It’s an early morning in mid-October 2018 and the offices of the recently launched Refinery29 Canada are slowly coming to life. Looking around, it’s easy to see just how different this iteration of women’s media is from those of the past. For one, its temporary home is a WeWork space, outfitted with millennial trappings. Plants line the windows, a tasteful amount of honey-coloured wood tables offset the stark-white walls, warming the industrialism of the space, and not a cubicle in sight. All of it is highlighted by a “Toronto” sign glowing in a burnt orange hue (they have since moved to a new WeWork office). The room is gorgeous, if not slightly, intimidatingly hip and, now, as the pace of office life perks up, different projects, careers, and lives intersect as hidden speakers pump out the low but pulsating sounds of Drake’s latest romantic drama.
Three weeks earlier, Carley Fortune, executive editor of Refinery29 Canada, and her intern, Kate Kelleher, had been sitting at the same table Fortune is at now, a mug of steaming tea in hand, discussing the online publication’s debut moment. “Kate and I were trying to get everything ready,” Fortune explains. “She was flipping [publishing content from the United States or United Kingdom edition to the Canadian edition]. I was organizing pages and looking at our Canada-only stories, and I just started laughing out loud. Here we are launching a site [and] it’s all very calm.”
In her first letter from the editor—the inaugural piece of content to go live—Fortune made the publication’s intent clear: “Our mission is to help women see, feel, and claim their power by creating ambitious, authentic, and always entertaining content—imaginative, honest stories and service that will help you navigate this brave new world as a woman as well as a change-maker in your own right.”
Fortune is careful to not explicitly identify Refinery29 Canada as feminist, but it’s hard not to label the platform as such. Feminism pops up throughout our conversation. It’s present in the language and images used on Refinery29 Canada’s website, and it’s clear in the visuals used for Fortune’s first editor’s letter, which features images of protest signs emblazoned with “WOMEN WOMEN WOMEN” and the Venus symbol.
The media platform isn’t alone. Since 2015, women’s publications have sought to tap into the feminist and politicized values fueling millennial women, in both content and their mandates. In December 2016, Teen Vogue led the charge, publishing an op-ed, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” Flare has launched an annual #12DaysofFeminists initiative, and released a millennial guide to the Ontario election. While Chatelaine has continued to publish in-depth features, sprinkling in pieces on Yazidi refugees, and incels, alongside recipes for the perfect Christmas cookie. “The industry has responded to the changes in the culture,” Fortune says.
But this shift in content may not be as authentic as it appears. In December 2018, The Cut, the feminist-minded sister-publication of New York magazine that aims to empower women, published a commentary on the marriage and wedding of A-listers Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. The article, which was removed for “miss[ing] the mark,” stated The Cut, took aim at Chopra, suggesting the internationally acclaimed Bollywood actress is a gold-digger and scam artist, insinuating her marriage was for fame and fortune. The article received immediate backlash on social media. Jasmeet Sidhu, a former Toronto Star journalist and 2009 recipient of The Michele Landsberg Award—which celebrates outstanding feminists in media or activism—tweeted: “The Cut’s Priyanka Chopra piece reveals what all so-called ‘women’s websites’ really are about: platforms to sell high ad-dollars for clothing [and] beauty products in the name of women’s empowerment but for the clicks of doing what society does to us on the daily: tear us down.”
Sidhu later clarified over email that the article had been widely condemned as a “racist, xenophobic, and honestly lazy attack on a woman.”
It was a scathing assessment of the women’s media industry, but maybe, not out of line. Despite the cries of girl power and togetherness, women’s magazines are co-opting feminism for commercial purposes. But this isn’t anything new. For the past 60 years, women’s magazines have dipped their toes in the raging waters of feminism, always refraining from jumping right in. This latest co-option has fostered the creation of feminism-lite, an Instagram-friendly, palatable and, ultimately, sellable version of feminism—and it’s one people are gladly buying.
“This latest co-option has fostered the creation of feminism-lite, an Instagram-friendly, palatable and, ultimately, sellable version of feminism”
You don’t have to be a lover—or even a reader—of women’s media to be somewhat familiar with Refinery29. Before Fortune clicked “publish” on the Canadian site, the brand had already been built, known for its distinct visuals and viral content, having—over a decade—firmly positioned itself at the head of the pink-hued women’s media pack.
