By Tara Culp-Ressler April 14, 2014 ThinkProgress
Lauren Rankin, a freelance writer who focuses on issues of reproductive justice, doesn’t always keep track of her new Twitter followers. But one recently caught her eye.
“A couple weeks ago I noticed that one of Cosmo’s editors, Lori Fradkin, followed me on Twitter… At the time I thought, Cosmo? That’s kind of weird, since I mainly write about reproductive rights,” Rankin recounted.
Then, a couple days later, Rankin was added to a list serv that receives periodic emails about Cosmopolitan.com’s latest reproductive rights coverage — topics ranging from abortion clinic harassment, to the new law in Texas that’s forcing abortion clinics to close, to combating abortion stigma.
Those probably aren’t the topics you’d expect to encounter in Cosmopolitan. After all, the women’s magazine is largely infamous for doling out complicated sex tips — advice that feminist sites like Jezebel have been mocking for years. But so far this year, Cosmopolitan.com has actually published story after story that focuses on in-depth issues related to reproductive rights.
For instance, in an article that went up at the beginning of last week, an OB-GYN practicing in Texas explains what it’s like to provide health care in a state that’s enacted so many harsh restrictions on abortion, which can force some women to resort to dangerous options. “My first hysterectomy as a resident was on a 16-year-old who had an illegal abortion. Her pelvis was nothing but pus,” the piece begins.
Rankin said she’s been heartened by the site’s “legitimate strides” to include more coverage of abortion policy, and impressed that the editorial staff seems to be making a concerted effort to connect with writers who are already working in this issue space. So she emailed Fradkin directly to offer to write for the site, too. She’s published two pieces — one on a middle school’s potentially sexist dress code, and another on a bill in Tennessee that’s seeking to criminalize pregnant women — so far. And Rankin isn’t the only feminist writer who now has a Cosmo byline. Jill Filipovic, a columnist for the Guardian and a blogger at Feministe, has also published several pieces about reproductive rights on Cosmopolitan.com.
“It all comes down to one core value, which is that we are unequivocally for women’s rights. It’s that simple,” Cosmopolitan.com’s editor, Amy Odell, told ThinkProgress when asked about the apparent editorial shift. “We believe every woman should have access to safe, affordable health care, and when that right is threatened, we’re not afraid to tackle those threats head-on.”
Rankin’s interaction with Cosmo’s staff appears to be part of the site’s new strategy. Odell explained that Lori Fradkin, who was hired as the new features editor at the end of last year, has been working on building up a team of writers who can tell “powerful stories” about the impacts of legislative attacks on women’s rights. Rather than publishing straight reports on new abortion restrictions, Cosmo is primarily attempting to find a way to tell personal stories their readers can connect with.
“The reception has been incredible — it’s been enormously gratifying to see such high engagement with our audience around these issues,” Odell said. “One challenge of working on the internet, as all of we online editors know, is getting people to care about hard news as opposed to what Kim Kardashian wore an hour ago. Of course we’re happy to keep readers filled in on what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but we do see stronger social engagement and traffic on stories about women who get harassed at abortion clinics by protesters.”
Other women’s magazines don’t entirely avoid reproductive rights. In 2009, Glamour profiled several women explaining why they chose to have an abortion. The same year, Marie Claire shared the stories of two women who each made different decisions about whether to have a later abortion. Both Marie Claire and and Elle have published a few stories about Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster and Texas’ new abortion law.
But Cosmo’s persistent focus on the issue, and recruitment of freelance writers who are real experts in the space, is something new. It also has the potential to spread abortion rights far beyond the audiences that currently read about that topic. “It’s such a mainstream magazine that could help reach people who might not be aware of the onslaught of attacks,” Rankin pointed out.
And maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. Despite the perception that women’s magazines and websites never tackle serious stories, publications that cover fashion and beauty also produce content on a wide range of more hard-hitting subjects. It’s also not hard to see why outlets like Cosmo might be interested in experimenting. As magazine sales are slumping, Cosmo is probably trying hard to engage its growing base of digital readers with fresh strategies and new angles.
There are also some signs that the brand is becoming more aware of its reputation for silly sex tips, and is now embracing more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to that content. Ramping up the policy coverage could fit into a larger tonal shift for the publication.
If Cosmo continues to take more of an explicitly feminist approach on issues like abortion, will other magazines follow? If that content really does end up engaging readers better than celebrity news, as Odell suggests, it’s a real possibility that could end up influencing pop culture as a whole. Celebrity women are notorious for shying away from the “feminist” label, but as the movement continues to become more mainstream — for better and for worse — that might not remain the case. Beyoncé has done a lot to reclaim that ground lately, and Cosmo seems to be ready to do its part too.
“I can’t speak for other magazines, but at Cosmo, we are for women’s rights and that’s why it’s so important for us to talk about cases of those rights being infringed upon,” Odell said.