Designed Specifically for Women
The Daily Mirror stands alone as the only major national daily newspaper in Britain ever to be designed specifically for women. Launched in that format, in November 1903, it was a resounding failure, and dissuaded others from similar experiments. Even if its experiment as a ‘high class’ journal for ‘ladies’ only lasted a few weeks from its launch, it retained a distinctly ‘feminine’ identity for many years, and it continued to attract a much higher percentage of female readers than any other paper until well into the 1930s. It finally shook off this reputation with its tabloid relaunch in the mid-1930s, but high-profile female columnists, such as Dorothy Dix, Marje Proops, Felicity Green, Anne Robinson and Miriam Stoppard have remained a key part of the paper’s appeal to its audience right up to the present day.
Targeting a New Audience
The serious morning newspapers of the Victorian era, such as The Times, had tended to assume that their readership was male, and focused almost entirely on a public sphere dominated by men. The new popular daily papers launched at the turn of the twentieth century, on the other hand, actively sought to maximise their audience, and this meant reaching out in an obvious way to women as well as men. Female readers did not just boost the overall circulation statistics, they also had a special economic importance to the newspaper business. Women were – or were perceived to be – the major spenders of the domestic budget, and hence they became the prime targets for advertisers looking to sell their products. As newspapers came to rely ever more heavily on the revenue from branded advertising, attracting female readers became a financial necessity. In a society in which men and women were still heavily segregated in both work and leisure, editors and journalists were confident that appealing to women meant providing a different sort of content from that aimed at men – the sort of content, in fact, that had fuelled the success of the burgeoning women’s magazine sector throughout the nineteenth century. From the first issue of the Mail, in May 1896, the paper’s owner, newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth, asked Mary Howarth, previously a weekly magazine editor, to oversee regular women’s columns providing material on fashion, housewifery and motherhood. Comparisons between the sexes also became a staple of the feature pages, and women – at that time campaigning for the vote and other rights – became more visible in the news columns too. Much, though by no means all, of this content, was ultimately based on conservative gender stereotypes.
The Daily Mail’s success in reaching out to this relatively untapped female market encouraged Harmsworth to think that there was room for a whole newspaper dedicated to women. Accordingly, he launched the Daily Mirror in November 1903 with an all-female staff under the editorship of Mary Howarth. The Mirror’s first issue declared that the paper would not be ‘a mere bulletin of fashion, but a reflection of women’s interests, women’s thought, women’s work’, covering ‘the daily news of the world’ and ‘literature and art’ as well as the ‘sane and healthy occupations of domestic life’.1 Gendering sections within a newspaper was one thing: gendering the whole paper was another. The mainstream market was not yet ready for a women’s daily newspaper, at least not in this form. The Mirror struggled to find a consistent tone and identity, and seemed caught between being a magazine and a newspaper. As its circulation plummeted, the Mirror was rescued only when Harmsworth removed the female staff, handed over the editorship to the experienced journalist Hamilton Fyfe, and turned it into an illustrated paper – as which it was a major success, becoming the first daily to rival the readership levels of the Mail. The illustrated Mirror was keen to display the female body: the front page of the first relaunched issue was dominated by a sketch of the Parisian actress Madeleine Carlier, who, tantalisingly, had just won a court case after breaching her contract by refusing to wear an ‘immodest dress’.2 In 1908, the paper claimed that 15,000 women had submitted pictures for its competition to find ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’; each received a certificate of merit.3
