When Feminists Confronted the Men In Charge of Ladies' Home Journal


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John Mack Carter’s corner office on the fifth floor of the Curtis Publishing building had become something of a fire hazard. Meant to accommodate his desk and a few employees, it now held between 100 and 200 women. Many stood with signs, read from prepared statements, and heckled Carter; those that couldn't squeeze in trickled into the hallway. A few jumped on furniture and smoked cigars to mock his attempts to remain cool in what was quickly becoming the most eventful morning in the history of Ladies’ Home Journal.

And this was before he was nearly pushed out a window.

The women had congregated on March 18, 1970 at the Journal’s editorial offices in New York City to protest the fact that Carter, the magazine's editor-in-chief since 1965, was leading a mostly-male editorial staff. It was, in the eyes of activists, a gender-distorted control room producing content that encouraged readers to embrace a subservient domestic life and an underpaid role in the workforce.   

The Journal protest was conceived at the Greenwich Village apartment of Susan Brownmiller, member of a feminist group called Media Women. A successful journalist, Brownmiller knew that a “sit-in” would attract newspapers and television crews. It would be, in her words, a “woman bites magazine” story. When one of her fellow organizers mentioned she used to work at the Journal and could help draw up a floor plan, plans were quickly made. Flush with members from the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Redstockings liberation group and other women’s rights activists, the protestors would demand higher salaries and more substantial assignments for female staff—and that Carter vacate his position.

Wearing business attire in order to blend in, the women entered the Journal offices around 9 a.m. in small groups so their growing numbers wouldn’t be immediately noticed. Some went directly to Carter’s office; others headed for the secretarial area, where female employees were spoken to about their low pay and the dangers of a passive attitude in the workplace. A few of the protestors lingered in the lobby, wondering if the police might show up. One of the women carried a large sign featuring a mock-up of their Women’s Liberated Journal: a pregnant woman posed near a cover line that read, “Unpaid Labor.”

John Mack Carter under siege. Courtesy Feminist.org

Carter may have been tipped off by media contacts, but there was little he could do to prepare for the occupied state of his office. As he sat behind his desk, wondering how to proceed with news cameras pointed at him, managing editor Lenore Hershey—the only female senior editor on staff—tried to address the women.

“Behave like ladies,” she admonished.

The women ignored Hershey, and instead took aim at Carter. In a Village Voice account of the scene written by demonstrator Minda Bikman, the Journal tried to present a united, and traditionally ladylike, front:

At this point, they brought in Geraldine Carro, a woman in her mid-20s. Hershey introduced her with a grand wave of her arm, remarking that Carro wrote half the magazine. "Then why isn't she an editor?" was the spontaneous response.

The women began offering story ideas for future issues. Instead of cooking tips, they argued, women would be better served by insightful pieces on abortion, the draft, and divorce. The magazine should offer day care services for employees and hire more women of color. Sexist advertisements should be eliminated.

When Hershey pressed them on the latter, the women produced a recent issue featuring a Jell-O ad that implied a housewife wouldn’t know what an “assistant vice president” is.

Carter tried negotiating, insisting he would only speak to 12 of the women in a separate meeting space. They refused: protestor Karla Jay joked that they should just write “conference room” on his office door. Carter also offered to placate them by writing an article on the women’s rights movement. That, too, was insufficient. Throughout the day, he insisted he would not be giving up his position as editor.

As the afternoon wore on, the parties began to get impatient. News crews wanted footage for the 6 p.m. broadcasts; some of the women began discussing overturning filing cabinets or setting fires. Rumors began to swirl that the police would intervene if the matter wasn't resolved soon.

The situation became so tense that one of the women, Shulamith Firestone, lunged at Carter, who had been standing near a large window. Jay stopped her before she could make contact and potentially propel both of them through the glass. But the attempt seemed to motivate the editor, who at that point appeared to be listening to what the protestors had to say.

After roughly 11 hours, Brownmiller, Jay, and the rest of their group emerged with a promise of editorial control over an eight-page section in an upcoming issue. They were paid $10,000 to create content, which Brownmiller distributed to women's groups in the city. But not all of the women were happy: their demands for salary increases and changes to advertising policies weren’t met. And Carter was still behind his desk—though not for much longer.

In 1973, Carter left his post. Hershey, who later said the protest made her rethink her own views about feminism, petitioned to take his spot and soon became the Journal’s editor-in-chief. Women have continued to occupy Carter's former office ever since.

Additional Sources: Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation; Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975.