For the 84th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Lindsay Hargrave about the history of Life magazine and how college-aged women were portrayed in the 1930s.
Lindsay Hargrave is a copywriter and research assistant at Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University. She is the co-author, with Carolyn Kitch, of “Life on Campus: Life Magazine’s ‘College Girl’ as an Ordinary and Ideal Symbol of America in the 1930s” in the June 2021 issue of Journalism History.
Lindsay Hargrave: It covered like a lot of very specific things about these women, Life magazine. It covered their — their appearances a lot of the time, and it would give their measurements, their height, their weight, and things like that.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Throughout the 20th century, Life magazine was a household staple in millions of homes across the country. Publisher Henry Luce created a publication in 1936 that emphasized photography, with the goal for the American public to “see life, to see the world, to eyewitness great events, to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud, to see strange things.”
In this episode, we feature Lindsay Hargrave of Temple University who recently conducted research with Carolyn Kitch examining “Life on Campus: Life Magazine’s ‘College Girl’ as an Ordinary and Ideal Symbol of America in the 1930s.” Lindsay, welcome to the show. Give us some context of what the magazine industry was like in the early 1900s.
Lindsay Hargrave: So when Life came into being, it was November 1936 and it was a part of Time Inc. –
and prior to Life, Henry Luce had founded Time magazine in 1923 and Fortune in 1930. Now, Time was the first weekly newsmagazine that was, that had never been done before, so it was kind — it was kind of a new way of receiving your news that wasn’t from the radio or from a newspaper. It was the more visual way of getting news and of interacting with the world, really. It was coming on the heels of other things like National Geographic, which was founded in the late 1800s, which really brought photography in magazines to the forefront.
Today it’s still known for its magazine photography. And so when Life came into being, it sort of merged a lot of things from things like National Geographic with its photography to things like Life which, you know, it had a business relationship with, but it took things from things like Life in that it was a weekly newsmagazine and it sort of merged –
what worked best from a lot of the most successful magazines of the time, and Henry Luce was a real genius in this way.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit more about Life magazine in particular. Talk a little bit more about who its audience was and the overall goal of the magazine.
Lindsay Hargrave: Yeah, so Life magazine had a really wide scope for its audience. It was really going for a wide, middle class to upper class to men and women, all ages. It really tried to capture youth as well as people who worked and people who stayed at home. And when it kind of came into being, it didn’t, I don’t think it fully knew what it wanted to be. When Henry Luce gave his prospectus for Life magazine, it had all this like very grandiose language, and it really wanted to cover you know, all the grand sights of the world. I think he was inspired a lot by things like National Geographic when he wrote it. And he said, you know, to see life, to see the world, to eyewitness great events, to watch the faces of the poor –
and the gestures of the proud, to see strange things, and these are all very abstract things. Right? So you see in — as Life comes into being its first few months, its first few dozen issues, it really does cover a wide range of topics and kind of has a range of tones about it, too, from the very like newsy more news abroad and politics to the college girl herself. But yeah, it really wanted to showcase the world with photographs and it was, again, sort of pulling together the best of what was working at the time. It wanted to showcase some of the best photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, but also show its capacity to bring it to the American people every week and to really bring them a visual showcase of what was going on and of all the incredible things that they could look at. So it, it really ran away with itself in that way and only like a couple months into publication they actually had to increase –
the price of a subscription because it was so popular they couldn’t pay for the printing. They, they had to increase prices. So I think as it went on, of course, it became like an incredibly iconic magazine but when it started out, yeah, it was just sort of like anything, everything, like what will make the best photos, you know, how can we get as much as we can into this magazine?
Teri Finneman: So a little bit earlier, you mentioned the college girl, and in the specific research study you sought to understand how college-aged women were portrayed in magazines in the 1930s. Why were you interested in this time period?
