The Daily Mail and Women

The British newspaper revolutionised the market by appealing to female readers, even though its attitude towards sexual politics has often been ambivalent, argues Adrian Bingham.

Women's issues: the revamped 'Femail' section, 1969
Women's issues: the revamped 'Femail' section, 1969

Notorious today for its ‘Sidebar of Shame’, the Daily Mail played a pioneering role bringing women into the daily newspaper market. The paper’s founder, Alfred Harmsworth (later ennobled as Lord Northcliffe), pursued the female audience with more consistency and vigour than any previous exponents of popular journalism and his success ensured that rivals followed his lead. Northcliffe moved the female reader from the margins to the centre of editorial calculations, ensuring that the definition of ‘news’ was radically altered, that the boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ was redrawn and that the visibility of women in public discourse was transformed. More than a century later, the Mail is still known for its skill in attracting a large female readership. A commercial interest in the female audience did not, however, necessarily translate into ‘progressive’ attitudes to sexual politics. Northcliffe took a long time to be persuaded that women deserved the vote and, throughout its existence, the Mail has been criticised for failing to be sufficiently supportive of working women. While many women were hooked by its diet of fashion, domesticity and celebrity, others were dismayed at the tendency to pander to traditional gender stereotypes.

Feminising the news

The Mail explicitly addressed women from its very first issue on May 4th, 1896. Northcliffe was determined that the content of the newspaper be broadened by including a page of features – heralded as the ‘Daily Magazine, An Entirely New Idea In Morning Journalism’, which every week would provide ‘matter equivalent to a sixpenny monthly’ – and he ensured that space was explicitly marked out for women’s interests. The paper made a firm commitment to its female readers:

Movements in a woman’s world – that is to say, changes in dress, toilet matters, cookery, and home matters generally – are as much entitled to receive attention as nine out of ten of the matters which are treated of in the ordinary daily paper. Therefore, two columns are set aside exclusively for ladies.

This section was no place for amateurs. The paper announced that the ‘department will be under the direction of a lady who till recently occupied the editorial chair of a leading fashion weekly’ – Mary Howarth, later to be the first editor of the Daily Mirror – and emphasised that the various subjects under consideration ‘will all be treated by experts’. Across the page, a signed article by ‘Lady Charlotte’ gave a hint of the aristocratic sophistication that would be placed at the reader’s disposal. The paper was determined to demonstrate that content aimed at women was not an afterthought but the product of careful editorial consideration. Northcliffe himself displayed a genuine determination that the women’s section should be treated as seriously as any other department. He ordered that recipes be checked by his own chef and insisted that articles and stories were accurate and consistent: those he suspected of being casual were, as one trusted journalist observed, ‘flayed alive’. As time went on, Northcliffe carried out his own forms of market research to ensure that the women’s pages remained relevant and readable: he warned the editor that he had ‘fifty women of all classes’ giving their opinion of the features. ‘Don’t be bluffed by journalists with only a men’s outlook,’ he counselled staff. ‘Read the woman’s page every day.’

As the initial announcement made clear, the ‘woman’s world’ was defined fairly conservatively, following the tradition of the 19th-century women’s magazine. Mrs C.S. Peel, who became editor of the women’s page during the First World War, recalled with frustration how Mail journalists ‘expected women to be interested solely in knitting jumpers, in caring for their complexions, looking after babies, in cooking, in a “good murder” and in silly stories about weddings’. On the other hand, the Mail was challenging conceptions of what constituted ‘news’ and what was ‘important’ enough to be reported in a morning newspaper. If women’s material was as worthy of inclusion as ‘nine out of ten matters’ that were usually covered, then the conventional place of the ‘public sphere’ as the location of the ‘serious’ business of life was brought into question. In practical terms, moreover, it gave women an important foothold in the male-dominated national press, ensuring both a greater visibility and new opportunities to voice their concerns; once the space had been established, more challenging material could, and would, be included. In any case, the value of this fashion and domestic advice should not be dismissed. It proved to be popular with large numbers of female readers, for it engaged with actual interests and concerns in a pragmatic way.

The articles contained in the ‘woman’s realm’ were not the only means by which the Daily Mail sought to attract a female audience. The first issue also contained the opening instalment of a fiction serial, directed primarily at women. Northcliffe hoped it would soon encourage wives to remind husbands to bring their paper home. More generally, the reorientation of news values allowed women and ‘women’s interests’ to enter the main body of the paper. Northcliffe sent bulletins to his news editors reminding them to ‘look out for feminine topics for the news columns’. One of these editors, Tom Clarke, recalled his proprietor’s exhortations: ‘Don’t forget the women, Tom. Always have one “woman’s story” at the top of all the main news pages.’ Northcliffe made clear his determination not to return to the time when newspapers were ‘written only for men [while] women and their interests were despised’. He urged journalists to consider the news from perspectives other than that of the metropolitan male: ‘I think the Daily Mail might have had some reference to the great sale week’, he told the editor in July 1918, despite the limited space and the mass of war news to fit into the columns. ‘The whole feminine population of the village where I am is en route for London this morning for the great day.’ He praised the paper when it had a ‘good wedding exclusive’, for these were ‘always very valuable to a newspaper so largely read by women’. Female journalists were not always restricted to ‘women’s issues’, though. During the Boer War, the Mail enlisted Lady Sarah Wilson, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and the wife of an officer serving in South Africa, to send dispatches from inside the siege of Mafeking. Lady Sarah has a good claim to be Britain’s first female war correspondent and her vivid reporting generated national interest. She helped to pave the way for other female reporters at the paper, such as Margaret Lane, one of the Mail’s star journalists of the 1930s, and Ann Leslie, a prolific and celebrated foreign correspondent since 1967.

