The First Feminist Magazines: A History
Zine culture has been flourishing of late, quickly becoming a hotbed of modern radical thought, exploration of identity, and grassroots activism. Through the creation and distribution of independent zines, we really are quite literally seizing the means. This phenomenon is by no means new, however. The turn of the 20th century (the fin de siècle) saw the birth of some of the earliest women-driven periodicals and magazines, in response to fervent public debate around women, work and education - in 1888, essayist Mona Caird called “the subjection of women” one of the central “factors of our system” (sound familiar?). They also emerged in part as a response to smear campaigns against emerging early feminist identities such as Bluestockings and the New Woman. This ‘New’ brand of womanhood had thoroughly unreasonable aspirations such as equality (gasp!), education (no!) and independence (quelle horreur!), and were largely viewed sneeringly by their contemporaries. The public image of the fin de siècle Bluestocking was the equivalent of the modern-day stereotype of the blue-haired-butch-hairy-lesbian feminist. She was cartooned and caricatured as ugly, over-sexed, unmarriageable, riding a bike - a symbol of mannishness, and independence.
Unsurprisingly it was male writers (both fiction and nonfiction) who wrote New Woman characters in such a way and normalised the narrative of them as sexual deviants and wildcards. Henry James was a notable repeat offender in this, especially in Daisy Miller (1878) and Portrait of a Lady (1880-1). Despite this, the periodical culture of the late Victorian era and early 20th Century began slowly, in a small way, to represent a space where women were at last given the autonomy to write their own identities and narratives in response to popular misconceptions. Not only that, but it also allowed “women from a variety of backgrounds [to make] a living by contributing stories, poems or needlework patterns”.
Periodicals became the site of the stirrings of women’s resistance to the centuries-old patriarchal regime, and the haven in which women could at last write their own identities in response to popular misconceptions. However, not all women’s magazines were created equal. I want to introduce you to just two, from very different backgrounds and approaches; Shafts, an early radical zine now relatively unknown, and The Woman’s World, famously spearheaded briefly by the gay cis white man’s Jesus and the straight cis white man’s guilty pleasure, Oscar Wilde.
Shafts ran from 1892 until 1900 and was edited by Margaret Schurmer Sibthorp. It was a distinctly proactive and mobilised, deeply political periodical which was produced by and for the working woman—the “New Woman”. Its byline, “a paper for women and the working class”, set it out from the first as a grassroots, wide-ranging, and encompassing piece of literature, and the publication facilitated an active and discursive environment for the growth of activism and the women’s movement. Pink-covered and slim, printed cheaply, with advertisements in the inside-cover and rarely with illustrations or images, it was inexpensive and accessible at a price of 3 pence. I ts cover calls out with hope to a near, brighter future, and its contents prepare its readers for that future. Shafts made a consciously valuable contribution towards the cause, featuring content on themes such as women’s work, Suffrage, religion, animal rights, politics, poetry (although no prose fiction), education, hospitals, medicine, science, and general activism around moral and ethical issues of all kinds. It featured lists of debates and lectures, as well as features and advertisements for societies and groups which furthered the cause and educated women in a meaningful way. Above all, it championed the improvement of women’s intelligence. Nothing about Shafts was passive. Its message was very clearly ‘go out and make a difference in the world, because you can’. In Vol.5 Issue 1, Sibthorp reiterates her mission in no uncertain terms in her regular section titled ‘What the Editor Means’:
"The aim of Shafts is to awaken thought; to induce people to ask why, to question—Is the condition of things I see around me right and just? Is this that I have believed, spiritually, morally, socially, the truth? Am I justified in remaining content with this or that, because my grandparents and parents saw no harm in it, or is it my duty to look into my light, and if I find it but dim, to search humbly and determinedly for a truer and brighter light by which to study my daily tasks?"
Inclusivity and acknowledgement of the autonomy and individually constructed identity of its readers sets Shafts apart.
At the opposite end of the same realm was TheWoman’s World (1886-90), edited by Oscar Wilde between 1887 and 1889. When he took it over in 1887 he rebranded it from The Lady’s World and removed what he deemed to be the more vapid and trivial aspects—the gossip and the fashion—on the basis that it encouraged idleness in women. The rebranded Woman’s World was interested with the internal lives of (rich educated) women; what they thought, felt, liked, disliked. It actively sought their opinion and contribution. It wanted—expected—women to do and be more than a mere pretty, mute bauble on the arm of a rich husband. TheWoman’s World presented women with a platform with which to claim space within public discourse, writing their own identities. On the surface it sounds like the perfect, ideal publication; widely circulated and featuring women’s writing? Success! Yet Wilde constructed the paper as merely ‘the mouthpiece of women’, “the recognised organ for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life”. The influences of a male editor—especially one so quintessentially bound up in the idle, decadent, aesthetic cosmopolitan identity—transform the tone and purpose of the space in remarkable way; the magazine becomes a mouthpiece bestowed by the male cosmopolitan in good humour which he can just as easily cut off, rather than a genuine platform which women could take ownership of.
