Mother Tells you How: the mother as a role model in Girl Magazine1953—1960
In December 31st 1952, in a letter from the editor, Marcus Morris the editor of Girl Magazine introduced a new section to the magazine “Mother tells you how”. This new comic strip features two characters: Mother in her role as a teacher and a mentor, and her daughter Judy in the role of the student. The first story teaches Judy how to bath a baby (show 1st pp), but mother teaches her daughter other and different skills that were regarded as essential to her life.
Introducing the mother as a role-model was a big change for a magazine whose first role model was the young female pilot Kitty Hawke. The comic strip of Kitty Hawke and Her All-GirlAir Crew appeared on the cover of the first issue of in November 2nd1951 but disappeared in March 1952 in response to falling sales.
My paper will examine the portrayal of the mother in “Mother Tells You How” . It will focus on the nature of the instruction, its content, and the attitude to the daughter. Looking at this section throughout the decade I shall demonstrate how this role model shaped the identity of the girls and influenced their ideas about their future.
Girl a weekly magazine mostly comic for Secondary School girls was published by Hulton Press in GB from 1951 till 1964. It was the sister of a similar magazines for boys Eagle which started a year earlier in 1950.It had a sizable circulation of around 650,000 per week (Gravett 2006, 133).
The founder and editor of the two magazines was Marcus Morris a clergyman. This fact is essential to understand the spirit and agenda of the magazine. Editors, argues Marjorie Ferguson, are agenda-setters to the female worlds, their work is have work active and creative role mediating between the interests and needs of various groups. Indeed Marcus Morris was a man with a mission. According to Paul Gravett, in February 1949, he used the Sunday Dispatch as his pulpit and warned, that because of the influence of American comics "Morals of little girls in plaits and boys with marbles bulging in their pockets are being corrupted by a torrent of indecent coloured magazines that are flooding bookstalls and newsagents." As an antidote, Morris envisioned a genuinely popular children's comic "...where adventure is once more the clean and exciting business I remember in my school days. "The result of Morris’ vision was another magazine devoted to adventures, which did not reflect the reality of the secondary school middle class reader.
In that letter Morris stated: “Our main resolution will be to try and make Girl better and better in 1953. We’ve started already in fact. You’ll find two new features –Mother Tells you How and Charm School on p. 15 this week. One designed to help you in the home, the other to show you how to make the most of your appearance. (While Mother Tells stayed with the magazine for several years Charm school was replaced by “I want to be” a career section in March 1953. )
At that time girls were more involved in the family and home life than boys, but traditionally girls magazines used as their settings locations and situations which were far away from their family. The focus was on girls outside the home --boarding schools, girl guide camps, foreign land and circuses. Magazines devoted relatively little space to discussion of readers as daughters and sisters and in general in adolescence literature mothers are not present (Tinkler). Whereas the freedom of the working class girl/heroine from filial responsibilities depended on her removal from the home, middle class heroines were often portrayed in domestic settings as unsupervised by parents and unfettered by the constraints of the daughter’s role. This was a representation of family life typified by enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome in which parents smiled benignly on their children from a distance .
Adventures as depicted in the magazine is an escapist sexless genre which demonstrates universal qualities in boys and girls such as courage, imagination, initiative and resourcefulness. Yet adolescence is an age of physical and emotional changes, so here too the magazine did not reflect the life of its readers .
Thus a mother who “helps you in the home” is a big change. Girl steps in from the outside to the home and acknowledges the reality of its readers. In contrast to the unusual, the exceptional, and the courageous bringing in the mother is a celebration of the ordinary. Introducing the mother was an attempt to rebrand the mother and to establish her authority as a source of knowledge. Her knowledge is practical and focuses on the private sphere –the home but within that realm she knows everything. How to build, to do wood work, to modernize everything, to paint and of course she knows everything about sawing, needlework and craftwork, and about the garden. She is also an endless source of practical common sense. advice.
Marjorie Ferguson acknowledged the prescriptive role of the magazine and its editor. And the prescriptive title of this new comic strip is an appropriate example. Mother Tells you How (actually she also shows) demonstrates the type of relationship in which the mother she doesn’t have a name) is “every mother”. She has all the knowledge, the answers - she is the teacher and the Judy the adolescent daughter “every daughter” is the pupil. She knows nothing about the topic at hand but has a strong will to learn and cooperates with the mothers. In some of the topics she specifically asks for the mother’s help and in others the mother recognizes the need and addresses it suggesting how it could be done.
All that happens at an age when adolescents normally would not want to be told what and how is even more intriguing and unexpected. Moreover, the adolescent is being told not by a teacher or a specialist but by her mother. I suggest that the magazine decided to empower the mother by making her the expert and the teacher.
