Fifty years ago, SHIRLEY CONRAN launched Femail with this racy cover. Today, we recreate it for a special edition as she rejoices how women got to wear the trousers!
- In autumn 1968, articles were being written for woman by women for first time
- First cover, featuring woman wearing nothing but tight jeans, was controversial
- Section started off with nine women of all kinds of different shapes and sizes
- Wrote about everything, from the clothes of the day to help for mothers
There was an air of exhilaration as my team of nine female writers and I finished assembling the very first issue of Femail. But before we even dared think about relaxing, the features editor put his head round the door.
‘The editor doesn’t like your lead story,’ he said. ‘He wants a new one. You’ve got 17 minutes.’ Arthur Brittenden was the editor at that time. One member of the team jumped up and said: ‘That’s unfair! We haven’t been told what he didn’t like, so how are we to know what he wants?’ When she had finished, I said: ‘Now we have 14 minutes. Gather round.’
I felt an invisible wave of female support as we knocked out that first, historical lead page within deadline.
We began: ‘The things that women are supposed to want to read are generally decided by a man . . . we are writing for a real woman.’
What sort of a woman?
For the 50th anniversary of Femail, we have recreated the racy cover that set tongues wagging
We chose a big photo of the back view of a topless model, clearly wearing nothing beneath her tight jeans. With this provocative image, we were signalling a sea change: not only should women be wearing the trousers, they should be able to embrace their sexuality, too
The description that followed included: ‘She’s always got a problem . . . she thinks about men but not all the time . . . she’s interested in sex but not all the time . . . she’s as bewildered as a chameleon on a tartan rug, trying to be wife, mother, mistress, chauffeur, cook, washer-up, accountant, general dogsbody and, sometimes, wage-earner.’
This was 50 years ago in the autumn of 1968 and something extraordinary was happening in British journalism: for the first time, articles were being written by women for women about what actually interested them. I was women’s editor when the Daily Mail launched its groundbreaking, 16-page supplement, with great razzle dazzle.
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There was a countrywide series of enormous billboards on which a casually dressed woman read her new magazine under the caption, ‘Every woman needs her Daily Mail’.
Until then, newspapers had only ever included a woman’s section about knitting, dress patterns, recipes and the odd interview with worthy charity organisers.
My team had been given free rein — unheard of on Fleet Street — to write about what we talked about in the office. The secret of its success was we felt it was our magazine, by us and for us.
We wrote about our weaknesses and fears — and nine women had a lot. And we weren’t afraid to ruffle feathers.
Take the picture on the first Femail page. Fifty years ago, a woman’s behind was smoothed into a non-sexual surface by a maddening rubber garment that was optimistically called a ‘roll on’ girdle.
We chose a big photo of the back view of a topless model, clearly wearing nothing beneath her tight jeans.
Shirley Conran, pictured, was women’s editor when the Daily Mail launched its groundbreaking, 16-page supplement, with great razzle dazzle
Half a century later, I’m proud Femail is still fresh and relevant and its aura of adventure is still alive. It is still just that little bit ahead of the trend
With this provocative image, we were signalling a sea change: not only should women be wearing the trousers, they should be able to embrace their sexuality, too. The caption correctly predicted: ‘This is the spot to watch’.
Inside articles included: ‘How to look rich on an overdraft’, some lavishly illustrated lingerie, an article translating the Trades Description Act and another on what the new fertility drug had meant to women.
Although we had never heard the word ‘manifesto’, that first page was just that. It captured the zeitgeist, the defining mood and beliefs of the time.
The day after the launch, all our telephones rang constantly. From then on our section appeared weekly and I loved sitting on a bus or an underground train and counting how many women were deep in Femail.
I was 36 and divorced with two young sons when I became the Daily Mail’s new woman’s editor. I had come from producing the women’s pages for the Observer, where I was involved in the design and layout, as previously I had been a designer.
I chose the trendiest magazine art editor. Writers were more difficult to find; anyone good already had a job.
I phoned a friend, Janet Fitch, 27, who had worked on Woman’s Journal and the Daily Sketch and was now a newspaper freelance, as she planned to have six children.