The advertising incentive 

Female readers were important not just because they boosted the overall circulation: they had a special economic importance to the newspaper business. Women were the major spenders of the domestic budget and hence the prime targets for advertisers. As newspapers came to rely ever more heavily on the revenue from branded advertising, reaching female readers became a financial necessity. Mrs Peel understood that the whole newspaper enterprise ‘depended upon the goodwill of women – for it is women who spend the greater part of men’s earnings and so make advertisements pay, and without advertisements no paper can live’. Northcliffe found that advertisements had a circulation value as well. Attempting to lift rather flat early week sales, he offered concessions to department store advertisers and was rewarded by circulation increases. Newsprint rationing during the First World War meant that there was not enough space to include the women’s page, so Northcliffe insisted that his advertisement manager give preference to advertisements that appealed to women. ‘Drapery advertisements,’ he observed, ‘are news to them … Now that we have abolished the women’s column, it is more than ever necessary not to neglect this important department’.

The central importance of advertising ensured that the Mail was infused with an aspirational atmosphere. Northcliffe was adamant that ‘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.’ Such attitudes encouraged the continued expansion of celebrity journalism across the century. The desire to attract advertising also encouraged the introduction of Daily Mail-branded events. The most notable of these was the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition, still flourishing today. The exhibition was first held in 1908, initially as a publicity stunt and a new means of securing advertising. Northcliffe himself initially disliked intensely what he regarded as a ‘sideshow’, but reluctantly accepted its commercial value. After the First World War he gradually came to appreciate its worth as a source of features about developments in the home. Henceforth, the Mail publicised the exhibition extensively in its pages and championed the idea of remodelling domestic life to make it suitable for the modern age.

Gender stereotypes

Northcliffe’s forward thinking with regard to the female market was tempered by what one of his journalists described as ‘an old-fashioned doubt’ as to whether women were ‘really the equals of men’. 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. He was also happy to exploit female glamour and sexuality. ‘I have no use for a man who cannot appreciate a pretty ankle’, Northcliffe told Tom Clarke. In his bulletins to the Mail he frequently reminded his staff of the need to display glamorous women and he was critical when his picture editor picked out what he regarded as ‘common-looking ugly wenches’. When a photograph of Polish women soldiers appeared in August 1920 he was furious: ‘Pictures of attractive English ladies would have been much more to the point. I am almost weary of repeating this.’

Sceptical of suffragettes

Northcliffe was sceptical about the need for female suffrage and such scepticism was reproduced in the columns of the Mail. The paper coined the term ‘suffragette’ as a derogatory label for women prepared to use violence in their campaign for the vote and it argued that their ‘antics’ were alienating public opinion. This opposition to female enfranchisement eventually crumbled as a result of women’s committed service on the Home Front during the First World War. Although the Mail generally embraced the expansion of women’s roles after 1918, Lord Rothermere – Northcliffe’s brother, who assumed ownership of the paper after the founder’s death in 1922 – was so concerned about the prospect of young women voting for the Labour party that he insisted the Mail vociferously oppose the Baldwin government’s proposal to equalise the franchise at 21 (in 1918 only women over 30 were granted the vote). Daily headlines implored the government to ‘Stop the Flapper Vote Folly’; the measure was censured as ‘worthy of Bedlam’ and, if passed, the Mail warned darkly that it ‘may bring down the British Empire in ruins’. The Mail’s opposition achieved little other than to show its continued anxieties about women’s roles.

Such ambivalence about gender has remained characteristic of the Mail. The paper has continued to have greater success in attracting female readers than most of its rivals, largely due to its skill in appealing to the section of the market hungry for lifestyle and celebrity features. In 1936 it introduced a problem column, Ann Temple’s ‘Human Case-Book’, which generated considerable interest. Temple admitted that she was ‘absolutely astounded’ by the volume of post she received in response to her first column. When the social research organisation Mass-Observation investigated the national press in 1948, it found that Temple received ‘warmer tributes than perhaps any other feature writer encountered’ in the survey. This popularity was achieved despite Temple’s fairly stern sense of morality: she tried to make a stand against what she saw as a damaging creed of ‘self-first’ and the associated change ‘from respect for marriage into the belief that love matters more than marriage’. The women’s section was once again revitalised in 1969 by the arrival of Shirley Conran, author of the best-selling Superwoman, and its rebranding as ‘Femail’. These changes were consolidated in 1971 when Vere Harmsworth (who had recently taken over as Chair of Associated Newspapers) and new editor David English, relaunched the Mail as a tabloid. Harmsworth captured the spirit of Northcliffe when he insisted that ‘We have to direct ourselves to women’, providing ‘a news coverage that women want to read’. English and his successor, Paul Dacre, followed this advice closely and invested heavily in the pages aimed primarily at the female audience.

Feminist values

The Daily Mail has been consistently sceptical in its coverage of organised feminism. Outspoken columnists such as Lynda Lee-Potter blamed the women’s movement for many of the ills of modern society. Many women have felt that the flipside of the Mail’s staunch defence of ‘family values’ has been a critical approach to women who combine motherhood with a career. Others have pointed to the way the paper has scrutinised the female body and sneered at imperfections. A characteristic article from March 2003, for example, revealed the ‘swimsuit age’ of stars snapped on the beach. Thirty-year-old pop star Mariah Carey was given a ‘swimsuit age’ of 45 because she had ‘let herself go’ and displayed ‘chunky thighs’. Sailor Ellen MacArthur, meanwhile, ‘may be fit but her body is chunky. She hasn’t had children yet, but already looks rather matronly’. Criticism has been easy to brush off while the Mail’s tried-and-trusted formula remains appealing to a sufficient number of readers. Indeed, the enormous global popularity of Mail Online, the newspaper’s website, suggests that the formula is as successful today as it has ever been.

Adrian Bingham is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield.

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