Feminising Influences on Mass Circulation : a comparative study of Le Petit Journal and the Daily Mail

Jane Chapman

Research Assistant : Kate Allison

British Academy funded research project:


The concerns of this project demonstrate the continuing dilemmas of how female identity is to be represented by the media and the repercussions for citizenship and the public sphere. This is the first time that female influence on the early mass circulation press has been quantified in detail, and also the first time that comparisons have been made on the theme between two countries. The research into Europe's first mass circulation daily and into Britain's first tabloid daily reveals that criticisms of 'tabloidisation' have a historical as well as a contemporary dimension. This dates back to the formative years of the tabloid; in other words, it is not a purely 20th century phenomenon. Press historians have assumed that the obvious widening of audience appeal in the mass circulation popular press, referred to as 'New Journalism' with its fresh emphasis on trivia, crime coverage and pulp serialised fiction, also implied a progressive view of women. Our findings prove otherwise, refuting the 'feminisation' argument. Decisions about what the female audience was interested in were made largely by men and defined fairly conservatively.


This study challenges the argument that the early mass circulation press increasingly catered for its female audience. Europe's first popular daily- the French Le Petit Journal - was studied during its launch year of 1863, then again comparatively with Britain's Daily Mail in 1896, the launch year of the latter. A shared emphasis on trivia, crime coverage and pulp serialised fiction demonstrates masculine perceptions of what female audiences wanted - doing no favours to the emergent suffragist movement. Commercial factors outweighed political ones. A 4 part categorization of the representation of women in articles as either 'vicious', 'virtuous', 'victorious' or 'victims' indicates these dailies defined female audience interest conservatively. The findings provide detailed comparison of cultural distinctions -French coverage tending towards the prurient and sensational, in contrast to the more positive British articles. Such insights contrast with existing more generalised discussion of the late19th century mass circulation press.


Of the two papers, Le Petit Journal led the way with its content 'tabloidisation', although The Daily Mail is usually given credit for this by UK historians. In fact, Northcliffe's diaries reveal that he visited the Paris H.Q of Le Petit Journal regularly for inspiration, studying operations carefully and befriending PJ director Marinoni prior to the Daily Mail launch in 1896. Project research also reveals the pioneering marketing foresight of PJ founder Millaud during the 1860s- a place in the history of the popular press previously attributed to Northcliffe at the turn of the century and beyond (largely due to claims by the latter in memoirs - that do not exist for Millaud).

The French press initiative in conservative feminisation has not previously been recognised by gender scholars either: they have tended to concentrate on the more positive side of emergent citizenship, exemplified by feminist pioneer role models. Thus the findings add a new contribution to discourses on French modernity and women's history in both countries. As such they supplement research on the varying representations of women that figured prominently as content in literature and art during the second half of the 19th century, and resonate with some of today's media stereotyping of women.


During data analysis of the newspapers the project researcher created three data sets: Petit Journal 1863, Petit Journal 1896 and Daily Mail 1896. These provide a percentage of female-related articles based on a 33 per cent sample and reveal a 5 per cent increase for The Daily Mail and 3.5 % for Le Petit Journal respectively. Quantitative content analysis in 5 descriptive representational categories - 'vicious', 'virtuous', 'victorious' or 'victims' , or n/a - tracked changes in editorial approach. Articles were also analysed separately for the percentage of consumer orientated as opposed to citizen-centred pieces. Whilst remaining socially conservative and trivial, The Daily Mail managed to increase its more positive, educative angle ('virtuous' and 'victorious'). Conversely, Le Petit Journal increased its emphasis on prurient and critical coverage of women ('vicious' and 'victims'). There is only one reference to a professional female journalist, 'Mamselle Chiffon' in PJ and 2 female journalists in The Daily Mail- 'Lady Charlotte' and 'Janet'. The analysis of female representation with the '4 V ' categorisation indicates that the papers appeared to do little to aid the position of women as citizens at a time when suffragette organization was in the ascendancy.


Gender, Citizenship, and the Media: Historical & Trans-national Perspectives  by Jane Chapman and Kate Lacey (Palgrave-Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2012)

'Assessing the female influence in Europe's first mass circulation daily newspaper.' Modern & Contemporary France, Dec.2009, Jane Chapman

'Prurient and socially conservative- 19th century representation of women in Britain's Daily Mailand France's Le Petit Journal', Media History, date TBC






Macquarie University






Professor Chapman presenting a paper on research findings at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, this was a public conference on the history of tabloid newspapers.