“Most women have no Characters at all,” wrote Alexander Pope: “Good as well as ill, / Woman’s at best a Contradiction still.” The contradiction of womanhood will perhaps never be fully solved, but it has generally been considered manageable within marriage and family. Outside of the home, women are . . . well, we’ve made no progress since Pope. We’re repelled by the defeminized professional woman who looks and acts like a man; yet, the too overtly feminine career woman—even if she’s a bank executive—fits only too well into the image of the oldest profession of all. It’s no wonder that even the enlightened George Bernard Shaw could say that “a woman’s business is to get married as soon as possible.”

Historically, the great majority of American women have devoted their lives to marriage and family. As late as the 1950’s it used to be said that women who went to college were chiefly interested in an MRS. degree. A survey of women graduating from Smith about that time showed that marriage and family were still higher in their priorities than career or personal independence. But a look at the evolution of two of the nation’s most popular magazines for women—Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan—reveals that the ideals of many American women are no longer rooted in domesticity. Whether training for space flights or hooting it up at the local all-male review, today’s woman has her eyes on the stars—and lower.

That Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal aim at different segments of the female population is apparent to anyone who has surveyed their covers while waiting in line at the grocery store checkout stand. There is the sexy Cosmo cover girl, wearing more makeup than clothing, surrounded by cover copy headlining articles on sex, fashion, sex, career, and more sex. In contrast, the fully dressed woman on the cover of a typical journal is not a liberated harlot. In fact, much of the magazine is devoted to such unerotic topics as microwave recipes and home decorating tips.

The two magazines have always projected divergent images, but 25 years ago both periodicals assumed an essentially family-centered feminine audience. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, both publications generally featured pictures of couples, married couples, on their covers, not just cover girls. Articles with titles like “Why This Marriage Survived” (Cosmo) and “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” (Journal) appeared in both. While Dr. Spock held forth in the Journal on how “mothers of small children [can] keep from being driven crazy,” Cosmo was investigating ways of improving husband-wife communication and of using new psychiatric theories to provide an “answer to family conflict.”

Advertisements in both were likewise aimed at a domestic sensibility. Ads in Cosmo in the early 60’s still appealed to “MARRIED WOMEN” and to wives interested in “the Ideal Marriage.” Child-related ads were not numerous in Cosmo, but they were there, offering products to ease baby’s teething pain or to improve a slow child’s reading skills. Hard as it is now to believe, Cosmo even ran public service ads reminding “growing families” to “worship together this week.” The numerous food ads in a Journal from the same period invited readers to “treat your children” to spaghetti or to make meals “the whole family loves” with rice. Other ads extolled the virtues of name-brand diapers, baby shampoo, and children’s aspirin. Perhaps because stay-at-home mothers had time for such diversions, both Cosmo and the Journal regularly featured short stories and even complete novels, flanked predictably by bookclub ads.

To be sure, significant differences between Cosmo and the Journal were apparent even 25 years ago. The blissfully wedded couple on the cover of Cosmo was then usually drawn from royalty or the Hollywood set, while the Journal cover showed an anonymous pair, posed as Mr. & Mrs. Typical American. Trying to find out “How America Lives,” the Journal profiled the achievements and woes of some average American family each month—a New Jersey schoolteacher, wife, and three children this month; a Texas oil broker, wife, and four kids the next. In contrast, Cosmo was chasing “the International Set,” Hollywood stars, and “the great families of the world”—Sassoon, Rockefeller, Rothschild, Alba, Krupp. (“I always find the star material fascinating reading,” wrote an appreciative Cosmo reader, “especially when it’s written with the decent attitude of a publication such as Cosmopolitan.”) It is unlikely that a series of Cosmo photos of swimsuit fashions could then have appeared in the Journal, even though each of the bathing beauties was properly identified as Mrs. Gotrocks. Even less likely to have appeared in the Journal was a provocative Cosmo piece on “Myths About Sex,” despite the author’s repeated assurances that his interest was solely in “marital success” and in helping the reader enjoy “her nocturnal interludes with her husband.” Cosmo ads for an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex would never have run in the Journal (even if the book was to promote “modern married sex practice”), nor would an ad for a beauty guide for the “Alluring Woman.”

