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Reviewed by:
  • Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain
  • Katie Pickles
Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain. By Adrian Bingham ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 271pp.).

This neatly defined and beautifully written study is part of a recent resurgence in media history that allies itself closely with social history. Through a focus on its growth and significance, Bingham is keen to place Britain's inter-war popular press in the spotlight as an historical source. While the traditionally political press does not lend itself to the writing of social history, the inter-war popular daily newspapers became read by the majority of the population, a part of everyday life, and hence a source for social history.

The book's main objective is to read popular newspapers for insights about changing inter-war masculine and feminine identities. The notion of newspapers as strictly patriarchal is disputed. Instead, arguing that both gender identities were challenged by the Great War, Bingham moves to consider the relationship between the two, a process that he considers was reflected and formed through the papers of the era. There was a convergence of masculinity and femininity, and an overlapping of the 'public' and 'private' spheres, as evidenced by topics such as relationship advice, women in paid work, and domesticated masculinity.

Bingham challenges an understanding of the inter-war popular press as largely comprising anti-feminist backlash. Instead he takes a more nuanced approach, offering "a complex picture of fragmented change" (p. 21). He also suggests that the scholars have exaggerated the importance of the cult of domesticity in the papers. Exploring the theme of modernity he argues that the press saw women's place as encompassing more than motherhood, also embracing new opportunities and freedoms for women. Through content analysis of woman's pages he revises the belief that newspapers wanted to keep women in the home. The analysis revealed that in 20 of 30 samples more space was devoted to fashion and beauty than to housewifery and motherhood combined; in 5 of the 15 samples from a first period there was more space devoted to careers than advice to motherhood. Furthermore, a number of the articles on housewifery were explicitly directed at employed women, and papers also discussed and debated whether women should marry or not. In addition, Bingham suggests that rather than simply condemning the flapper, newspapers were exploiting the widespread interest in her.

Bingham is not naïve as to the potential pitfalls of grounding historical research and explanation in only one medium. He is quick to recognise that newspapers had their own agendas and takes a balanced approach to the coercive power of the press. Offering women's fashion items, presenting sexy images for male readers and exploiting inter-war interest in sexuality and morality was a way of securing the papers' ultimate objective of being read. Lord Alfred Harms- worth Northcliffe, the influential founder of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, was convinced of the need to appeal to women in a diversity of roles. Bingham is also well aware of the difficulty in trying to measure the effects of what was written in the press, in particular whether it reflected society, developed ideas already in existence, or was situated somewhere in-between. Guided by Stuart Hall he frames his analysis first around production, with due attention to various editors, and journalists, in particular Ray Strachey and Sydney Moseley. [End Page 778] Second, Bingham is concerned with the text itself, recognising that the press supplied influential terms notably 'flapper' and 'the dole'. Third, he is aware of the importance of reception by the audience, including market research surveys of press readership.

Bingham's sources are the five main popular national daily morning newspapers of the period. His rationale for selection was largely based on gathering a broad spectrum of class perspectives, an understanding of class as existing aside from gender identity. This does not stop him from analysing the relationship between class and gender in the press. For example, he suggests it was the Left-wing papers that were most likely not to disrupt assumptions about female appearance, but who were willing to explore...


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pp. 778-779
Launched on MUSE
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