01/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time To Have a Little Talk About Those "Women's Magazines?"

I admire Caroline Kennedy. Her dignity and her character are striking. So
when she made the remark to the New York Times' David Halbfinger the other day,
"Have you guys ever thought of writing for a woman's magazine or something?
...You're supposed to be crack political journalists," I was surprised -- and
disappointed. Then I had a wider concern: Why, 40 years after the advent of
second-wave feminism, are the words "women's magazine" still so automatically a
term of mild ridicule? Maybe it's a good occasion for a little public education.

First, a couple of general points.

(1) Women's magazines not only regularly break news, but many of them
require "enterprise journalism."
Many of them mandate exclusive stories. Any
story that's been on national TV or in any national (and in some cases,
big-city local) publication is automatically out of the question, even for a small
feature. Writers and reporters have to hunt, hard and constantly, for fresh,
never-told stories. That means keeping in touch with lawyers, prosecutors,
defense attorneys, private eyes, doctors, whistleblowers, vice cops, shelters,
NOW chapters, rape clinics, and the multidinous NGOs, small do-good orgs,
and foundations whose press events the magazines's reporters are always running
out to cover.

(2) Women's magazines have created whole categories of news.
Ever since Ms. (a women's magazine) coined the term "Battered Women" on
an early cover, the entire domestic violence field, with its many side-issues
and offspring, has been a signature beat for these magazines. I remember first reading
about the brand-new ruling Thurman vs. Torrington CT (the case that -- in
the late year of 1982 -- made police departments liable if their members stood
by and watched while men tried to kill their wives) in McCalls magazine.
Women's magazines indefatigably (but not rashly or gratuitously) cover violence
against women, a term that owes its salience to that publication genre. One
example of many recent hard-hitting and creative responses: Several years
ago, a proliferation of wife-and girlfriend killings led Glamour Editor in Chief
Cindi Leive to commission a multi-part package that opened with two whole
pages of mug-shot-like pictures, painstakingly culled from virtually every
police precinct in the country -- of disparate women killed by intimate partners
in that one-year period.

Women's health is second case in point. Breast cancer's existence as
the gold-standard in medical charity and research owes a lot to the
unflagging, cutting-edge coverage in women's magazines. Says Lucy Danziger, who's
been Editor in Chief of Self for seven and a half years. "The life-saving breast
cancer coverage in Self started with our co-founding of the Pink Ribbon for
awareness and activism (specifically, breast health awareness and cancer
research fundraising) back in 1992, and then continued with 16 years of
award-winning coverage of the disease, including risk reduction through healthy
lifestyle changes, the latest technologies for screening, early diagnosis, advances
in treatment and ultimately cures. Now, if caught in the first stages,
breast cancer is 98 percent treatable to a cure. That's something all women's
magazines can be proud of."

Women's reproductive freedom is another. Says Wendy Naugle, Glamour's
Deputy Editor (Health): "Historically, Glamour -- and other women's
magazines -- have been champions of women's reproductive rights, not just in terms of
abortion" -- Editor in Chief Leive grilled John McCain on his stand on the subject
before the election -- " but also emergency contraception, contraception
coverage, insurance issues and more." For example, a May 2006 Brian Alexander
piece "The New Lies About Women's Health" was a comprehensive look at how
local, state and federal policies (including those of the Bush administration)
were affecting women's health care, including how doctors in some states are
forced to lie to their patients about the fake abortion-breast cancer link."
It was cited by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern for public
interest journalism and, recalls Alexander, "also broke news about how the
military first accepted Plan B [the "morning-after" pill] and then withdrew it --
an unprecedented move." Former Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt
recalls that during her tenure "we found most insurance plans didn't cover
contraception, so we secured bipartisan sponsorship of the Equity in Insurance
and Contraceptive Coverage bill in Congress and started a campaign to pass
similar legislation in states. Glamour jumped on the story even though most of
the mainstream media ignored it for over a year. Glamour's coverage was
extremely important to increasing public awareness. Today, half of states have
contraceptive equity laws, it's part of the federal employees' health plan, and
contraceptive coverage has become more the norm than the aberration. "

As Peggy Northrop -- who's now the Editor in Chief of Readers Digest
after decades in high posts at women's magazines -- three and a half years as
EIC at More, before which years spent at Redbook, Real Simple, Glamour,
and Vogue -- puts it, "Every issue that touches women has been dealt with
first and often only in women's magazines."

