Two days before Jane Raphaely arrived at the Eden Grove Blue lecture theatre to give her “free thinking” talk for Think!Fest, I encountered two academic friends grabbing a coffee. Well, they said, how do you think it will go, what will she say, and will she get a crowd? They looked at me quizzically: Who invited her? I did of course, I’ve had a long-standing relationship with Jane since my mother first began reading Fairlady in the 1960s, thereby making me an eavesdropper on the world of women’s magazines. I got my first whiff of feminism via my mother’s reading about Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem (and the overheard conversations she then had with her female friends); I got my only real sexual advice from Fairlady (what a bizarre time the 60s were, sex was everywhere for some and nowhere for others); and it subliminally made me want to be not just a writer but a magazine editor (which eventually, I became, but nothing quite like the editor I had in mind in those days).
I’d only encountered Jane Raphaely in person about twice before she came to Think!Fest: once at a meeting of the South African National Editors’ Forum (when I was already working for Rhodes University) and once, I think, at the launch of House&Leisure in Durban when I was features editor for The Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg. I had also met two people who had worked very closely with Jane: Les Aupiais and Cathy Knox, and both had imparted just how influential a mentor and trailblazer she had been in both their lives. The Jane who came to speak about her life, work, book and ideas, is no longer the smart, sassy, young woman who challenges you from the cover of her book (Jane Raphaely Unedited) but she is a smart, sassy, matured woman, who I realised, had I met earlier in my journalism career, when I was in need of direction, guidance and affirmation, I would have thrown myself like a three-year-old around her ankles and never let go.
So, it’s interesting then, to encounter this woman whose influence and persona has hovered just there on the edge of my consciousness for much of my life.
The thoughts this experience provoked:
At this point in my life, I’m really an academic and this is made extremely clear to me when I deal with journalists and editors. It was fascinating to find out that Jane had gone to the London School of Economics to study anthropology (she did research into the cottonmills of Lancashire with Isaac Shapiro, and then spent some time at Columbia University in New York) and that she continues to draw on her early research and knowledge in many of the situations she encounters in the media world. When she spoke of this, I could see that had she become an academic and researcher she would also have become a quite formidable intellectual in that world. The choice she made and the choice I made hung in the air as I sat beside her and a smallish group spoke to her and questioned her about her life and book the day after her talk.
The 60s: what a moment, but you had to be in your late teens, 20s or 30s to take advantage of this decade. I was a child and so just behind my mother and Jane’s generation as they opened up their worlds and as they made space for the women to follow. I suppose when you are doing the retro thing — thinking back over your life, writing an autobiography, there’s a certain artificiality to what you choose to highlight, but the 60s was Jane’s moment and she made such good use of it. Her sureness of foot, her certainty, her stepping in to take up big challenges — I’m always interested in that kind of self confidence and self knowledge. On the back flap of her bright pink book run the words: unabashed, unbeaten, uncensored, uncomplaining, unstoppable, unsinkable, undefeated, undiminished, unexpected, unflinching, unshaken, unvanquished!! The list could go on…
Magazines: I had forgotten that they were considered low and trashy by many people (including my grandmother) and often had to be read a bit on the sly. Fairlady was an entirely natural next step for me because all my reading childhood I had been devouring the girl’s comics from England, Bunty, Diana and Mandy which my mother ordered for me from the CNA. When I told Jane a little of this reading history, she said, ah, so of course you were the ideal Cosmopolitan reader! (because acquiring the South African rights to print that magazine had been all about capturing women of my age when they were in the early 20s). But sadly no, Cosmopolitan was all flash and no substance for me and I never fell in love with it. I did however, really like House&Leisure when it hit me in my early 30s with a house of my own. By then I started to read magazines that were more design-oriented, De Kat, Visi. And then I got serious and political (or had already been so with a long-standing Newsweek subscription during the 80s state of emergencies when you could get from the US the material written and photographed by South African journalists on the frontlines that was banned in SA). Now I never read a woman’s magazine, I just don’t seem to be their type of reader, I spend my money on the London Review of Books, Granta and other consciously literary or political writing. When I stopped being an editor of features and other non-news material and became an academic I seemed to turn my back on that world and can’t find it interesting anymore now that I don’t have to know what’s going on there in the same way.
A whole life and a moment in it: provoked by that picture on the front cover.
Jane explained that the editor for the book had gone through a slew of pictures of her and chosen this particular one and the colour to match. This particular picture had been specially set up by the fashion editor, a make-up person and a professional photographer because they’d conspired and decided to do something different than the usual, staid editor’s picture. They put a wig on Jane, did some model makeup and put her in a black, sleeveless dress and the photographer then said something shocking which resulted in the look you see. Jane is now in her 70s and yet, this is the picture that says most clearly who she has been and who she still is. Why should we be known only by the latest and most faithful version of our faces?
Books: she spoke of her commitment to reading and books in both her talk and her more intimate discussion about writing her own book. In her talk she said: “Books are the trees, magazines are the low-hanging fruit… literature can make us think and feel… books have been the engine of change for women… writing a book is much more difficult than doing anything else.” Getting books into people’s hands and provoking reading remains a powerful urge for Jane and she’s joined with friends setting up a website to make more material available especially to young South Africans. I don’t know why this surprised me — it shouldn’t have — but I’ve not met many mag editors this attached to the value of the book.
Politics: of course, the cliche and the hackneyed attitude go: women who read magazines and the women who edit them are a-political and involved in the domestic, personal and, frivolous aspects of life. Jane’s riposte: “Everything is political in South Africa.” Taking up the editorship of Fairlady (which, remember, was a Naspers magazine) was Jane’s chance to “be political without having to go into politics… my interest in politics was inappropriate and it was an idea of another kind of politics in which women were able to influence the course of events”. Jane was both Jane Raphaely and Jane Mullins, the editor with hand on the tiller and the columnist spilling her guts and she says this “gave me a dual political personality; playing both sides against the middle”. Remember too that Fairlady was often hauled up in front the censorboard mostly to account for risque sexual content, “the mag was banned quite often, but not for the political content,” she says. Jane was a reader of Ms and Spare Rib and many of the ideas of American feminism found their way to South Africa via Fairlady because of this.
Her business nous: I’m always interested in the difference between a gut feeling that tells you what people want from media and the market analysis and surveying that now dictates what you get (pretty much one-size fits all). Jane’s constant question as an editor was: “Would this be close to a woman’s heart?” and then “would this make her boil?” I remember her telling us at the launch of House&Leisure how dinner table conversations with retailers who noticed an uptick in women buying home-related items, led to her realisation that the magazine market could do with a classy home decor publication.
The digital future: Jane is taking this on in characteristic style; turning her anthropologist eye on how her grandchildren negotiate iPads and considering what that early tactile experience of information means for us as a reading-writing species, writing her own blog, being active on Twitter. She may not be a digital native, but she’s also not a resident alien. Approaching this new world with the same attitude she arrived with in South Africa just after Sharpeville, she’s an immigrant come to stay and make a difference.