Launched in 2005 as a city guide and curator of “hot spots” around New York City, Refinery29 initially focused on fashion and style as the sole drivers, before expanding the breadth of its content, incorporating beauty, home, wellness, entertainment, and finance. In the lead up to the 2016 United States presidential election, Refinery29 noticed a shift in the needs of its readership. It made the conscious decision to lean in to political and news-oriented topics, and they have spent the last three years cultivating an identity as the online mecca for women to talk freely about everything from politics to sexuality to the newest jean trend (it’s low-rise).
Refinery29 has clearly found the right financial formula. In 2012 and 2013, the platform was the fastest–growing media company on the Inc. 5000—a list of America’s top entrepreneurs. According to October 2018 statistics by the company, in the last year, Refinery29 was expected to connect with 425 million people across all platforms—including websites, social media, videos, and live events. In 2016, according to Inc. 5000, the company pulled in $80 million in revenue.
Even without content geared explicitly towards Canadians, Refinery29 attracted traffic. Before the Canadian launch, the site was drawing in 1.3 million unique Canadian visitors a month.
“We have a really unparalleled connectivity with a millennial consumer,” says Jessey Finizio, senior sales director for Refinery29 Canada. “We’re really a trusted voice; a terrific resource across every single touch point in your life. From the moment you’re waking up in the morning, to [your] wellness routine, to the things you’re putting in your body, to the clothes [you’re] wearing to the things [you’re] asking for in the workplace to the fun places you can go grab a drink with [your] friends after work.
“Because we’re a digitally native platform, we’re sitting on probably close to 15 years of data on our audience globally,” Finizio says. This allows Refinery29 to be “ahead of the curve,” jumping on trends and catering content to its readers, responding in real time “with sort of a proven formula for success,” she continues. “I think a lot of these traditional publishers and smaller digital brands are not able to compete in the same way.”
“Arguably the biggest change has come from how these media outlets think of their readers: that is, not as one mass entity, in both interests and experiences.”
Despite Refinery29’s abundance of online data, you don’t need a trend tracker to discern the feeling of our time: rage. Specifically feminine rage. And it’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment it happened.
“People were pissed. They were fired up and ready for action,” Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti says of the days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Renzetti, the author of Shrewed, a 2017 anthology of essays and stories on feminism, was inspired by the outcome of the 2016 election and what she says was her own sense of feminist complacency—and naivete.
The reaction to Trump’s win was swift. The day after the inauguration, women across the United States marched, pussy hats melding together into one vibrant pink wave. In Canada, this change had been brewing for years, instigated by the outcome of the 2016 trial of Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi, a former CBC radio host, was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance to sexual assault by choking in 2015. He was found not guilty of all charges in March 2016.
Gloria Steinem, often thought of as the mother of second-wave feminism, stood at the March on Washington podium with a battle cry: “When we elect a possible president, we too often go home. We’ve elected an impossible president, we’re never going home. We’re staying together. And we’re taking over.” Less than a year later, in October 2017, a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano elicited a similar battle cry. Asking survivors of sexual assault to join in solidarity, Milano tweeted #MeToo, re-igniting a decade-long movement started by activist Tarana Burke, convincing an avalanche of women—and men—to speak out.
“The #MeToo movement would not have happened, I sincerely believe, if Hillary Clinton had been elected president,” Renzetti says. “There was just something about that moment that made it perfect for these women to feel emboldened to come forward and to say: ‘Time’s up. No more. That’s it.’”
The Ghomeshi trial had a similar effect on Tessa Jordan, a faculty member in the communications department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, convincing her to discuss feminist ideologies outside of her academic and activism settings. “[Feminism became] more of a part of the zeitgeist, just in general,” Jordan says of the re-surgence of feminism. Jordan has studied Canadian feminist periodicals from the 1970s and 1980s, and has seen an increased interest in feminism in her students, as well as an increased number of researchers studying second-wave feminist print culture since she began working in this field in 2006.