The Mirror experiment encapsulated the different aspects of Harmsworth’s attitudes to women. His faith in the potential of the women’s market led him to take extraordinary risks: he lost around £100,000 supporting the failing Mirror in its early months. At a time when women had barely gained a foothold in the world of journalism, he demonstrated his willingness to place a great deal of responsibility onto an inexperienced female editorial team, while simply by launching a ‘women’s newspaper’ he continued to challenge assumptions about gender and popular publishing. Nor did the failure of the Mirror seem to alter his perceptions about the female audience. ‘While we learnt there was no room in London for a women’s daily paper,’ recalled Kennedy Jones, Harmsworth’s right-hand-man, ‘we also discovered there was room in a daily paper for more letter press that directly appealed to women.’4 Tom Clarke, another experienced colleague, noted that the setback to the Mirror did not undermine Harmsworth’s ‘faith that the future for popular newspapers and magazines depended on a big woman readership’.5
On the other hand, Harmsworth shared many of the conventional gender prejudices and stereotypes of his time. He continued to view women as being largely defined by their roles as wives and mothers, and the ‘women’s material’ for his papers was produced on these terms. When he told staff to find ‘feminine matter’, he assumed that his meaning was self-evident: he wanted domestic articles, fashion tips, and recipes. His forward-thinking with regard to the female market was tempered by what the new Mirror editor Hamilton Fyfe described as ‘an old-fashioned doubt’ as to whether women were ‘really the equals of men’.6 Until the First World War, Harmsworth was sceptical about the need for female suffrage. ‘Sorry to see the outburst of Suffragette pictures again’ he complained to Alexander Kenealy, the editor of the Mirror, in 1912. ‘I thought you had finished with them. Except in an extreme case, print no more of them.’7 It was only when women demonstrated their ability to serve the nation during the war that he changed his mind and became a proponent of women’s suffrage. Women were also thought to be particularly interested in gossip and celebrity news, and Harmsworth was convinced that most were fundamentally aspirational: ‘Nine women out of ten would rather read about an evening dress costing a great deal of money – the sort of dress they will never in their lives have a chance of wearing – than about a simple frock such as they could afford’.8 Editors and journalists firmly believed that women were particularly keen on the vicarious enjoyment that could be obtained by reading about wealthy lifestyles and luxurious goods, and the steady rise of celebrity culture across the century was partly driven by the desire to cater for the female audience.
These traditional gender stereotypes were even more evident under the proprietorship of Alfred Harmsworth’s brother Harold, Lord Rothermere, between 1914 and 1936. Although the Mirror enthusiastically accepted the enfranchisement of (most) women over 30 in 1918, ten years later Rothermere became preoccupied that the proposed equalisation of the franchise at age 21 would lead to lots of young women voting for the Labour Party, considerably weakening the forces of conservatism. ‘Stop The Flapper Votes Folly - This is Not The Time For Rash Constitutional Innovations’ declared the paper in April 1927, and, like Rothermere’s other paper, the Mail, resisted the proposal until it sailed through the House of Commons the following year.9 Rothermere also became sympathetic to the hyper-masculine fascist dictators, Mussolini and Hitler, and in 1934 swung the Mirror (and the Mail) behind Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. For all the press attention on the achievements and freedoms of the ‘modern young women’ of the 1920s and 1930s, underlying attitudes to gender remained resilient.
The Mirror’s gender dynamics changed again in the mid-1930s when Rothermere relinquished his ownership, and the paper was reinvented as a left-of-centre tabloid under Harry Guy Bartholomew. One of the ways the brash new tabloid sought to shake off its old reputation was to print more and more photos designed to titillate male readers: pictures became more overtly sexualized, more flesh was exposed, and curves were more obviously emphasized. One woman complained to the social survey organisation Mass-Observation in 1938 that the Daily Mirror was ‘the dirtiest little rag ever printed as a “daily” in this country’, containing as it did ‘many photos of half-naked females’ in its ‘nefarious pages’.10 But the Mirror injected sex into its pages in other ways, too. The ‘problem column’, aimed primarily at women, became more prominent, and more space was given to journalists to write about personal relationships, and sexuality.