Okay, so women's mags serve women's needs. But what's hard news do
they break, or feature in particularly thorough and hard-hitting ways? Here are just a few examples among many:

Essence had its own contract photographer exclusively follow Obama on the campaign trail, taking amazing pictures no one else had seen. Good Houskeeping did a powerful piece, "You Can't Live Here Unless You're White," (by K.C. Baker) on illegal housing discrimination that still exists, in 2007. Marie Claire had an exclusive interview with Debra Ryan, the wife of financier-turned-fugitive Sam Israel III, the hedge-fund manager who tried to fake his own suicide to escape a 20-year fraud sentence and an exclusive interview with the wife of a Belgian terrorist who went to jail for aiding the Madrid train bombers; she shed new light on how young people are recruited into jihadist circles in Europe. Elle's profiles by Lisa DePaulo are always news-breaking. O has featured long, revealing interviews with Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel. Glamour accomplished what the U.S. government had trouble doing: in 2005 bringing
Pakistani women's rights activist Mukhtar Mai (who had been raped on the orders of her village counsel) to the U.S. for the first time, and arranging for her to speak at the U.N. And its piece on "The War's Deadliest Day for Women," by Susan Dominus--about an ambush in Iraq that left three US military women dead and 11 badly injured--showed the war: from the women soldiers' point of view, in all its brutal, patriotic and painful detail. More's "Leslee Unruh's Facts of Life," by Amanda Robb, exclusively revealed the deceptions and the money trail of a foremost abstinence-only and anti-abortion activist.

Assistant journalism professor Patti Wolter, of Medill, is proud of her former
occupation as senior features editor for news (and head of an investigative unit) at Self
magazine. She recalls how her stories won awards and how a piece she assigned and edited helped deepen
the understanding of obesity as a national health problem. Of her sending a
writer to Peru to investigate the impact of Bush's funding cuts to international health clinics that suppported abortion, Wolter rhetorically asks, "Would any other kind of publication [but a woman's magazine] would devote those resources to pursuing a story on global women's health?"

Women's magazines have foreign correspondents. Jan Goodwin has covered
conflicts and crises in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Congo, El Salvador,
Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, the Middle East and Gulf, Northern Ireland,
Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Uganda (and U.S. prisons) for
Marie Claire (as well as for O, Harpers Bazaar and Glamour). And regular
award-winners: National Magazine Award winner Stephen Fried, says, that, for
Glamour, "I did the first-ever interview with the Justice Department's lead
prosecutor on sex trafficking; the piece I did on addiction to Paxil was one of the
very first (if not the first) piece on the subject of a drug side-effect which
is now very commonly known but at the time was being disputed; and last year
I did the first major piece on the psychological and financial issues facing
widows of Iraq war soldiers." David France says, "For Ladies Home Journal,
I spent a year following the a family whose son had committed suicide, the
only piece of its kind, trying through forensic journalism to understand" the
death. "For Glamour " -- aside from getting the then-yet-to-be-elected George
W. Bush to admit he didn't know who the Taliban were --" I wrote an
investigation on mandatory minimum drug sentences, which impact women more than men.
Bill Clinton gave clemencies to each of the women I profiled." He adds, "I've
always found women's magazines ideal places to write `justice journalism.'"

"Justice journalism." That's a good term for the work many of us do, and I agree with David about where it usually is most welcomed and fits best. For Self, I unearthed, through confidential Pentagon transcripts leaked to me, the known-to-the-military higher health risks to women of the mandatory
Anthrax vaccine; and I learned of several hushed-up hospital deaths due to the 2001
U.S. nursing shortage. For Glamour I've done the first or exclusive stories
on: a landmark victory of sweatshop workers, the travails (and shocking findings) of an FBI whistleblower
Attorney General John Ashcroft was trying to silence, the 40-year-later aftermath
of one of the most brutal murders of the Civil Rights era, and an abortion
doctor's sexual assault on 32 of his patients. Sometimes having the cover of
"women's magazine" is an advantage. Years ago, for Redbook, I sleuthed out
biased judges, resulting in one being booted off the bench and official
investigations being launched on two others. I was looking for America's "most
sexist" judges, but a couple of my flattered prey thought I'd said "sexiest
judges," and the best way to get a source to talk, of course, is to think
you're calling him handsome.

In fact, saying "women's magazines" with an implicit eye-roll is, these days, like calling Brooklyn a hip residential "frontier" or using a VCR: transparently passe. As the earnest compliance with the requests for sit-downs with as many women's magazine EICs who requested them by McCain and Obama made clear, "politicians understand that they can't get elected without women," says Cindi Leive. "So they give us access they never would have two decades ago. Anyone who doesn't get that is sort of trailing the boat, anyway."

Peggy Northrop has it right, when she says: "I'm waiting for the day
when a woman's magazine editor runs for office. Now that would be a candidacy
I could get behind. A smart businesswoman, in touch with women's everyday
concerns, resourceful, committed, well-informed, a communication genius, and,
damn it, brave about stuff that really matters.

"I can name ten women off the top of my head who fit the bill.
Let's start a movement."