Lindsay Hargrave: So we were interested in the 1930s for two main reasons: one being that the 1930s in particular lies between what we think of as the first two waves of feminism. You know, we think of the first wave as being the suffrage movement leading up to 1920, and then again in the ’70s with women’s liberation and –
you know, a third wave that’s arguably still going on today. But the 1930s, it isn’t discussed as often in a scholarly context as far as women’s achievements, and definitely not as far as the way that women are depicted in the media. So it was a really interesting time, especially because talkies and movies were really coming into their own in Hollywood, so media — media portrayals of women were skyrocketing at the time but we don’t think of it as a time when women were liberated, per se. But we also looked at this because we wanted to look at how how Life was forming itself, how Life magazine was sort of coming into its own during its first five years of publication. It began publishing on November 23, 1936, so we looked at every issue leading up to the end of 1941. Um, and this I thought was a really interesting time to study because it was leading up until –
leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II, but we weren’t involved just yet, so there’s a lot of talk about the war and then, you know, our eventual involvement is, is covered in these years as well. So it’s really interesting to see, you know, how women are portrayed, you know, now that they have the right to vote. But it’s, it’s just before the sort of falling off that a lot of people think of in women’s achievement when World War II, when the United States becomes involved in World War II. But we kind of argue that it, it wasn’t a dull time for women. It, it was actually a really important time for women, especially the way they were seen in the media.
Teri Finneman: You note in your study that while fewer than 12 percent of all American women attended college in the 1930s, the fact that they constituted nearly half of college enrollment is remarkable. So as we just talked about, you examine Life magazine’s college girl depictions.
Tell us more about the use of that phrase at this time.
Lindsay Hargrave: The phrase “college girl” was used a lot in fiction and in news, magazines and, and in all kinds of media. And, and today we kind of think of the word “girl” as being a sort of like infantilizing, trivializing term something that a woman in college wouldn’t necessarily think of herself as being or want to be referred to as a girl. But the literary historian Shirley Marchalonis she, she kind of noted that “girl” wasn’t the, in its time in the early 1900s, it wasn’t really like a, it wasn’t a demeaning term the way we think of it now. It was sort of referring to the stage in a woman’s life where she was like becoming an adult. She was in sort of this liminal stage between childhood and adulthood, and having like an educational experience that was kind of unique to the United States, unique to –
becoming more and more accessible to people who weren’t necessarily wealthy, and expanding across America. But there were other discussions of, of college women in the media that were not as flattering. Um, the sweet girl graduate is one that comes to mind from the Progressive Era, which was this kind of silly girl who was a new woman, but she was frivolous and she was, you know, kind of ditzy.
Teri Finneman: So a college girl appeared in Life‘s very first issue, as you mentioned, was November 23, 1936. What kind of content was featured?
Lindsay Hargrave: So the college girl in Life‘s first issue is just sort of this half-page vertical. It’s two photographs of a girl doing a backflip, and it’s sort of in awe of like her ability to do this backflip. It’s just sort of a cute, fun thing. Um, but it kind of stands among pages of –
kind of like we talked about earlier, just like this incredible blend of content. There’s the sort of social page about the Roosevelts, there’s news about Mussolini, there’s this very National Geographic-esque photo essay about Brazil. There’s a feature about early childhood schooling for Chinese immigrant children. Um, there’s sort of the preliminary to the classic Life feature, Life goes to a party, which would end up being in every issue of Life. There would be a party that they would attend with aristocrats and other notable people. But there was also art and features on painters and full pages showing their paintings, actresses. There’s a feature on NBC itself. It’s yeah, it’s, it’s really just an encyclopedic bundle of content. It’s, it’s crazy by today’s standards. But it’s interesting to me that in that first issue –
not only do we have a college girl doing something extraordinary, but we also have this indication that Life is fascinated with education both in its showing of the college girl and these Chinese children going to school, and it would continue to be really fascinated with education as it continued to publish.
Teri Finneman: What was the difference in how the magazine portrayed college men versus women?
