling argument – after all, these publications offered space to read about the things that make life bearable. They existed as somewhere our fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities could be shared. They fostered empathy, solidarity and the emergence of a new generation of female public intellectuals who could shape public discourse, norms and, in turn, laws and policy. Their loss will be felt for a long time to come. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Femme fatal".

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Jane Caro is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.

Polly Dunning is a writer and high-school teacher.

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