The fact that this feature stayed in the magazine for the rest of the decade suggests that it answered a need, it was relevant to the reader It appeared weekly in the first 4 years (until 1957)and then it started repeating some features using different comic strip . The first one was Mother Tells you how to bathe a baby, The mother is competent, no nonsense , even professional in her teachingShe has a large body of knowledge about everything in the houseThe mother is a handy woman, talented, full of useful ideas. Yet she is elegant feminine young and full of energy She is minded of fashion
The mother is good at planning, organizing and doing. She has all the right tools. The projects save money and teach the girl to be frugal and use all her resources. The mother teaches her daughter to follow instructions in books p. 111 She is not old fashioned , rather she is modern the word modern. She is diligent and serves to guide and support.
The daughter: eager, diligent, childish, obedient, respectful, trustful
Their interaction is not personal or very warm, but it is companionship very businesslike also the body language they are always far apart never close.
The feature included instructions of basic skills: washing, storing, preparing a room for a guest, arts and crafts, needle work, recipes, holidays features, modernizing things. Also they were several hundreds of these features some even repeated the same content, different instruction for example how to make a valentine.
Yet in spite of the basic skills that the mother teaches, I see it not only as an attempt to reaffirm the choice that the mothers made by staying at home but rather it aims at empowering the mother and rebranding her role as an authority as a source of knowledge.
But why was such a feature needed? it is safe to assume that the girls shared that feature with the mothers (who also provided the pocket money for buying the magazine) At that time 75% of married women stayed home and very few mothers worked outside the home. After participating in the war effort women were encouraged to go back home to being housewives and mothers. But as the mothers themselves who were young women themselves during the war they didn’t have a chance to learn how to do everything around the home. The encouragement to marry and stay home was reinforced by popular media: films, radio and popular women magazines. In the 1950’s, women’s magazines had considerable influence on forming opinion in all walks of life, including the attitude to women’s employment. Cynthia White maintains that their attitude to this issue was “regressive,” and that they used their great influence “positively to discourage women from trying to combine work and marriage” (135). Martin Pugh regards women’s magazines as prescriptive literature, and claims they “threw themselves back into the task of discouraging women from seeking careers” (1990: 162). Through fiction and real life stories, women’s magazines promoted the ideal of women’s domesticity and dependence, encouraging the return of the female labor force to the kitchen and the nursery (Ferguson 1983: 21). Similarly, women’s programs on the radio and on the recently introduced television were just as dogmatic, and served to reinforce the image of the woman as a successful housewife.
In many of the issues we see the word Modern, I believe that the editorial board of Girl believed that they had to help girls navigate in the modern world in which their role of wives and mothers had meant knowing everything about the home.
In addition, the 1950s was the first decade in which middle class families didn’t have domestic help and it was up to the mother and her daughters to do the house work. So if we see that this feature was very relevant to the reader at that time. (If we compare Mother Tells You How with Kitty Hawke pilot we could see that the former is more relevant to reality at that time).
In a survey conducted by Virginia Block that looked at conflicts between adolescents and their mother she found that most conflicts focused on (1) differences in thinking regarding personal appearances, habits and manners; 2) differences in thinking regarding vocational, social, recreational and educational choices; (3) differences in thinking regarding the value of certain activities, habits, attitudes, etc., in the attainment of goals; and (4) differences in philosophy regarding recreational and physical activities.
It seems that the magazine had educational considerations that went beyond the financial. I didn’t find explicit evidence as to what prompted this move, but a letter that Morris wrote about a new section he added suggestted that the magazine was attuned to the letters of its readers: A letter from the editor
There are two surprises for you this week! Surprise No 1 is a new picture strip series on careers, the first of which you will find when you turn to p.15 of this issue called I want to be a Nurse. It tells the story of Molly Jones a girl who decided to that nursing was the career she most wanted to take up and shows how she set about achieving her ambition by by being taken on as a student nurse at the hospital.
Next week you’ll be able to read I want to be a Kennemaild , which I know all of you who love animals will find very interesting , and for the weeks following I’ve selected other careers which judging from your letters , you are thinking of pursuing when you are old enough to leave school and start out in jobs of your own.
According to Nicholas Tucker, Girls’ teenage comics and magazines have in general received poor critical reception this century. Complaints have concentrated upon the type of literary escapism in their contents which originally led to the word ‘bovarism’ after Mm Bovary, meaning the domination of the personality by romantic or unreal concept.
Broader criticism of girls’ magazines and comics have since encompassed not just their fiction but almost everything else in the contents from horoscope to articles about the perfectibility of marriage or beauty enhancement as a life-time goal. Only the printed readers’ letters stood outside the accusation that such magazines peddled unreal fantasies to what was seen as a very gullible audience. The fact that these letters spoke of a harsher reality gave critics extra ammunition when drawing attention to what they saw as a dangerous gap between hard home truths and the magazines deluding day-dreams.
Such criticism came from a tradition of irritated liberalism which saw magazine fiction as something like the new opiate of the people. only when girls and women readers faced the world as it really was . would any change for the better become possible. The counter argument presented by the magazine publishers and their defenders was that they took for granted the impoverished lives of most of their readers , but saw escapist fiction as welcome relief from what might otherwise be a fairly bleak existence.