Lindsay Hargrave: So college women were — they were sort of portrayed as carefree and happy in, in a lot of ways, but it didn’t exactly take them seriously. It definitely noted that, you know, these girls were here to, you know, they weren’t necessarily going to get a job or sustain a career once they graduate, and it also didn’t really quote them very often. Um, it talked about them a lot. It had a lot of captions sort of describing these girls’ lives and a lot of photographs of the girls –
but not very many of their own words. However, college men, they were — they were covered very differently. I feel like when they were covered side by side, as they often were, there was one feature in 1937 that was about like the class of 1937 and, you know, sort of the average college boy and girl and it compared them side by side showing that, you know, they’re so similar, but there were such subtle differences between them that it like almost didn’t seem like they were worth noting. Like, like I’m thinking of two photographs that were next to each other of groups of boys and girls just sort of sitting in a dorm, and it says that for the boys the topics of discussion were personalities, sex, careers, politics, liquor, in about that order, but for the girls it was personalities, sex, careers, religion. Like it was such minor editing, such a minor difference between the two, but like they still felt the need to say it and I thought that was really significant. However, um –
what I think is really telling is that when all-boys schools are covered, such as military schools at the time, they were covered in like a much more serious tone that almost, it spoke to this very like American sense of freedom and duty and of these really like serious ideas, whereas the college girl was sort of thought of as this like carefree, happy joyful figure who was experiencing freedom in a very different way, in a way where she didn’t have to worry about things like duty or like a career but her male counterparts absolutely did have to worry about those things, politics and the like.
Teri Finneman: What did you find in these magazines as far as portrayals of class, region, and race?
Lindsay Hargrave: So as far as class, I thought it was very interesting because one thing that Life‘s coverage of college women emphasized was the difference between Eastern — like all women’s colleges –
and state schools that were coed, and it sort of spoke to this like growing accessibility to the middle class to be able to go to college, especially for women at these state schools. And the way that they kind of like compared them, they often did this with fashion, you know, what women wore on campuses where they didn’t have to worry about finding a husband, when they were only concerned about, you know, the comments of other women, versus what a woman would wear to a co-ed college where she was looking to find a husband. So I thought that was very interesting. And that, you know, had a lot to do with region as well, as a lot of these … state schools were further out West and in the middle of the country, whereas the women’s colleges were more on the East Coast, Vassar and such. Class was also interesting because it paid a lot of — it covered like a lot of very specific things about these women, Life magazine. It covered their –
their appearances a lot of the time, and it would give their measurements, their height, their weight, and things like that. Um, but it would also cover their budgets, and if they worked, it would say, you know, how much they made at their job or how much allowance they received from their parents per week and how they spent it on food and on social events and, and so on. And I thought that was really interesting because it seemed like such a typical thing for, you know, someone to be concerned about if they were looking for someone like them in the pages of a magazine, but you would never see it printed somewhere like that today in the actual like editorial content. As far as race, we did not see much diversity at all. I’m talking like 99.9 percent white, you know, America when we’re talking about college women. There are a handful of exceptions, but most of the time those exceptions were not included in like features or photo essays about college women –
or about the college experience, college fashion, any of those things. It was sort of like, oh, what is the African American experience in America, and that might comment on, you know African-American sororities and that sort of thing. Um, but when Life was talking about the college girl, it was talking about a thin, attractive, white woman. She might be middle class. She might have a job. But she was attractive and she was thin and she was white.
Teri Finneman: In my own research, I’m also interested in examining models for American womanhood, and then as a KU professor here in Kansas I was particularly interested in this finding in your study. Uh, you wrote, “Since 1930, KU girls have exhibited growing interest in becoming nurses, doctors, journalists, decorators, but courses in home economics are still popular. No KU girl fools herself about what she wants to do after graduation. She wants to get married and settle down.
KU is a fine place to start a marriage.” Now, most people won’t be too surprised about this, but what did you find as a model for American womanhood in these magazines?
Lindsay Hargrave: Yeah, yeah, so the college girls’ model was, was pretty much that. It was to go to college in order to become a wholesome, well-rounded, educated American woman, you know, this really wholesome example of the American superiority that I think was a tone that Life employed throughout its early years. But yeah, the, the college girl I think is one of many like female archetypes that kind of manifested themselves in Life magazine and I’d imagine throughout like other American media in the 1930s. So, so one of them is the college girl who, you know, will eventually get married and might not have a career, but is still independent in her college days. Another one that we saw that was kind of similar but different in her role –
in a lot of ways was the starlet or the young movie star and she was kind of a new figure in the 1930s especially in photo magazines. But Life covered I mean stars like Greta Garbo and Judy Garland during these years and kind of covered them as larger than life in a lot of ways so different from, you know, the political figures. But when they began, they weren’t as familiar as the college girl was, but as it went on, you know, eventually I think they and, and Dr. Kitch and I are kind of beginning to study this now, but the starlet kind of became – and, and the movie star – became familiarized to Life‘s audiences. They sort of they wanted to show that the – she, too, could be just like you. But if you weren’t one of these like young, attractive archetypes, motherhood was a really strong model of womanhood that we saw –
throughout Life, especially when it came to World War II and Life‘s coverage of British women becoming involved in the war. Um, a lot of it noted, you know, that these are wives, they’re mothers, but we also saw some non-college student women who were either career girls or maybe they were nursing students or they were like pursuing some form of independence in another way that wasn’t college or, you know, a college where you go there for four years and you dorm there. And then even more rarely, we would see these sort of larger-than-life female heroes. One of — one I can definitely think of is Eleanor Roosevelt received a feature in Life early on, and it sort of covered her almost the way it covered men the way it didn’t trivialize her. It didn’t, it didn’t talk down to her. It sort of showed her in this very respectful sophisticated light.
