---Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on October 25, 2011 on hercampus.com/bowdoin.---
Are feminism and the local mall mutually exclusive? This week’s Campus Celebrity answered that question and more in front of an audience brimming with students and colleagues.
Professor Jennifer Scanlon, recently appointed the William R. Kenan Professor of Gender and Women's Studies, gave a lecture titled “Taking Women Seriously, Wherever We Find Them.”
Her lecture addressed three female prototypes: The Shopper, The Women’s Magazine Reader, and The Behind-the-Scenes Political Organizer.
Scanlon’s research into women’s relationship with money has led her to contest the “shop til you drop” academic take on female shoppers. Scanlon presented an alternative to this view of women, characterizing them as seekers of beauty and comfort in the face of hardship.
Much of her discussion of women’s magazine readers centered on the influence of Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan’s first female Editor-in-Chief.
According to Scanlon, who chronicled Brown’s life in Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the Cosmo editor inspired women to surmount daunting personal and financial obstacles--not the least of which was singlehood. Brown’s wildly popular book Sex and the Single Girl preceded Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique by a year.
For the early 1960’s, Brown’s messages were radical. She told women that their sex drive was equal to men’s, and that they could seek sex out and enjoy it. Scanlon explained that Brown stood for “self-respect, sensuality, economic independence, and the pursuit of fun.” The editor’s audience of “working class, pragmatic, mainstream feminists” yearned “to be acknowledged as fully alive,” and they found within the pages of Cosmo “a steady ally.”
Scanlon’s latest biographical project focuses on the life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the epitome of a behind-the-scenes political organizer. Hedgeman, a black woman living in the era of the Civil Rights Movement, was a founding member of the National Organization of Women. Scanlon described her as moving “with grace between policy work and activism.”
Hedgeman was the only female member on the organizing committee for the March on Washington, and she deserves credit for recruiting a significant percentage of white attendees to the March.
However, Hedgeman didn’t speak at the march--nor did any other women--though she noted on her program that she wished Dr. King had said “we” instead of “I” when he bellowed “I have a dream.”
Professor Scanlon has been teaching at Bowdoin since 2002. She graduated from SUNY (State University of New York) at Oneonta in 1980, with a bachelor's degree in English and Secondary Education, and has a master's in English from the University of Delaware (1982), a master's in History from Binghamton University (1985) and a Ph.D in History from Binghamton University (1989). Professor Scanlon taught at SUNY Plattsburgh before coming to Bowdoin.
We got in touch with her by e-mail to answer more questions about her study of women’s magazines, a topic that HerCampus readers and writers can’t help but take an interest in….
HC: You talked about how HGB’s magazine invigorated women by addressing the whole woman; do women’s magazines still have that effect?
JS: Women's magazines have become much more targeted towards specialty audiences, so we now have women's magazines for runners, for parents, for fashion, for health, for home decoration. There are few that can claim to be for the "whole woman," but of course in some ways that makes sense because it's hard to claim an identity for such diversity.
HC: Specifically, What do you think of the connotations of Cosmo now? Does it still serve some of the same positive functions?
JS: I think women have many more avenues of support in their lives than they did in 1965, when Helen Gurley Brown took over Cosmo. Even though the formula is largely the same now as it was then, it is more of what Brown might call "gamey" and less attentive to the whole woman. Ironically, of course, the liberation of sexuality, which she helped along, has more or less taken over the magazine.
HC: A lot of your work is retrospective, albeit with current import. How tuned in are you with what is going on with the women on Bowdoin’s campus, do you ever think about them as you are doing your research?
JS: Yes, I certainly think about young women today and the challenges and the options they have. Women on Bowdoin's campus today have opportunities Brown could hardly conceive of. At the same time, though, I would argue that they still live in a world that underestimates and undervalues them as female.
HC: What challenges have replaced those that Helen Gurley Brown faced?
JS: Brown wanted women to claim sexuality as something they as well as men feel and experience and own. What she didn't want is what we have now-- an acceptance that women are sexualized human beings, but a deep residual inability to put that into a larger context.
HC: The prevailing pop culture portrayal of powerful women’s magazine editors is as “bitches” wholly out of touch with working class women (i.e. Anna Wintour composite in Devil Wears Prada.) Are these portrayals true, or are they yet another way of marginalizing women’s magazines?
JS: Yes, these are entertaining portraits of women in places we can expect to find them, but they also limit our understanding. There is something about privilege that removes highly placed professionals, including of course women's magazine editors, from everyday people, but surely there are more complicated stories to tell. Feminists have various approaches to popular culture depictions like this. One approach, which I respect fully, is to move away from the popular and find spaces in which other stories can be told. The other approach, which I try to promote in students who are interested in media, is to join the popular and find spaces within it in which to promote both the popular and the respectful when it comes to women. Smart women like those at Bowdoin don't have to avoid popular publications to do good and smart work.