Janet’s father, a famous soldier, had organised the French Resistance in Southern France and Janet had his steady calm and contemptuous refusal to admit defeat.
I phoned to see if she was still feeding her third child.
No, she had just stopped. ‘Then I’ll collect you at 7.45am tomorrow,’ I said.
I liked to start work early, in empty offices, with no interruptions until the other journos turned up at 10am to work, theoretically until 6pm, but really as long as it took.
The next morning, I picked up Janet in my pessary-shaped bronze sports car.
I started dictating ideas to Janet until we reached Trafalgar Square. ‘Heavens,’ I squawked, ‘I’ve just gone through a red light!’ Janet said calmly: ‘That’s the third.’
Eventually the Femail team was nine women of assorted shapes and sizes — very important when testing clothes.
Shortly after Femail started, the beautiful and original Janet Street-Porter started in her first journalist job.
She was a quick thinker and had the ability to say something sharp about a subject that was still formulating at the back of your mind.
Femail started up with a team of nine women – including Janet Street-Porter, pictured. The role was her first journalism job, and she was a quick thinker that had the ability to say something sharp about a subject that was still formulating at the back of your mind
Sandy Fawkes, a divorced mother of four, was also in her first writing job as fashion editor and drew her own fashion sketches
We also had Celia Brayfield, upgraded from my secretary to writer, and Pam Fox, an Australian journalist who wasn’t yet used to the tough ways of Fleet Street, home of the best journalists and newspapers in the world.
Sandy Fawkes, a divorced mother of four, was also in her first writing job as fashion editor and drew her own fashion sketches; she made us feel really up-to-date when, at the age of 40, she acquired a live-in lover aged 22, our first toyboy.
We also used the best people to work with us. Elizabeth David wrote our first cookery pieces — and contrary to some opinions I found her easy to deal with, professional and never late with her articles.
Mrs Pom (another secret weapon) was the recipe tester of top food journalists, so we signed her up.
Terence Donovan, David Bailey and Lord Snowdon took our photographs. We used the most beautiful models and they queued up to work with us.
As for the office, it was agreed I should redecorate our cubicle offices, which I did by tearing down all the partitions so we worked in that new idea from America — an open-plan office.
The walls were painted tomato-juice red and lined with inexpensive, rectangular mirrors. The new carpet was ginger and the former fashion editor’s office was made into a walk-in wardrobe — with a lock.
We knew we were pioneers. In a new, much-argued departure for newspapers, every item Femail featured gave the manufacturer, the price and a stockist.
The advertising department didn’t like it — what would be the point of advertising? — but our priority was what our readers needed.
The office atmosphere felt a bit like a modern teenager sleepover. There was a permanent air of exhilaration. We all enjoyed the effortless effervescence, the first joke of the morning, the fashion editor’s decision to print a list of hangover cures.
We featured the clothes we thought were becoming and practical. We tested them on ourselves. Sandy thought she had a big bottom, I had a big top. Everyone in the office was obliged to try things on, although some didn’t like it.
The clothes of the day were so good-looking, so comfortable, so easy to move in and inexpensive that, while we didn’t look like the couture-dressed, be-hatted, neat women journalists that preceded us, we wore good clothes that we loved from Mary Quant’s Bazaar, Barbara at Biba, Ossie Clark or Foale and Tuffin.
Despite all the glamour, it was non-stop work. But, as Janet Fitch said to me yesterday, it didn’t seem like work because it was so exciting. I rarely left the office. (There was a general howl of rage when I said I was too busy to have lunch with Paul Newman, so in the end I went.)
On Femail, we didn’t try to be outrageous, we simply did what we wanted, but often it hadn’t been done before, so it was considered outrageous and caused Establishment apoplexy.
We did not openly write about sex, but right from the start there was a sexy feeling about Femail. Then, toe in the water, we started talking among ourselves. I heard myself saying things that I was too shy to tell my sisters, let alone ask my mother about. At first I would introduce sex obliquely in my copy, perhaps after getting a letter from a distressed reader.
After discussing that woman’s problem and what we should do about it, the chat never stopped there. The sexual ignorance among women at that time was shocking, so secretly I paid £120 of my own money to interview the leading sex consultant of the day.