Another one I can think of is Katharine Hepburn in a feature about the Hepburn family that it did in the 1930s, and it didn’t cover her just, you know, as a beautiful woman or even just as a movie star, but as someone who was political and cultured and educated and really, really smart. But yeah, it definitely showed these very strict archetypes, especially in its early years. Um, there were a few things that women could be, and it did not stray very far from those things with, with some exceptions later on but — but not many.
Teri Finneman: You also examined advertising in Life magazine and found many of the ads looked like they were regular stories. So what were some of the trends that you found in the advertising?
Lindsay Hargrave: Yeah, so that is mainly talking about the way that they looked like photo essays, which I believe Henry Luce kind of coined the term “photo essay” with Life magazine the way that they sort of arranged photos –
to tell a story, you know, with captions and maybe some introductory text, but with minimal copy. Actually, he said that the first one of these was a February I think 1937 photo essay about Vassar College, one of the first like really in-depth features on the college girl although you can definitely see some evidence of these photo essay style features in earlier issues in like 1936 and earlier 1937. But yeah, these ads sort of looked like photo essays using multiple photographs, often with different shaped frames to sort of tell a story, almost like a comic strip. Some similarities that we found as far as the way the college girl was spoken about in these ads was she was used to sort of sell things that were budget friendly. You know they would like, again, like many of these articles discuss her budget and how exactly it was –
it could mathematically fit into the budget of a college girl who either worked a part-time job or received an allowance, or it sort of used the college girl as like a fashionable figure, someone who, again, lived in this very independent, self-exploratory campus space and could explore things like fashion and live on the cutting edge and really be a trendsetter. So, so things like ads for dresses would, would show, you know, college women wearing their dresses, their coats, their shoes, college women making coffee and you know, showing how budget friendly and social it is to serve coffee in your dorm that sort of thing.
Teri Finneman: What happened with Life‘s portrayals of college-aged women after the 1930s?
Lindsay Hargrave: Um, so it definitely fell off a bit. A lot of that — a lot of these college-age women you see them involved in more things like, like either working –
or being nurses helping with the war effort, of course, volunteering that sort of thing. It’s even more pronounced I think with its coverage of college men. I’m even thinking of an ad in late 1941, it might even be 1942, asking for college-educated men to serve as officers in the military, and it all sort of transformed the way that young people were viewed.
Teri Finneman: So for our final question of the show, we’re gonna ask you why does magazine history matter?
Lindsay Hargrave: I think magazine history matters because it’s sort of the history of the way that we record our history. We read magazines and we make magazines because we want to see people who are like ourselves and we want to feel comforted and we want to see things that are aspirational, and I think Life magazine –
definitely strove and did all of those things, and I think the college girl was a huge part of that. There were, there were thousands of smart women who wanted to read about other smart women and, or, or who couldn’t go to college themselves but maybe wanted to, or had friends who were able to go to college. And I think that preserving and exploring the history of these things, it shows us that the way that you talk about and talk to these people, any kind of person, type of person kind of reflects the way that they’re treated. So until we can like talk about things, you know, in ways that make sense, in ways that are objective and respectful, it’s hard to like actually, one, cover things truthfully and, two, to be able to talk about them in a way where we can, you know, be equitable.
Teri Finneman: Okay. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Lindsay Hargrave: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.