When Exercise and "Physical Culture" Became Good for Women, Too

Cristen Conger

Turn-of-the-century publishing magnate, Bernarr Macfadden, who I mentioned in a previous post on thermal dieting, was serious about physical fitness. As in writing an eight-volume encyclopedia on the topic, serious.

Among his multiple publishing endeavors that made him a household name and a millionaire in the early 20th century, Macfadden launched Physical Culture magazine in March 1899, featuring a 25-page opus on bodybuilding and a snappy tagline declaring "Weakness is a Crime." Lasting until 1955 when Macfadden died, Physical Culture magazine churned out typical health and fitness stories on longevity, diet, exercise and even "correct breathing for magnetism and charm."

Bernarr Macfadden's Physical Culture magazine was surprisingly revolutionary.
source: Ball State University

Much of the Physical Culture fare is typical of the health publication genre, but one thing not so common for a magazine launched long before women could vote was its undertones of health feminism. In a 2011 paper published in Media History Monographs titled "The Feminism of Bernarr Macfadden: Physical Culture Magazine and the Empowerment of Women," author Kathleen L. Endres explores how Macfadden and his editorial team, which included family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger and reform author Upton Sinclair, infused the magazine with physical health-oriented feminist messages. Although Macfadden offered tips on wrinkle removal, preventing gray hairs, keep husbands sexually satisfied and so forth, Physical Culture also railed against corsets and restrictive female clothing, which Macfadden blamed on society's rampant, anti-woman "prudery."

In addition to sponsoring physical health exhibitions to publicly demonstrate women's strength, Macfadden also liked showing off female athleticism, as Endres describes: "Madfadden most frequently pictured women in active poses -- exercising or participating in sports. The magazine pictured women wrestlers, "lady sharpshooters," female fencers, cowgirls, swimmers and track athletes, all in active poses. One photo even pictured a wife posed with her husband hoisted over her shoulders."

At a time when the poofy-haired, tight-laced Gibson Girl embodied idealized beauty, those kinds of active female images were revolutionary. During first-wave feminism, wardrobe was very much at the center of the women's rights movement, with pioneers like Amelia Bloomer, inventor of the eponymous bloomers, protesting inequality partly by refusing to wear restrictive and arguably oppression fashions of the day. As the Victorian-era Gibson Girl gave way to the New Woman of the 1910s and 1920s, Physical Culture also had to dance around anti-obscenity laws in order to publish its articles on birth control methods and contraception. In many ways, as Endres points out in her research, the magazine underscored how the personal -- and physical -- was political long before second-wave consciousness-raising feminists of the 1960s and 1970s would embrace the slogan as their rallying cry.