And this has effects on the media that covers women, though the degree to which publications cover the changing landscape of feminism and politics is dependent on editors interpretation, or as Fortune says, how “woke” they are.
Arguably the biggest change has come from how these media outlets think of their readers: not as one mass entity, but as individuals with diverse interests and experiences. “When we’re talking about women’s issues, we have to be aware that women just aren’t skinny, white women who live in cities,” says Global News’ Laura Hensley. “Women are from diverse backgrounds, have different sexual identities, have different experiences. And we have to create content that resonates with them.” Hensley, a former entertainment writer at Flare, started at the then-newly digital women’s magazine in 2017, and says that while shaping Flare’s content in the transition to online, inclusivity was front of mind.
This is a far cry from the mentality even 10 years ago, when women’s media readers were seen as so uniform they shared a name: Robin. In a May 2010 article for Toronto Life, Fortune—then a journalist at the publication—wrote a short commentary on the “death” of Robin, aged 37 of Markham, Ontario. But Robin wasn’t real. She was a prototype—the “model reader” of Chatelaine, established through market research. She was middle class, lived in the suburbs, and read The Da Vinci Code. Her death was, of course, metaphorical, prompted by the legacy magazine’s 2010 re-design under Jane Francisco.
“Oh my gosh,” Fortune laughs at the mention of Robin, eight years later. “There is no cardboard cutout [at Refinery29],” she says. “I think that’s a really important distinction between that older model…We don’t have a Robin. Our readers are multi–dimensional and multi–faceted and from very different experiences.”
Flare views its readers similarly. In May 2018, the magazine launched its “Alternative First Times Package.” Ten stories about readers’ sexual “firsts” that went beyond the “norm.” The package broke the typical and heteronormative idea of losing one’s virginity as a seminal sexual experience, allowing women and female-identifying individuals to share their stories about the pleasure and shame that comes with the first experience of masturbating, the liberation of having sex in the correct gender, and the vulnerability of being intimate after having an abortion or getting sober.
In February 2018, Flare kicked off Black History Month by featuring an entire homepage of articles by or about Black women and their experiences in Canada.
At Chatelaine, Lianne George, editor-in-chief from 2015 to 2018, promised to “offer more cutting-edge reporting” among the recipes, fashion, beauty, and health advice, as well as at least one in-depth feature an issue—a fact highlighted in the brand’s media kit. “It was clear that women were having public conversations about things that had been kind of slipped under the rug for a long time,” George says. “I felt like it was an opportunity to help drive that.” A key inspiration was the publication’s history of reporting on controversial women’s issues in the ’60s and ’70s.
A January 2018 feature by Sarah Boesveld, “The Renfrew County Murders Are Not An Anomaly,” was published under George. It detailed a series of 2015 domestic homicides by Basil Borutski, and the country’s failure to protect the women at the heart of them. Borutski was charged with three separate counts of first-degree murder. In November 2017, he was found guilty of first degree murder on counts one and two, and second degree murder on count three. “The details of Borutski’s case are exceptional: Rarely has a perpetrator killed three former partners in the span of mere hours,” Boesveld wrote. “The general pattern, however, is anything but. The well-documented escalating history of violence that characterized Borutski’s relationship with these women precedes three out of four cases of domestic homicide in this country.” Boesveld’s reporting took a long and hard look at the rates of domestic violence in Canada and the lack of resources to aid both perpetrators and victims before it gets to the extreme.
“They wanted equality inside and outside the home, autonomy over their bodies both personally and politically. They wanted to know how to protect themselves legally. They wanted a voice.”
Hard-hitting content isn’t anything new. The Borutski story is far from the first time women’s magazines have taken the resistance off the streets and onto the page. The ’60s and ’70s were marked by a period of tumult. Having leapt the barrier between the public and private sphere—with more women entering the workforce during war time—women were changed, and so had their roles and ideals. They wanted equality inside and outside the home, and autonomy over their bodies both personally and politically. They wanted to know how to protect themselves legally. They wanted a voice.