For while Cosmo was romanticizing the “strong sexual attraction” between married (always married) television stars and was encouraging readers to find more pleasure with their husbands, the Journal was worried that the nation had become “preoccupied—almost obsessed—with the superficial aspects of sex . . . with sex as a form of entertainment.” This, the Journal declared, was “not true sex, with its corollaries of love, marriage and childbearing.” Elsewhere in its pages, the Journal warned its readers against “the danger in a ‘harmless flirtation,'” and praised the Australians for “avoiding the problem of sex craziness in the schools” by leaving sex education to the home, forbidding cosmetics, teaching restraint as a virtue, and requiring school uniforms. Cosmo may have been awestruck by screen stars and rich equestrians, but the Journal was lauding volunteer Sunday School teachers and PTA leaders and in a remarkably prescient article was questioning whether post-Sputnik curriculum reformers “know what they are up to.” Contemporary educators, the author complained, had no sense of overall purpose, no longer tried to shape “a character imbued with Christian virtues,” and actively discouraged excellence as “undemocratic.”

To examine these same two women’s magazines today, two and a half decades later, is to see a radical shift in editorial perspective on the family and feminine identity. In Cosmopolitan the rejection of marriage and family is complete. The Cosmo cover girl now lives with (but is rarely married to) some film executive or medical student—who does not appear with her. Cosmo articles now promote “Great Sex” or “wonderfully wicked sex,” practiced with as many partners as the reader can entice. Editors boast that a recent survey (tabulated and analyzed by Linda Wolfe in Women and Sex in the 80’s: The ‘Cosmo’ Report [1981]) revealed that “the majority of Cosmo girls have had at least two lovers and many—two thirds—have had from five to more than twenty-five,” although not at the same time. Cosmo readers are “perhaps the most sexually experienced women in western history.” Now when Cosmo considers marriage at all, it is to tell the reader to put it off until at least 30 so that she can enter wedlock with “a variety of sexual experience.” (What color does a Cosmo bride wear?)

For those who have already tied the knot—not to worry—Cosmo has articles on how to get a divorce as painlessly and profitably as possible and on how to explain to a boorish husband that children are now passe because they interfere with career advancement. A recent Cosmo quiz, “Are You a Decadent?” scolded the reader who refrains from “nicely naughty activities” and who does not “accept your wicked streak.” The “Gay Debauchee” who “denies herself nothing” is praised for “earthiness and spontaneity” but cautioned about “excesses” that could land her in trouble. The Cosmo Golden Mean has been achieved by the woman “who’s ready to disco until dawn or try out new erotic techniques” but who “never quite forget[s] that your career needs looking after.”

Balancing career and eroticism can be a trick. Cosmo does it by urging women to accentuate their physical charms through cosmetics, exercise and diets, and (un)dress but—at the same time—warning readers that “getting ahead” at the office requires the suppression of every emotional tendency traditionally regarded as female. The aspiring executive should aim at becoming “the madwoman of the office” by learning to “channel . . . feelings toward anger rather than tears, assuming it is necessary to show any emotion at all.” The Cosmo dichotomy is complete: Lady Macbeth by day, Cleopatra by night. There is, of course, a more ideal way to combine sexiness and career, and it, too, is in Cosmo: a “former call girl” who now goes by the pen name “Tiger Lily” describes in an article her work as a “therapist” who helps young men overcome “sexual dysfunction” by going to bed with them. Meanwhile, Cosmo laments the new “divorce of sex and emotion”; “real intimacy” and “romance” are the preferred Cosmo remedies.

Manufacturers of children’s products no longer try to promote their goods in Cosmo, but the makers of bikinis, cigarettes, bank cards, perfumes, and male-stripper videos do. (“Disrobics . . . our instructors will raise your pulse and give you a workout you’ll never forget.”) The bookclub ads still found in Cosmo are now far fewer and most of their titles are marked “X; Explicit sex, violence, and/or language.” (Cosmo still carries its own fiction, though much less than before. Stories no longer focus on married or soon-to-be married couples: a typical Cosmo tale in a current issue traces the impassioned course of a young Southern preacher into adultery.)

Today’s Ladies’ Home Journal has also changed dramatically over the years. The intended audience is still largely wives and mothers: the articles are about overcoming infertility or a husband’s reluctance to having children. The editors encourage readers to enjoy the holidays by involving “each family member,” and contributors are still exploring ways marriages can be “saved.” The numerous LHJ recipes serve four, not one or two, and children still appear in photos and ads. Yet a noticeable decline in the visibility of children and husbands is only one of the changes effected in the magazine by the feminist movement. In 1970, 100 radical feminists led by Susan Brownmiller held an all-day sit-in in the LH] editorial offices, denouncing the publication as “one of the most demeaning magazines toward women.” Before they left, the activists had won a number of concessions, including the right to publish a special eight-page supplement to the Journal in which they expounded their views.

