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Activism Is Part of Fashion Magazine's Makeup

Beauty isn't the only cause addressed by Marie Claire--it also tackles grave issues, getting some readers politically involved.

April 24, 2002|LAUREN SANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a woman sitting in her corner office. Neat stacks of magazines and windows over Broadway form a backdrop. A mane of long blond highlights frames her large brown eyes that grow even larger as she leans forward to stab a finger at a headline in the latest issue of her magazine. Under the heading "What Women Want," red and black type asks: "Why Are These Mass Murderers and Rapists Still Free?" A box on the page appeals to readers to sponsor a survivor of war in the Balkans or in Rwanda, or to write the White House to insist the Bush administration cooperate with war crimes tribunals. The page even lists Web sites for related activist organizations.

The woman in this office could only be Gloria Steinem. Except she isn't. She's Lesley Jane Seymour, the editor of the top-tier fashion magazine Marie Claire. Perhaps against all odds, Marie Claire is the title that women's rights activists often mention when they talk about what publication has done the most to interest women in feminist causes over the past few years. However, the magazine never publishes the f-word. "I use it personally, but I would never put the word 'feminism' in the magazine," says Seymour, a self-described feminist in a tight white skirt and pink patent leather sandals with sky-high heels.

Earlier this month in New York, Seymour chaired the anniversary celebration for Equality Now, an international women's rights organization, which marked its 10 years of activism with an evening of feminist performance and speaking. It's unlikely to see a fashion editor's name printed in a program above ones like Eve Ensler and Rose Styron, especially one with Seymour's resume. Her career has bounded through the editorial offices of publications many feminists view as pinnacles of stiletto-hawking woman-hating --magazines like Glamour and Vogue.

And indeed, Marie Claire looks no different from any of the lip-glossy women's titles. But if you scan the cover of each issue, skimming down the current issue's pitch for articles such as "Men Confess: What Makes Him Commit--or Not" and the usual "sexy swimsuit" roundup, you'll find a cover line that seems out of place. It's a Day-Glo green banner that reads, in color-me-radical language "World Campaign: Stop War Criminals From Walking Free," a tease for the page Seymour now turns, exposing an ad for pills that purport to "Increase Breast Size ... Guaranteed!"

It's just this duality that is the secret of Marie Claire's success, both as a publication and as a tool for women's rights activism. Jessica Neuwirth, the president of Equality Now, says that Marie Claire has brought in more new members over time than any other source. "Every time they list us as a way for people to take action, we get a huge response from people who stay with us. And, importantly, in many cases these are people who weren't previously aware of those issues."

Because Marie Claire is read by many women who aren't exactly on Ms. magazine's subscription list, women who buy the magazine for their seven-year horoscope end up learning about the sex slave trade in China just by flipping idly past a few cosmetic ads.

"Most of our calls came from high school girls or women who wanted us to speak at their sorority lunches, women who specifically said they had read about us in Marie Claire," says Masuda Sultan, a board member of Women for Afghan Women, one of several groups that saw a spike in interest after they were listed alongside an April story about young Afghans prostituting themselves to survive.

Marie Claire has been running this sort of international story in each issue since its American launch six years ago. After Sept. 11, scores of readers wrote in that they were the only women they knew who were well-versed about the Taliban, thanks to the magazine's previous coverage. And since the fall, when Seymour took over the editorship from industry iconoclast Glenda Bailey, the magazine now features a national "reportage" story alongside each international one.

Seymour is hardly attempting to turn her title into a Ms. competitor. "We're trying to avoid the taint of old feminism, the feeling that you have to be on the feminist bus or off it," she says. And Seymour, who reads e-mail that her readers send her directly, says they're not exactly looking for a movement rag, just a smarter beauty magazine. "They're saying, 'Don't throw it in my face--I don't want to look like an intellectual egghead freak,'" Seymour says. And yet, in reader polls, it's the news stories that rank highest among features.

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