Research Project

© Library of Congress, Periodicals Reading Room
O’Neill, Rose. Ye Sweet Girl-Graduate, cover illustration. Up-to-Date: Everybody’s Magazine May 30, 1896

Imagining Change: Visual and Textual Representations of Femininity in Mass and Avant-Garde Magazines, 1880-1920

The years between 1880 and 1920 marked an era of unprecedented sociopolitical change for the experience of girl-, mother-, and womanhood, rapid changes that were articulated and slowed down on paper by female illustrators in mass and avant-garde magazines alike. Within this era, print media drafted certain visual imaginations of feminine life that oscillated between tradition and modernization, stagnation and progress, as well as public and private opinion and opinion-making.

Employing a complex methodological framework of close-reading visuals as texts, this dissertation traces the very lines within which female illustrators Nell Brinkley, Rose O'Neill, Alice Beach Winter, and Jessie Willcox Smith pragmatically managed aspects of temporality and change within their imaginations and visualizations of feminine life themselves subject to the strict time regimes and temporal affordances of the serial magazine format. In both reproducing and contesting feminine stereotypes and underlying linear conventions of feminine life phases, these female illustrators represented and enacted temporal transformation through techniques that emphasized adaptation and compliance, rather than radical rupture, and allowed for a reading and viewing of sociopolitical developments as harmless and appealing.

The project thereby delineates how the contracted mode of the illustration in both avant-garde and mass magazines (from cover-girl images to illustrations for serialized New Woman fiction to soap advertisements) expressed and shaped women's political demands, life experiences, and performances of identity within (potentially regulatory) contexts of the management of time and change. In doing so, the project provides new insight in the overlapping and mutually inspiring cultural spheres of avant-garde and mass-periodicals, and it explores the political possibilities of mass culture by reading mass-appealing, syndicated, serially and commercially published magazine illustrations as a generative sphere where a female audience could question, reflect upon, or claim authority over its individual life designs and political demands.