Femail tapped into a vague, restless feeling that life could — and should — be better for a woman. We were the first pop feminists. Pictured: Shirley Conran
I knew the accounts department wouldn’t sanction such a payment. Janet Fitch went with me, both of us armed with tape recorders.
Back then, many men thought the clitoris was probably a Greek hotel, so we couldn’t report much detail in a family newspaper — but thanks to our editors we always pushed the boundaries of what was just permissible.
Of course in 1968, there was more than sex to worry about. The wartime put-up-with-anything, mend-and-make-do spirit of sacrifice had continued. Women still did as they were told. Women were not to step out of line — but Femail did.
Many women seemed insecure, unsure of themselves and mildly jealous of each other. Most women had no money except the housekeeping cash, which might be reduced if you stepped out of line or ‘gave trouble’.
Life became much more difficult for a working woman when she had children: then she found that, ideally, she needed to become a multiple personality if not an eight-armed Indian goddess to get all the work done and the bedtime story read aloud.
I decided we should have a children’s editor: Janet Fitch — who eventually had her six offspring — wrote for mothers about anything from bed-wetting to state school policy.
Femail tapped into a vague, restless feeling that life could — and should — be better for a woman. We were the first pop feminists.
Half a century later, I’m proud Femail is still fresh and relevant and its aura of adventure is still alive. It is still just that little bit ahead of the trend.
Women have come a long way since 1968. None of it was easy. We had to push, push, push for what we needed and deserved — and what our readers wanted.
We now realise women have different, important strengths, such as being able to articulate our feelings and use our empathy in the workplace.
Far more women work, there are far more women politicians — two Conservative Prime Ministers — and some businesswomen get to the top.
Now, no one doubts that women want equality with men and we don’t want sexual harassment or workplace bullying — ‘banter’ as Sir Philip Green, in his old-fashioned way, reportedly described it.
The year after our launch, the BBC asked me to make a one-hour film about any subject I chose, for their series, One Pair Of Eyes. I made a film about the problems of the working mothers I knew personally; it was called, Danger, Women At Work!
Looking back, I can see this was a follow-on from the pioneering work we had started without realising it — on Femail. That film is in the historical Feminist Archives, where I believe the first copy of Femail Magazine should be.
Femail’s manifesto from 50 years ago
The things women are supposed to want to read about are generally decided upon by a man.
In this magazine, as in our other women’s pages, we are writing for a real woman.
What sort of a woman?
SHE’S always got a problem.
SHE wants to be well organised without being bossy and she knows it’s almost impossible.
SHE doesn’t want to compete, to be equal. She knows she’s different.
SHE’S not interested in women’s rights, but she’s concerned about women’s wrongs, especially if they happen to affect her.
SHE’S not as gullible as she’s supposed to be.
SHE wants to be a bit more organised than she is at the moment.
SHE wants to know how to stretch her money and achieve the best results.
SHE wants to be told the disadvantages of this week’s bargain. She does care which soap powder washes whitest but it’s not an obsession.
SHE thinks about men but not all the time. She’s interested in sex but not all the time.
SHE doesn’t envy young dollies, but wants to be confident enough in herself to keep a sense of proportion where phoney present-day values are concerned.
SHE wants an exciting relationship with a man.
SHE loves her husband and children but doesn’t want to be a doormat.
SHE’S as bewildered as a chameleon on a tartan rug . . . trying to be a wife, mother, mistress, chauffeur, cook, washer-up, accountant, general dogsbody and, sometimes, wage-earner.
SHE wants labour-saving, anti-drudge devices without being obsessed by them.
SHE wants a bit of her own life without feeling guilty about it.
SHE wants the best realistic advice.
SHE wants to run a comfortable, good-looking home properly without looking a wreck.
SHE’S sick of the impossible mass media fantasy girls.
SHE wants to know what’s new then decide whether she wants it.
SHE wants to know what other women are thinking and talking about.
she longs to have someone else solve her plumbing problems.
SHE jumps from crisis to crisis, shoulders family problems, and does a lot of thankless work that bores and exhausts her.
SHE knows what doesn’t interest her, whether it’s politics or football, and doesn’t want to feel guilty about it.
Now and again she likes a good gossip.
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