In 1978, journalist and feminist Michele Landsberg was interviewed by a male editor from the Star. “[He] pointed out his window and said, ‘See the CN Tower there? I’ll tell you what, if I look out the window and I see a man climbing the CN Tower, that’s front–page news. That’s news. Now, if I look out and see a woman climbing the tower, that’s women’s news,” she recalls. “Everything was seen from a male point of view.”
In Canada, alongside the surge of second-wave feminism, the early ’60s and ’70s simultaneously gave rise to new feminist magazines, like Edmonton-based Branching Out, launched in 1973, as well as the re-birth of one of the country’s mainstay women’s lifestyle publications: Chatelaine. Originally founded in 1928, Chatelaine had become well known as the housewife’s bible, and was re-imagined during this period under the helm of Doris Anderson, who took over as editor-in-chief in 1957.
During her 20-year tenure, Anderson extended the magazine’s content beyond stories of women excelling, into stories about women’s real lives and issues that affected them, tackling subjects that no other media recognized at the time, Landsberg says. This included topics such as race, maternity leave, and sexual assault. The September 1971 issue featured an article, “Nice Girls Don’t Get Raped, Do They?” that spelled out the ways in which victims of abuse were discouraged from reporting by police, courts, and public opinion, laying out the necessity for a shift in the way society spoke about victims, rape, and consent. “It took a while before these ideas got more widespread,” Landsberg says. “ At the beginning, I could have been from Mars.”
With the women’s movement just starting to gain traction, Landsberg says the jargon and academic language for feminism didn’t exist. They were just ideas—it was the wild west of feminism, or the “feminist 1970s” as Steinem referred to it. Landsberg was writing “blazing feminist” columns. “[Chatelaine] was a very political magazine, far more political than it is now.”
D.B. Scott, a longtime Canadian magazine critic, doesn’t necessarily agree with Landsberg’s statement, but says there was something going on under Anderson. “If you looked at Chatelaine before Doris Anderson came along and looked at Chatelaine after she got through with it, it was a quite dramatically changed publication,” Scott says. But there’s a reason for that. “The issues that they put the greatest emphasis on, such as abortion, [and] equality in the workplace, that was all the results of an editorial team and the leaders who understood that this was something that was bound to be of interest to a modern female audience.”
And that’s the point. Women’s magazines have always played an important role in society, as a physical encapsulation of a specific period in time. And regardless of time period, the goal remains the same: It’s all about meeting readers where they’re at—and by extension, where their wallets are. “Magazines, whether they’re digital or traditional print, tend to be vehicles by which advertisers reach the audience,” Scott says.
That’s something that hasn’t changed since Anderson’s time, when Landsberg says the “ad men” were beating down Anderson’s door, trying to bribe the editor-in-chief to put their brand of frozen peas in the magazine’s recipes. “Even something like Refinery29 [is] designed to be a means to reach valuable readers,” Scott says. “The way in which the audience is served, that’s going to change, but ultimately, it’s the traditional magazine business model—which is renting readers to advertisers.” It’s Magazines 101, Scott says: if readers are well-served with stories that resonate with them, they’ll come back.
The fact remains that women’s magazines have been selling feminism since their inception, the question is to what degree, and what type of feminism is it.
“… putting on a pink pussy hat is tangible and seems radical, even if it’s relatively low-risk—or as Sheila Sampath says: inherently apolitical.”
In 2014, just under 60 years after Anderson took the helm at Chatelaine, Beyoncé closed the MTV Music Video Awards, dominating the stage as the word “FEMINIST” flashed across the screen behind her. Her song “Flawless” reverberated throughout the venue, sampling the words of Nigerian poet and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before concluding with a paraphrase of the dictionary definition of “feminist”: “The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
Bitch Magazine founder Andi Zeisler wrote in her 2016 book, We Were Feminists Once, that this was a turning point for feminism, a culmination of an excitement that had been humming just under the surface of mainstream culture for years. Feminism, “so long diminished as the realm of the angry, the cynical, the man-hating, and the off-puttingly hairy,” Zeigler wrote, had officially become hot, and potentially for the first time ever, had hit the mainstream market. And—most importantly—it had become sellable.