The newly redesigned Woman’s World presented the arsenal of what a woman should be—useful, a good conversationalist, learned. Wilde as a man with no romantic or procreative interest in women viewed them instead as companions, and laid out his consensus on what a woman should know in order to be interesting enough to socialise with cosmopolitan (read: rich and fashionable) men. He famously found most women exceedingly dull (he has been accused more recently of being a rampant misogynist, something we will be unpacking in a later piece; stay tuned). In a letter to Weymss Reid he stated his intention that The Woman’s World “should be a magazine that men can read with pleasure, and consider it a privilege to contribute to.” Even this space so seemingly reserved for women was subject to the standards of men, and was expected to be palatable to their tastes and views (of course). Wilde’s editorship of TheWoman’s World made him the means of both women’s silence and women’s voices; she speaks only when asked.
As Sibthorp reminded her readers of Shafts, “the privileges enjoyed by women, as great as they are trifling, and as valued as they are despised, are made by man and not by woman”, and the “present ‘privileges’ suit [men]’s ideal admirably well, so long as the underlying, very actual subjection of women continues”. The small gestures made to women by Wilde in reconstructing The Lady’s World (which he called “a very vulgar, trivial, and stupid production, with its silly gossip about silly people, and its social inanities”) were not so significant as to make a meaningful contribution towards women’s equality.
By contrast, Sibthorp’s centring of women’s voices in Shafts demonstrated the act of women helping up other women. These values are present even in the subtleties, too—in the back-cover advertisements was a recurring notice for “Voice Development: For Public Speakers”, beneath a notice of upcoming meetings and debates at the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
These were in addition to the regular, detailed reports on societies’ debates, and notices about other upcoming opportunities for learning. Sibthorp was directly and deliberately challenging the image of the silent, obedient woman; she wanted her readers to act, and gave them the tools to do so. There is evidence that her readers responded to this kind of messaging and encouragement in the correspondence section too:
“Last night, I took the affirmative in a debate at a Men’s Mutual Improvement Society on ‘Is it desirable that Women should participate in Political Life?’ I did my best and was glad to see many young women in the audience (who came afterwards and thanked me).”
Shafts was more than just a mouthpiece for literate women; it was a call to action, a manifesto, a mode of encouragement for women to make themselves heard no matter the platform.
There is a lot of common ground in opinion between Shafts and The Woman’s World, but the former takes it to a deeper and more meaningful, active level, whereas the latter situates them amongst polite, more gentle material to make them more palatable. The subjects handled in The Woman’s World were literary, educational, fashionable, with the occasional instance of surprisingly radical commentary on the ‘Woman Question’; for example, an essay on “The Fallacy of the Superiority of Men” by Laura McLaren attacks theories of woman’s inferiority to men on the basis that a pervading “hindrance to women was, and still is, the want of freedom”. Amongst titles including ‘Women and Democracy’, ‘Woman’s Position’, ‘Social Scares’ and ‘Women and Club Life’ were various accounts of Parisian society and fashion, along with discussions on Classics and theatre; all items of interest to a monied, cultured, educated person—the evident touches of a male decadent editor catering to the tastes of himself and his peers.
Both The Woman’s World and Shafts attempt to work towards the elevation of women by facilitating meaningful discourse which contributes to their construction of their autonomy and identities. They share positive stances on women’s work, regularly discussing fields of work for women and running features on the women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, and also structure content which aims at educating and improving.TheWoman’s World is certainly progressive in its opinions for its time, but it has no clear cause beyond presenting the opinions of women of a certain rank and level of education. By contrast, Shafts reads as a call to action—in places, even like a manifesto—which sits interestingly with the perception that “in the New Woman’s insistence on sexual equality and self-development [contemporary critics read] a manifesto of contemporary anarchism”. The differences of the two intentions for the magazines by their editors reveals a shift in the way that new women were writing and advocating for themselves in the years between the two periodicals, and a different framing of women’s rights depending on the sex of the editor. Shafts’ byline—“a paper for women and the working class”—is vital to this understanding. It was not only for women, but spearheaded by one. It also acknowledged that the luxury of idleness enjoyed by middle- and upper-class men (which was central to the image of the cultured bohemian and cosmopolitan), along with the many other privileges such a position afforded, was as inaccessible to the working class as it was for women.
