The surprising policy legacy of Ladies Home Journal

May 5
This issue of Ladies Home Journal included a breakthrough piece by Pearl Buck
This issue of Ladies Home Journal included a breakthrough piece by Pearl Buck

After 130 years, Ladies’ Home Journal will cease monthly print publication. LHJ still has a circulation of 3.2 million. Yet its aging reader base and the generally disastrous magazine financial ecosystem has undermined this flagship publication, a leader among the “seven sisters” that once dominated this segment of the business.

As schlubby, middle-aged guy, I myself fall outside LHJ’s target demographic. My personal taste in magazines runs more to Sports Illustrated, New York Review, and Swedish Land Use Planning. Still, it’s a sad day. I’m sorry to see that the July issue of LHJ will be the last sent to subscribers. A quarterly newsstand version and a Web site will continue. Obviously the enterprise will become a somewhat different thing.

Every type of journalism has a craft to it, offering opportunities for excellence and contribution the outsider easily overlooks. That is certainly true of Ladies’ Home Journal and other women’s magazines such as Elle and McCall’s, and related publications such as Real Simple, Self, and more. It’s snobbishly easy to dismiss such publications. These magazines make the dismissal a little too easy through their obvious defects, particularly the consistently sexist imagery and themes of their advertising. Ladies’ Home Journal was always a step behind more adventurous publications in exploring gender inequality in the public and private spheres.

In 1970, one hundred feminists even staged a sit-in at LHJ’s offices. The protesters’ demands wonderfully reflect the spirit of that movement and time:

"We demand that the magazine use women writers for all columns and freelance assignments because men speak to women through the bias of their male supremacist concepts. We demand that the magazine hire non-white women at all levels in proportion to the population statistics.… We demand that the magazine cease to further the exploitation of women by publishing advertisements that degrade women, and by publishing ads from companies that exploit women in terms of salary and job discrimination.…. We demand an end to all celebrity articles, all articles oriented toward the preservation of youth (implying that age has no graces of its own), and an end to all articles specifically tied in to advertising: e.g., food, make-up, fashion, appliances. We demand that service articles perform useful services: e.g., real information along the lines of Consumer Reports, telling whether consumer goods really work. We demand that the Journal publish fiction on the basis of its merits, not specially slanted, romantic stories glorifying women’s traditional roles."

Given such indictments, it’s tempting to overlook the real journalism many millions of readers found in these pages. Yet the same genre published serious fare, too. In the 1890s, LHJ exposed fraudulent patent medicines and refused to print advertisements for these products. The Feminine Mystique was excerpted there and in McCall’s.

Recent journalism in women’s magazines has explored surrogacy, use of anti-depressants during pregnancy, sexual harassment in higher education, Bill Clinton’s newfound role as a political spouse, even insurers’ unethical rescission of health coverage. My brilliant dissertation advisor Richard Zeckhauser told me to read Ann Landers and Dear Abby with special care.  I found much good material there.

When the moment is right, women’s magazines could contribute something more, too. One such moment occurred on May 1, 1950, when Ladies Home Journal printed a taboo-breaking article by Pearl Buck called “The child who never grew.” Buck recounted her gradual discovery of her daughter Caroline’s intellectual disability, and describes her painful decision to institutionalize Caroline at the age of nine within the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey.


Buck was the first celebrity-parent to come out in this way. It was a brave thing to do. In that time and for another generation, it was common for parents to quietly institutionalize a child, and to never publicly mention their son or daughter again.

Buck was a huge celebrity. Author of The Good Earth and other blockbuster books, she had won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes. The child who never grew subsequently appeared as a short best-selling book. Its publication spurred books by others, most prominently Dale Evans' Angel unaware. For the first time, these books frankly chronicled the struggle facing even the wealthiest parents.

The child who never grew is a sad book. Her ambivalence and mourning make especially painful reading. Parts are misguided or outdated. Buck insisted that her family is made of the strongest stock, writing: “The old stigma of ‘something in the family’ is all too often unjust.” Buck was also quite guarded about many details. She never even mentioned Caroline’s name. The 1992 edition includes an afterward by Janice Walsh, Caroline’s adopted sister and legal guardian, which provides essential human details.

It’s easy to read Buck, and to judge her harshly by the standards of 2014 rather than by those of her own day. One must remember that in 1920, when Caroline Buck was born, the birth of a child with intellectual disabilities was a source of deep shame and stigma, a private tragedy not to be publicly discussed. Medical knowledge of conditions such as PKU (the genetic disorder that actually caused Caroline’s disability) was essentially nonexistent. Children with intellectual disabilities were matter-of-factly excluded from school, summer camp, and almost every other venue of our common life. State institutions were overcrowded and often inhumane places. Yet for many families, that’s all there was.

As chronicled by historians James Trent, Kathleen Jones, and others, postwar America provided fertile ground for parents to find each other, to provide mutual support, and to act collectively to solve common problems. Hundreds of thousands of families became a powerful political force through the emergence of what was then-called the National Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children.

During those postwar years, a pioneering generation of caregivers banded together, put the world on their backs, and changed America. At the 2008 Republican convention, Governor Palin mocked candidate Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer. Her derisive comments were ironic given her own family experiences with intellectual disabilities. Women like Palin herself, sixty years before, became some of the most fearsome community organizers in American history.

For the first half of the 20th century, popular media was dominated by freakish or frightening imagery of people living with intellectual disabilities. Family caregivers were largely invisible. Parents quietly cared for their loved-ones as best they could, for as long as they could, with astonishingly little help. In part repelled by Nazi eugenics, Americans in the postwar years began to open our hearts and eventually our wallets to embrace fellow citizens with intellectual disabilities.

By allowing Pearl Buck to bear personal witness in its pages, Ladies Home Journal communicated--and thus propelled—long-overdue changes to American life.

Culture and public policy don’t change overnight, of course. Six decades later, much remains to be done. Still, this was no small thing.

2014-04-26 16 19 13 (2)

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