Feminism quickly became a part of Beyoncé’s brand identity. On the internet, “Feminist” emblazoned shirts in the same font and pink hue as her merchandise quickly popped up. “[She made feminism accessible] to a wider audience,” Naila Keleta-Mai, an assistant professor in communication arts at the University of Waterloo says. But at what cost?
Despite the shift to more visible feminism, as exhibited by Beyoncé and the surge in women (as well as men and non-binary folk) identifying as feminist in their Instagram bios, it would seem women, surprisingly, aren’t swinging from the rafters declaring themselves as such. A 2015 poll by Abacus Data, conducted as part of Chatelaine’s “This is 40ish” survey, found that of the 1,000 women polled, aged 35 to 45, 68 percent don’t identify as feminists. A more recent survey by Statista, conducted in 2017, found that only 19 percent of Canadian women identify as feminists. In the United States, half of millennial women don’t identify as feminists, with 54 percent of young women polled eschewing the label in an August 2018 poll for Refinery29 and CNN. It still seems low compared to the surge in feminism online and across the chests of women and men everywhere.
“Visibility of feminism does not equate support for women’s equality in practice,” says Lauren McKeon, the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism. Instead, McKeon says the commoditization of feminism has given rise to something else. “[It’s] a very watered down version of feminism,” she says. “Kind of [a] feminism-lite.” When it comes to feminism, this isn’t bad in itself, McKeon says. “I don’t think that people shouldn’t proclaim that they’re feminists. I think it is good that people do feel more comfortable and proud to say they’re feminists and to wear that tote bag and that mug.”
But it becomes dangerous when feminism becomes a “consumption practice,” she says. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s coining of #Activism in a 2010 article for The New Yorker—in which individuals use social media to become engaged in movements superficially, without making any of the strong ties or doing any of the hard, tangible work of activism—the problem with this version of feminism is the idea of it being transactional. “Like you can buy it, you can buy your way to feminism or wear your way to feminism, that’s where it becomes dangerous,” McKeon says. “When that’s the only thing we do, and then where we sort of give the impression that’s the only thing we need to do.”
The impression that buying these products gives women some sort of unnamed fulfillment, Global News’ Hensley adds. Pointing to brands like Indigo, who’ve made a name for its branded “Femme and Fierce” mugs and candles, Hensley is confused as to the messaging. “All of these things have turned into opportunities for companies and brands to sell things. To sell feminism. To give back to women the sense of empowerment that they apparently had and then lost and then have again if they apparently buy this.”
And in some respects, this ability to easily purchase #Feminism is what makes this type of feminism so popular. Much like Gladwell’s #Activism, putting on a pink pussy hat is tangible and seems radical, even if it’s relatively low-risk—or as Sheila Sampath says, “Inherently apolitical.”
“I feel like that’s actually pretty popular,” says Sampath, the editorial and art director of Shameless, a Canadian, grassroots feminist magazine. “The fact that people feel confident to be like ‘I went to the Women’s March, I wore a pussy hat.’ I think it’s really comfortable for people to wear shirts that say, ‘The Future is Female’ or whatever…I don’t think there’s a stigma around that. I don’t think people get harassed on the street for that.”
But McKeon says, “What isn’t popular is getting to the politics of feminism and talking about what needs to change and trying to make that change and putting yourself out there and trying to talk about ideas and standing up to people. That’s a lot harder to do, and I think that’s what’s still wildly unpopular.”
“Women’s magazines have always played an important role in society, as a physical encapsulation of a specific period in time. And regardless of time period, the goal remains the same: It’s all about meeting readers where they’re at—and in extension, where their wallets are.”
If the nitty, gritty feminism Sampath hopes for is absent in practice, to some extent it remains similarly absent from the pages of women’s magazines because women’s media is keeping in line with their audiences and leaning in to #Feminism. “I think that a lot of brands are really capitalizing off feminism and wokeness,” Hensley says. And while some women’s media brands are lending authenticity to their content—by contributing well-researched pieces that add to or propel current conversation—there’s a fine line between authentic and faux feminism.
