On a recent Tuesday night in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, Giovanna Gray Lockhart opened her home to a crowd that included her former boss Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Carolyn Maloney, among other high-powered women. (Lockhart's husband, Joe, the former White House press secretary and founder of the Glover Park Group, was also there.) Candles flickered in the fireplace; there were cookies and canapés. The event—sophisticated, fun, political, personal, stylish, and serious—reflected the occasion: the announcement of Lockhart's new job as D.C. bureau chief of Glamour magazine.
This is the new Glamour. In 1998, the magazine killed its women-in-politics column, written by Washington-based contributors Hanna Rosin and Juliet Eilperin, and replaced it with one about astrology. Today, the magazine's May cover features an interview with Michelle Obama on the struggles of military families.
Women's magazines are making a major push to build up their political coverage and strengthen their ties to Washington. They're stacking their contributors' lists with D.C. insiders, and banking on the idea that women want to read about policies that affect them and about the people behind those policies. "We've seen a growing recognition by women that what happens in Washington affects their lives," Maloney told me in a written statement. "Thankfully, women's media outlets are responding by covering more than just traditional topics of fashion and health. They are focusing more on politics and policy. It's an important development." The future of women's magazines, it seems, may be less supermodels, more super PACs.
Cindi Leive, Glamour's editor-in-chief, says Lockhart is preparing to hire a "whole roster of political contributors," and Self is following suit; Marie Claire has already engaged a slew, including former top White House aide Alyssa Mastromonaco. In January, Betsy Fischer Martin, executive producer of Meet the Press, became a contributing editor at More. And the changes go beyond the masthead. Before last year's midterms, Self ran a series that highlighted what candidates were doing to keep focused and fit on the campaign trail ("That was the first time it clicked for me," Editor-in-Chief Joyce Chang told me, "that politics had a place at Self"), and, for the first time ever, Cosmopolitan came out with political endorsements. Elle has a history of thoughtful political coverage, but these days it is clearing a high bar: A recent dinner to celebrate the magazine's "Power List" of Washington women honored Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the magazine's May issue features an interview with the typically media-avoidant Chel-sea Clinton.
"I think it's part of the evolution of there being more women in more positions of power. There's that much more to talk about."
Elle Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers
Readers won't necessarily see a lot of bylines from the new wave of Washington contributors. In New York, at her office in the Hearst high-rise, Marie Claire Editor-in-Chief Anne Fulenwider explains that the hires provide ideas and perspective to the magazine internally, as part of a "dinner-party theory": That is, "the more people at the table, the livelier the conversation." The relationships can't be hurting the effort to make connections inside the Beltway, either. This month, the magazine features a profile of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, career tips from Rep. Elise Stefanik, and a feature titled "Mogul Maintenance" in which Washingtonians detail their morning routines.
When I interview Chang in New York, she's recently back from a trip to D.C., where she attended a health summit and had meetings at the White House. "I don't want to talk about losing weight endlessly," she says. "Peak performance is about fueling you to do the things you want to do every day. Why we're interested in women in positions of power or successful women is because they have figured out how to fuel themselves to this level." Chang says she wants to help women achieve their goals "at the gym, at work, and beyond"; under this credo, Self has run a feature on the gender pay gap as a health issue and one that looks at the effect the Affordable Care Act has had on women's careers.
Why the focus on Washington and politics now? One reason is the surge of popular interest in feminism. From the "Beyoncé-effect" buzz that the singer created when she had the word "feminism" flash on a video screen at one of her concerts, to the "Notorious RBG" Internet meme popularized by fans of Justice Ginsburg, the topic has become part of the pop-culture conversation. For these magazines, focusing on women's power—those who wield it, how to acquire it—is a natural way to broach the topic. And, from a practical standpoint, it is easier than ever to find subjects for such stories. "Twenty years ago, we didn't have as many women going to college, we didn't have as many women in leadership positions in Congress," Elle Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers tells me. "I think it's part of the evolution of there being more women in more positions of power. There's that much more to talk about."
Another reason: the success of online political coverage targeted at women. For years, sites such as Jezebel, She the People, and Double X (sister sites of Gawker, The Washington Post, and Slate, respectively), as well as stand-alones like Feministing and The Toast, have enjoyed a devoted following. Why wouldn't women's magazines want in on that? "Jezebel, when it started, had gone after women's magazines very explicitly," says Anna Holmes, the site's founding editor, who worked for Glamour during the horoscope years. "I felt that they were out of touch and irrelevant to the lives of contemporary women in the United States." By 2010, the magazines had begun to respond, and the current raft of top editors—including Fulenwider, who took the reins at Marie Claire in 2012; Joanna Coles, who has led Cosmopolitan since 2012 (and told NPR this past October that her readers were interested in "mascara and the Middle East"); and Chang, who became editor-in-chief at Self in 2014—has tacked increasingly toward D.C.
There are, of course, tensions that come with any discussion of politics. For example, Cosmo was berated in the conservative blogosphere for "swapping fashion for liberal politics" when it strayed from bedroom tips to voting-booth suggestions. (Cosmopolitan declined to comment for this story.) So, are editors worried that their turn toward Washington and politics in general might alienate part of their audience? Says Fulenwider: "I'm not afraid of it." Leive says she isn't, either, adding that Glamour is "pro-women but not partisan." Self's Chang goes further, saying she's OK with choosing sides when it is warranted. "We're not a partisan political journal or entity, we just talk about what's good for women and women's health," she says. "If one party happens to do it better than the other, we're on the side of women." Myers says that to shy away from politics would be a disservice to her readers: "It's our job to help women accrue power and figure out how to spend it, because the more power you have, the more agency you have over your own life. That, I would say, is kind of fundamental to what Elle is about."
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