The letters that were sent to Girls had a strong impact on the direction it took. The agony aunt James Hemming wrote his PhD based on letters from 1953—55 that were sent to the magazine and later in the decade published the book Problems of Adolescents Girls. Many problems had to do with their relationship with the mothers :
27/1/54 What’s your worry , mother letters p. 5
I am fifteen years old and sometimes go out dancing but my mother won’t allow boys to take me home afterwards. She thinks that I am too young . What do you think about this? It is hard to make a definite rule about this , but we think many people would agree with your mother that you are a little on the young side . Why not talk the matter over with her and ask at what age she will let a boy friend bring you home? Then you will know where she stand. Your mother probably prefers to know the boy in question well before hands
What’s your worry 4/8/54
My mother is always telling me that I never do any work for her in the house. But I do . What is the best way of making her see this?
Agree together what your responsibilities should be around the house and write them down. Both of you will then know just where you are.
What’s your worry 25/8/54
My mother won’t let me have a bike, yet all my friends own one. What can I do about this? Ask your mother when she will let you have a bike. Once you know that you will find the waiting easier.
What’s your worry 29/9/54
Sometimes I am rude to my mother and afterwards I am very sorry. What do you advise me to do about it? We hate people being rude to us, so we have no right to be rude to othere have we ? If you try to look at it in that way , you will find that it will be very much easier to control yourself whenever you are tempted to be rude.
James Hemming was the agony aunt of Girl and later during that decade he wrote his PhD dissertation on the problems of adolescent girls based on the letters that were sent to Girl magazine. He describes home for the adolescent girl as a “base and a springboard she still needs a haven where she feels secure and protected” ( 88) He claims that “not infrequently, the tension and sensitivity find an outlet in the mother-daughter relationship (89 “ Research in both Britain and United States has shown that during adolescence the mother’s influence is particularly high. It has also shown that that conflict between mother and daughter is prone to arise at this stage. Thus at a time when a girl needs the support and guidance most, the clash of wills as the girl approaches adulthood may ruin rapport between mother and daughter. (111) Virginia Block found in 1937, “As a result of an analytical study of a series of interviews held with adolescent boys and girls over a period of five years, it was found that a large majority of students repeatedly reported that conflicts between their mothers and themselves were at the base of the most disturbing situations in their lives.”
In his study Hemming does not only list the problems but also offers some solutions and his basic assumption is that girls want to have guidance. He quotes a study by L.J. Elias who finds that 74% of girls out of 5500 adolescents who participated in the research expressed a desire to share their problems with their parents and 90% with an adult. They were “anxious for guidance” it seems that this “encouraging truth” “We now have to consider the sort of support and guidance they need to help them negotiate the difficulties and dangers which beset their path to maturity. How, moreover, can we provide such help in a form which will be both acceptable and useful to them offers help to adolescent girls who are experiencing difficulties of adjustments as they grow up in ‘modern society”:
Hemming argues that the demand for guidance exceeds the provision. Wherever a source of adult help is offered which the adolescents trust, they turn to it in large numbers (144) Yet there is a problem of trust, many parents especially mothers fail to win the trust or cooperation of their daughters, who no longer are prepared to accept the authority of parental opinion on trust. Hemming suggests that it is partly due to changes in society “behind the parents stood ideas, values and standard which were manifest in society as a whole, parents in their advice were acting as the mouth piece of society . Adolescents knew that parents represented much more than themselves. This is no longer the case. The authority and dominance of the parent is no longer relevant, and parents, Hemming suggests should lead through guidance through understanding, “the adolescent will turn for guidance to those who show a genuine sympathy and understanding”. Also the guidance of example is important and it depends on the existence of good relationships “Adolescents are quick to follow the ways of hero and heroine figures and behind this mimicry is respect and a longing for a relationship of understanding. The example of a person they do not like and trust has no meaning for them.(144)
In contrast with the past in which girls were expected their parents (Tinkler 123) the daughter no longer blindly obeys the mother because she has to, but she respects her because through her experience, competence, skill and common sense she can teach her daughter everything she needs to know in order to navigate successfully through new and uncertain times.
Hemming poses the question how best we may provide for adolescents the sort of support and guidance they need to help them negotiate the difficulties and dangers which beset their path to maturity. How, moreover, can we provide such help in a form which will be both acceptable and useful to them ? (143)
I believe that Girl introduced Mother Tells You How as a way to rebuild the trust between adolescent daughters and their mothers and has made the mother into the new heroine figure for the young person to follow. In order for the daughter to emulate her mother the latter she had to look and act as one. She looks and acts the part. The mother is sympathetic, and companionate and she is the best teacher. The teaching of the mother is limited to practical instruction. She respects the personal space of her daughter. What’s Your Worry which became Hemming’s weekly column took care of the more intimate and emotional problems. But the mother gives her daughter the skills and the tools to master the challenges they could face as future mistresses of their own home.