“I think a lot of brands brand themselves as feminist publications and really use that as a selling point,” Hensley clarifies via email. “Feminism is relevant—and arguably ‘trendy’ now—and ‘being woke’ is culturally important, so being tapped into [it] is vital to the success of a brand. Many publications brand themselves as feminist thought leaders—regardless of whether or not they employ those principals at the workplace—when it comes to how they market themselves.”
Sometimes, it can feel like publications are grasping at straws, slapping feminist terminology onto any and all content for the currency of it. The Winter 2019 issue of Fashion, while notable for its spotlight on young up-and-coming Canadian designers, features a holiday shopping guide for everyone on your list, inspired by the most popular memes of the year. It included the perfect gifts for “frazzled friends” who “between work, family drama, and the never-ending battle for gender equality” need help staying organized. Not in terms of organizing a protest or a women’s march to take down the patriarchy—but rather, staying organized with Coach’s newest fanny pack or a pack of 10 Pantone-coloured notebooks.
It goes beyond just the use of hashtags and buzz words. Publications like Flare and Refinery29 have become identifiable for both the platform’s narrative voices, consistent throughout articles, as well as visual aesthetics. For Refinery29 Canada, the website’s imagery was one aspect that drew new editor-in-chief Fortune to the publication, she says. The graphics are soft-hued, akin to something you’d find pinned to a millennial mood board or a Pinterest page—and the copy follows suite. Flare’s articles are littered with hashtag-filled identifiers: #Girlboss, #WCW, to name a few. The imagery is hip and fun, but it also lends itself to scrutiny for appearing slightly manufactured; an inauthentic feminist voice.
This critique and question of authenticity is one that Fortune particularly takes issue with. “Is it inauthentic to cover sports?” she asks. “Is it inauthentic for a business publication to cover the business community? And so, is it inauthentic for a women’s publication to cover the culture and women’s issues? What’s the underlying question there?”
“I hate to say it but the emptier feminism, the empowerment [feminism], I think it’s really fashionable right now,” Sampath says of the content being put out by most women’s media publications. “[It’s] especially fashionable after the election in the States and after Me Too. But I don’t think the conversation’s where it should be. I think that’s why it’s so digestible.”
“Sometimes, it can feel like publications are grasping at straws, slapping feminist terminology onto any and all content for the currency of it.”
But can we really fault these brands for straddling the line when it comes to feminist content? The reality of the situation is that the “blazing” feminist articles Landsberg fondly recalls writing, don’t necessarily sell. This has never been more apparent than with the November 2018 shuttering of Rookie magazine, the forward-thinking feminist tome for young women. “In one way, this is not my decision, because digital media has become an increasingly difficult business, and Rookie in its current form is no longer financially sustainable,” Tavi Gevinson, the longtime editor wrote in her final letter from the editor. She later elaborated: “It has sometimes felt like there are two Rookies. There’s the publication that you read, that I also love reading, writing for, and editing, and then there is the company that I own and am responsible for. The former is an art project. The latter is a business.” And the business end just wasn’t working.
“It’s very difficult because if revenue models are driven by advertising, advertisers want to feature their products in an environment that is friendly to their products and that it speaks to their products and how you might use their products,” Lianne George says. “The challenge is always going into the offices of the people making the decisions about where to place their advertising and saying, ‘We want you to place your advertising next to our story about Indigenous rights or our story about the pro-choice movement.’ It’s just not what advertisers really want for their product,” George says. And that consideration can play in to decisions about the editorial content, and, in a way, the nature and authenticity of the ideals they espouse.
“I think we were all lulled into feeling great about women’s media sites for a bit,” Star journalist Sidhu wrote in an email of the rise of empowerment content in women’s media. “[But], it was naive to ignore that these spaces would soon be recognized quickly as new spaces to exploit women’s discretionary budgets and potentially high proclivity to spend.”