The supplement was a one-time feature, but the results of feminist intimidation are still visible in the Journal. LHJ articles urge women to overcome the “early psychological conditioning” and even the “biological” tendencies which make “women . . . reluctant to cause pain or disappointment.” The LHJ reader should stop “automatically fulfilling her husband’s wishes,” should stop trying to be “the perfect wife,” and should learn to cherish her “private self” Only by so rethinking her approach to life can the reader ever attain “a demanding position” in the business world, which is apparently where LHJ now thinks women belong. The Journal may still argue that the ideal is “a working mother who takes her family responsibilities more seriously than her career,” but editors appear reluctant to investigate the possibility that a nonworking mother will perform her family responsibilities much better. A recent article noted the “chilling trend of younger criminals growing up more brutal than ever before,” even among “smiling middle-class youths,” and linked this development to a lack of “sufficient love early in life” and to a “negative” home life. But the author did not—perhaps could not—say the obvious: millions of middle-class kids are now receiving smiles but not love from the day-care centers where working mothers are now leaving them on their way to their “demanding positions.”

Other changes in LHJ‘s editorial stance are likewise disconcerting. For one thing, the editors no longer look to Middle America for images of exemplary family life. The covers now feature some famous woman, not a nameless couple, and profiles of average American families have become infrequent, linked to some crisis, such as that gripping “farm women” and their families. So instead of learning how average American housewives and their husbands cope with their problems, the reader gets interviews on marriage and parenting with Lady Di and Shirley MacLaine, with Sally Field and Ted Kennedy, with actress Eileen Brennan and Latin singer Julio Iglesias. With celebrities posing as authorities on domestic matters, LHJ ends up promoting views peculiar for a “family magazine.” MacLaine feels “comfortable playing prostitutes in movies” because she was “a prostitute in another life,” and she believes it “important . . . that she have lovers.” Shirley admonishes LHJ readers to practice “sexual openness in marriage.” Iglesias, who sees the children from his failed marriage only on holidays, boasts to LHJ that he has “made love to not less than three thousand ladies” and that he would “love to have sex all the time.”

Clearly, LHJ has lost its former fears about a sex-obsessed society. It appears that the more the cultural and domestic definition of womanhood is eroded, the more women must rely upon a nakedly physical and erotic sense of identity. So LHJ tells women it’s perfectly all right to be more “sexy” in public now that “society’s rigid sexual mores [have] loosened.” Advice on picking a flattering swimsuit will help readers get started, while an article on the breast explains how to achieve a “prettier, firmer, sexier” bust-line to put in that new swimwear. Omitted in the article on the mammary gland is any discussion of lactation or infant nutrition: Playboy has triumphed over the La Leche League. LHJ has now also lost its admiration for puritanical Aussies and tells readers that they ought to regard “pregnancy, rather than adolescent sexual activity itself . . . as the major problem.” And why should teenagers be the only ones to have fun? The reader is encouraged to act out her “naughty fantasy” so long as it’s “with her husband.” For readers whose imaginations need a boost, there are now plenty of ads for “explicitly sensual reading,” fiction that celebrates “passion—wild, free, and unashamed.” In its celebrity-chasing, its fixation on physical attractiveness, and its promotion of sexual pleasure (preferably in marriage), LHJ has apparently revived the editorial profile found at Cosmo 25 years ago.

Given current trends, LHJ and Cosmo will soon both look like a combination of Playgirl and the Wall Street Journal. But linking the new eroticism and the new careerism is a single issue. “The issue,” explains a candid recent LHJ article, “is really one of self—not sex. And that’s intrinsically linked to finding an individual style and attitude rather than adopting those grounded in the past.” Right now, encouraging women to cut loose from all traditional commitments to family and marriage and to indulge their “naughty fantasy” of self and sex may seem like a shrewd journalistic strategy. But if recent studies showing a negative correlation between reading skills and use of pornography are any indication, Cosmo and LHJ may soon discover that their former readers are too engrossed in video solipsism to bother with turning pages.