The Woman’s World lacks the passion, vitality and raw sense of urgency unique to a publication which truly believes that it can change the world. Shafts’ frequent calls to action, lists of debates and lectures and improving groups, inspirational quotes, and general tone of hope and progress shine like a beacon. It is true that The Woman’s World is an earlier publication (the issues specifically examined were 10 years apart), which may answer for its less fervid, more reserved and ‘refined’ tone on women’s issues—and it is true that the work it does feature is very forward thinking for its time, though much more ‘polite’—but Shafts really cuts to the core of the movement, whereas the Woman’s World is light reading. It is progressive, but not too radical. In the June 1888 issue, Julia Wedgewood said that “there are no radicals like Women. How could it be otherwise?
It’s super interesting to examine these publications retrospectively; seeing where low-budget, radical women’s zines began and tracing it to the present day, the essentials truly remain the same. I feel that every lovingly, passionately created publication captures the urgency and rawness that Sibthorp instilled in Shafts; the hope that they can change just one small corner of the world, and that that will be enough.
This article is an excerpt, adapted and taken from a longer research work titled 'Gendered cosmopolitan identities in the periodical press of the fin de siècle'.
All images captured by Sarah Lawrence, from manuscripts in the archives of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.
Footnotes & References:
 Mona Caird, ‘Marriage’ in Westminster Review (Vol.130, No.1, July 1888) p.194
 Marianne Van Remoortel, Women, Work and the Victorian Periodical (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) p.1
 Sibthorp, ‘What the Editor Means’, Shafts (Vol.5 No.1, Jan 1897) p.1
 Wilde, ‘Letter to Wemyss Reid, dated April 1887’ in The Letters of Oscar Wilde p.195
 Oscar Wilde, ‘Letter to Wemyss Reid, April 1887’ in Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.) The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962) p.194
 Sibthorp, Shafts, (Vol.5, 1897) p.49
 Wilde, ‘Letter to Mrs Hamilton King, September 1887’ in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, p.205
 Letter from ‘A Hopeful Worker’ in Shafts (Vol.5 No.3, March 1897) p.99
 Lauren McLaren, ‘The Fallacy of the Superiority of Men’ in The Woman’s World (Vol.1, No.12, December 1887) p.57
 ‘Women and Democracy’ by Julia Wedgewood, June 1888; ‘Woman’s Position’ by the Countess of Portsmouth, November 1887; ‘Social Scares’ by Mabel Sharman Crawford, August 1888; ‘Women and Club Life’ by Amy Levy, June 1888.
 Sophie de Maucroix, ‘Les Premières: “First Nights” in Paris’ in The Woman’s World (Vol.1 No.14, February 1888) p.205; Mary Robinson, ‘A Walk Through the Marais’ (Vol.1 No.21, September 1888)
The Woman’s World ran articles such as: ‘The Oxford Ladies Colleges’, by A Member of One Of Them (November 1887); Professions for Women:—‘Medicine’ by Dr. Mary A. Marshall M.D. (January 1888); ‘Nursing’ by HRH. Princess Christian (April 1888); ‘Elementary School-Teaching’ by Miss Simcox (October 1888)
Shafts ran articles including: ‘Oxford Colleges and Women Benefactors’, by Alice Grenfell (October 1897) as well as frequent discussions on the developments of the conferral of degrees for women at Cambridge, including in ‘The Busy Month of May: Urgent Work for Women Workers’ (May 1897) and ‘Women’s Suffrage: To All Earnest Suffragists’ (June 1897), both by Elizabeth Elmy.
 Linda Dowling, ‘The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890s’ (1979) p.50
 Julia Wedgewood, ‘Women and Democracy’, in The Woman’s World (Vol.1 No.18, June 1888) p.338
Sibthorp, Margaret Shurmer (ed.) (1897) Shafts. Vol.5 No.1-12 (Shelfmark Per. 2474 d.43 at Old Bodleian Library)
Wilde, Oscar (ed.) (1887-8) The Woman’s World. London: Cassell & Co Ltd. Vol. 1 Issues November 1887 to December 1888. (Post-1701 Weston 602700603 at Weston Library, University of Oxford)