Sidhu points to the creation of Bustle, an American-based women’s website that was created by Bryan Goldberg, a man, who saw the creation as his next profitable venture after the creation of a successful sports website. “Giant advertisers like Unilever were looking for places to spend their high ad dollars to reach women,” Sidhu writes. She doesn’t fault him for seizing a business opportunity, but “it reminded [me] to remember these sites don’t exist to make me feel good or improve my life—they exist to make money.” She was reminded of this while reading The Cut’s piece on Priyanka Chopra. and crafting her tweet. “It reminded me to always be critical of content that is targeted specific[ally] to women. That empowerment content is exactly that, content, to bring in eye balls for sale.”
“The challenge has been to develop a business model that supports a women’s publication or a women’s media brand that only features challenging issues that affect women’s lives,” George says. And until that happens, can women’s magazines ever be truly, authentically feminist? It’s complicated.
“[They] can be authentically feminist—we all have to survive under capitalism while simultaneously undermining it,” Sampath writes over email. “The issue is more about where accountability lies. Is it to a politic and a readership? Or to advertisers who may have differing views and agendas?”
And even if it was truly, authentically feminist, who’s to say that mainstream readers would want it? Launched from the ground floor of Susan McMaster’s Edmonton co-op in the ’70s, Branching Out magazine was meant to be an in-between of the hardcore feminism of Ms. to the south, and the glossy appeal of mainstream Chatelaine. “[Branching Out] really was trying to look beyond the people who [were] already aligned with feminist values,” Tessa Jordan says, “ it wanted to bring this content to women who [were] not aligned with the movement.” And progressively, the magazine became more radical in its content as the movement started to grow in society. “As women’s issues began to be covered explicitly in the mainstream press and it became a lager more widespread movement…as the audience for feminism grew, than there was that expectation that it treat these issues in a very nuanced way,” Jordan of the British Columbia Institute of Technology says.
And it appears Doris Anderson may have been following along with them. In her quasi-autobiographical 1981 novel, Rough Layout, the protagonist, Jude, an editor of a woman’s magazine, voices the trials of running a women’s magazine in that era, defending the magazine to her feminist friend. “Look, I push feminist articles as much as I can,” Jude says. “I’ve got a certain kind of magazine. It’s not Ms. It’s not Branching Out. It’s not Status of Women News. But it does reach a lot of women and it can make an impact.” In the same excerpt, Anderson highlights the discrepancy between Jude and the all-male advertising team’s views on the female readership of the magazine. Jude made sure to tackle the domestic areas, “but for her own satisfaction she laced the magazine with a strong dose of feminist articles,” Anderson wrote.
Before Anderson left Chatelaine, Branching Out’s McMaster recalls Anderson asking her to lunch. She was surprised to find out that it was an interview for Anderson’s job. “I thought [it] was pretty neat because back in the day before any major feminist publications, Doris did have some of the only reasonable articles,” McMaster says. “It certainly [was] not a raging feminist magazine, but it did have some explorations of issues.” But she says it felt like an acknowledgment of the way Anderson wanted the magazine to go. McMaster met with her and another woman at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. “So, anyway, the other woman got the job, and I’m sure correctly so,” McMaster says (The other woman was Mildred Istona who served as editor-in-chief from 1977 until 1994).
Maybe, like Anderson’s book alluded, readers just weren’t ready for the kind of feminism Jude wanted.
“The challenge has been to develop a business model that supports a women’s publication or a women’s media brand that only features challenging issues that affect women’s lives,” -Lianne George
By the time we finish talking, just over an hour after we first entered the silent WeWork, it’s a different place entirely. The low vibrations of Drake’s Scorpion album are now overpowered by the chatter of keyboards and young professionals talking. As we get up and say goodbye, Fortune seems distracted, looking over her shoulder at the bustle behind her. It’s noisy, something she points out as we walk down the short hallway to the elevators. “Do you see how noisy it gets?” she asks, before asking if I noticed the beer taps at the back of the space. I hadn’t. It’s a little too early in the week for their use, but on Fridays, people in the office will get together to kick off the weekend and celebrate the end of a long week. Along with the beer, Fortune notes that on Fridays they play complimentary, if not distracting “club music.” All day. As we wait for the elevator to reach the third floor, she looks back through the open doors into the bustling office and laughs: “I can’t wait until we have our own office.”
[Editor’s Note: The author has interned and currently freelances for Flare Magazine]