The prolific American agony aunt ‘Dorothy Dix’ (the pen-name of Elizabeth Meriweather Gilmer) was given a significant platform in the reinvented Daily Mirror from December 1935. Newspaper problem columns and related features were regarded by many readers as an important source of advice and guidance on personal and sexual questions at a time when there were relatively few accessible sources of information about such matters, but in the 1930s and 1940s, advice columns did little to challenge a sexual culture that emphasised privacy, respectability and female innocence. Dix consistently celebrated the virtues of sexual restraint outside marriage and defended the expectation that women (if not men) should be virgins when they wed. Dix repeatedly advised young women against any forms of physical intimacy with men that might put them in a compromising position. She declared bluntly in 1938, for example, that ‘I don't believe in petting among boys and girls’.11 Married readers, meanwhile, were warned about the disastrous repercussions of extra-marital affairs. A couple who had found love and happiness in each other’s arms, despite both being married to other partners, were told by Dorothy Dix in 1938 to stop their affair immediately: ‘There is something more worthwhile having in life than love, and that is the integrity of your own soul, and the knowledge that you had the strength to do your duty’. Dix advised wronged wives to ‘make the best of a very bad job’ and try to save their marriages.12
Some feature articles were more playful. In July 1938, an article advised ‘unattached’ women how to ‘find your man’ on holiday. The main advice was ‘for the first day or so stay alone’: ‘Your brother, sister and mother are all jealous of you. If they saw the slightest chance of your getting off with a desirable male they would do their best to kybosh it at once’.13 Such cheeky, informal writing marked out the Mirror from its competitors and attracted a steadily growing readership from young working-class men and women. At times, too, the Mirror pushed back the conventional boundaries of acceptability. During the Second World War, with anxieties about public ill-health on the home front running high, the Daily Mirror ran an unprecedentedly explicit series on the dangers of venereal diseases, written by a specialist, and including answers to correspondents. These articles demonstrated the educational potential of newspaper problem pages. Mass-Observation found that the Mirror was helping to remedy significant gaps in public knowledge; some female respondents admitted they had never heard of the diseases until they read about them in the press.
Using the Tabloid Model
The tabloid model of trying to appeal to women with female-oriented feature content, while enticing men with pin-ups and sport, lasted for decades to come. In 1957, Marje Proops, perhaps the Mirror’s highest-profile female contributor, used her Mirror column to lament that the ‘Cult of the Big Bosom’ had ‘reached idiotic proportions’ - despite the fact that her paper was as responsible for this ‘cult’ as any. Her column was prompted by a letter from a twenty seven year-old mother of two, telling Proops that she was ‘so self-conscious and unhappy’ because she was ‘only 33 inches round the bust’, and was therefore considering spending £100 – a small fortune – on a breast enlargement operation. ‘Every day’, Proops revealed, ‘letters arrive in this office, and every day thousands of girls and women all over this country stare at themselves despairingly in looking-glasses because their bust measurement is, they think, too small’. Proops argued that it was ‘time we revolted against tape-measure dictatorship.’14 Proops received an ‘amazing stack of letters’ in response to her comments: ‘Never have I had such overwhelming support… from women of every age, shape and size. And from men too, believe it or not.’ The following week, when film star Jayne Mansfield arrived in London flaunting her curvaceous figure, the Mirror even propelled the issue onto the front page. ‘Has the Bust Had It?’ asked the headline, as the paper considered whether the ‘celebrity bosom’ had become over-exposed.15 After reading hundreds of letters the showbiz reporter Donald Zec concluded that while readers had ‘nothing against an attractive figure, displayed with taste’, the ‘outsize, over-exposed “Celebrity Bosom” HAS had it as far as most of you are concerned’. In reality, of course, little changed. Indeed, so entrenched was the pin-up culture that in December 1975, when the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts became law, the Mirror celebrated by giving female readers a front-page pin-up of their own - ‘hunky’ singer Malcolm Roberts - under the headline ‘Girls, it’s your turn now’.16 When a female reader complained that the picture of Roberts was ‘in no way equal to the girl on Page Five as she was virtually naked and he had his trousers on’, and demanded instead ‘a (nearly) nude every day’, the Mirror responded with a more revealing image of actor Patrick Mower in briefs.17
Encouraging Female Journalism
If the Daily Mirror was far from a feminist paper, it did increasingly give space to strong female columnists who were prepared to challenge convention and ruffle feathers. During the 1960s, Marje Proops became a vocal advocate of abortion law reform: in November 1964, for example, she wrote a powerful column appealing to the Lord Chancellor ‘on behalf of the 100,000 women who face up to the heartbreak and terror of the illegal abortion ever year, to bring the law into the twentieth century.’18 She also supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality and gave Leo Abse, the Labour MP, advice when he was drafting his bills to decriminalise homosexuality in the mid-1960s. Her position on this issue meant that she had to endure some unpleasant letters from homophobic readers, with one writing that ‘You must be a lesbian yourself to want to make life easier for queers’.19 When she became a problem columnist for the paper in the 1970s, with much more liberal attitudes than Dorothy Dix, she received around 40,000 letters a year. The number of women in senior positions remained small, though. The fashion writer Felicity Green, who gradually climbed up the Mirror hierarchy to become, in 1973, the first woman on the executive board of a national newspaper (at least since Howarth in 1903), experienced ‘a wall of opposition and hostility’ from the older men and found that ‘the macho male was in evidence everywhere’.20 When Anne Robinson was appointed assistant editor of the Mirror in 1982, meanwhile, she found that only 22 female journalists worked in the paper’s London office, alongside 496 men; the Manchester office, employing 123 journalists, did not employ a single woman.21 These numbers did steadily improve over subsequent decades, although the most high-profile female columnists remained in the traditional areas of the problem page (Miriam Stoppard) and the gossip column (the ‘3am girls’, originally Eva Simpson, Jessica Callan and Polly Graham). It was only in 2018 that Mary Howarth finally had a successor as editor: Alison Philips. Philips has made clear her commitment to gender equality, helping set up the ‘Women Together’ network at Trinity Mirror, and declaring that ‘There’s no point in having done well at the Mirror if I don’t make it more possible for others to do the same.’22 More than a hundred years on, the Mirror was returning to some of its original traditions.
Adrian Bingham, ‘The Daily Mirror and Women’, Mirror Historical Archive 1903-2000, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.
1 Daily Mirror, 2 November 1903, p. 2.
2 Daily Mirror, 26 January 1904, p. 1.
3 Bill Hagerty, Read All About It! 100 Sensational Years of the Daily Mirror (Lydney, Glos: First Stone, 2003), 17, 20.
4 K. Jones, Fleet Street and Downing Street (London: Hutchinson, 1920), 232;
5 T. Clarke, Northcliffe in History: An Intimate Study of Press Power (London: Hutchinson, 1950), 23.
6 H. Fyfe, Northcliffe: An Intimate Biography (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1930), 94.
7 British Library, Northcliffe Papers, Add MS 62234, Northcliffe to Kenealy, 20 Nov. [1912?].
8 H. Fyfe, Northcliffe: An Intimate Biography (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1930), 93.
9 Daily Mirror, 11 April 1927, p. 7.
10 Mass-Observation File Report A11, ‘Motives and Methods of Newspaper Reading’, Dec. 1938, 36.
11 Daily Mirror, 16 July 1938, p. 20.
12 Daily Mirror, 7 September 1938, p. 22.
13 Daily Mirror, 12 July 1938, p.12.
14 Daily Mirror, 13 September 1957, p. 10.
15 Daily Mirror, 26 September 1957, p. 1
16 Daily Mirror, 29 December 1975, p. 1.
17 Daily Mirror, 31 December 1975, p.12.
18 Daily Mirror, 26 November 1964, p.9.
19 A. Patmore, Marje: The Guilt and the Gingerbread: The Authorized Biography (London: Warner, 1993), 230.
20 R. Greenslade, Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits from Propaganda (London: Macmillan, 2003), 367; Hagerty, Read All About It!, 105.
21 Greenslade, Press Gang, 370.
22 New Statesman, https://www.newstatesman.com/2018/03/alison-phillips-diary-why-i-don-t-want-become-mirror-s-margaret-thatcher