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Venus's Next Wave 

The feminist magazine's new owner hopes to raise it to new heights by rejecting its past.

Sarah Beardsley

Sarah Beardsley

michael boyd

Amy Schroeder was a 19-year-old women's studies major at Michigan State when she created Venus in 1995. Feminism was the point of her education, and it was the point of her fanzine. "Though I was surrounded by conservatism, I started reading about the feminist movement and Gloria Steinem while I was in high school," she told me the other day in an e-mail, "and it excited me just as much as the rock that was popular in the early to mid-90s.

"At that time there was a very positive, pro-feminist collective of women making fierce rock and roll: Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, etc. In addition, when I got to college, I learned about the Riot Grrl movement, which was not all that prevalent in Michigan but it was big in the Pacific Northwest. This was a very loud, in-your-face punk/DIY women's movement, led by Kathleen Hanna, Bratmobile, and other bands."

Schroeder had a ready answer whenever she was asked what she was doing. "Venus zine," she'd say, "covers women in music, art, film, fashion, and DIY culture because not a lot of other publications do."

But Venus, a quarterly, did not stand still. As time went by, Schroeder learned more about writing and editing and publishing, and, her e-mail continued, "the more I learned the better Venus became, and the better it became the more readers we got, and the more readers we got the more I recognized how to grow Venus—and that involved making it more accessible, which was not just covering Riot Grrl bands.

"If we kept doing the same things and covering the same people year after year, we would have folded in the early 2000s. Many of the bands we used to cover have broken up. It's similar with any publication—if Rolling Stone had continued to focus on 1960s Revolution Rock, it wouldn't exist today."

After college, Schroeder published Venus out of New York and San Francisco, where other journalism jobs paid the rent. It wasn't until 2003, after she'd moved to Chicago, that she could work on Venus full-time. In 2006 she sold Venus to Anne Brindle and Marci Sepulveda, copublishers of Chicago Agent, a real estate trade magazine, but she stayed on as editor until September 2008. She told me she sees herself as the person "who gets things going," and that she was reaching the upper limit of her magazine's 18-to-34 demographic, she was now teaching at Columbia College, and she'd decided to move to New York. (She's there now, as a full-time writer and editor for the Girl Scouts who's also helping HarperCollins create a Web site to attract a community of aspiring teen writers.)

Brindle says Chicago Agent has thrived despite the collapse of the industry it covers, but in 2009 it "demanded more of our attention" and she and Sepulveda decided to unload Venus. They published their last issue in September 2009 and in January sold the magazine to Sarah Beardsley, a business consultant and former vice president at MCI, for a price none of them want to reveal.

Beardsley thinks Venus is brimming with potential. She's not just a new owner, she's a new generation—though, curiously, an older one. She's 47, 14 years older than Schroeder is now and 28 years older than she was when she produced the first issue in one night on a word processor in her dorm room.

There was no winter 2010 issue of Venus, but the spring issue, Beardsley's first, was given away at South by Southwest and it'll be on the stands March 30. It carries a note from the new owner telling readers, "You prove that smart, creative women are a force to be reckoned with."

Beardsley believes that there are a lot more women happy to raise their hand to that description than Venus has ever reached, and she hopes the allure of her new magazine's "incredible ability to spot trends and spot talent" will draw them in.

In search of knowing assessments of Venus, I'd asked around, and what I kept finding were smart, creative women who knew of the magazine but rarely read it. "There are a lot of those women," Beardsley told me. They are the market she intends to tap, an "extended community of people who want to be part of—movement's too strong a word, but cause—something people believe in, an aesthetic being built from the ground up. These are people who want to read about real people, who want to see what real people are doing, creating, making happen."

Beardsley's audacious goals are to quickly turn the quarterly into a monthly and jump its circulation from about 60,000 to 200,000. By tweaking the editorial focus (for instance, turning up the celebrity dial) and introducing marketing techniques that are second nature to her, she expects to create that demand.

This kind of talk excites Schroeder, who is paying attention. "Venus definitely has its roots in indie lady culture, which is awesome," she says, "but we're not living in the 90s anymore so it needs to change." She knew I was skeptical—I'd told her so. "Why is it you're concerned about Venus changing?" she challenged me. "What is antifeminist about covering successful women? Am I supposed to be on the defensive, or is Sarah supposed to be on the defensive for setting big goals? Or is Venus supposed to be this small magazine that doesn't get beyond a certain point? I live in New York now, and one of the things I think about is Chicago does a really great job of helping indie projects take off, but sometimes it's hard to progress beyond a certain point. Not that there aren't a number of resources there, but there's a great sense of staying indie—and if you try to move beyond a certain point, people don't like you anymore."

Why was I skeptical? A little knowledge can be dangerous, and I knew one or two things about Venus already: Women who were familiar with Venus tended to be fiercely loyal to it, readers and writers both. (I once had the young editor of a community paper in Chicago tell me how exasperating it was that she couldn't afford to pay the same writers who wrote for Venus for free because they shared its vision.) So I wondered if Beardsley, in going after big numbers, was putting something vital at risk. What's more, I'd heard from one of those loyalists who'd interviewed for the job of editor in chief, and when she found out what Beardsley had in mind, she ran the other way. "There are people out there who see this as being one of the few places where women making music can get a fair shot," the writer (who asked not to be named) told me. "There aren't a lot of magazines like that. And she seems hell-bent on changing the magazine to something else. She told me she's not a feminist and feminism is what hindered the magazine in the past. It's fundamentally a feminist music magazine [but] she wanted stuff more mainstream. One of the things that made Venus cool was that it was a female staff and things were written from an understated feminist perspective. It wasn't overt, it wasn't political—but it knew its history. And it came from the knowledge there are inherent struggles to women making art.

"She wants to make it more broad-based," the loyalist continued. "If she wants to make it an Oprah magazine for hipster ladies, maybe all power to her." The editor Beardsley eventually hired is Jill Russell, who'd been an associate editor of Martha Stewart's Body + Soul magazine in New York. Schroeder has talked to her and says "she seems great."

I asked Beardsley about Venus and its commitment to feminism. "That's such a word fraught with interpretation and meaning," she said. "We don't use that particular F word around here. It just doesn't seem relevant." She called feminism "an old-fashioned concept" and explained that "it doesn't enter into our discussions about what we're going to cover and what have you." She said, "We're much more into discovering trends, talent, whatever they are, and they can come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and forms."

Feminism has crashed across America in what are today called waves. These waves have been largely generational, and women who rode one wave might think they disagree fundamentally with women who rode another. But has feminism, like liberalism, become a set of values that dare not speak its name? I called Schroeder back.

"That's the unfortunate thing about feminism," she said. "People are scared of the F word. I think when a lot of people nowadays think of feminism they think of sort of the 1970s version of feminist women burning bras and being very intense and setting up lots of rules and structures. I have a great deal of respect for all the feminism movements. It was a very strong political movement and a lot of good came out of it and it took years and years for that good to occur. But I don't know that people make a direct correlation between that and their doing feminist things—like working." She laughed. "And getting an education. Today more women are getting educations than their male counterparts.

"In my time at Venus, my goal was to make feminism acceptable. When there's a day when women get the recognition they deserve in the arts that will be a wonderful day and maybe Venus will no longer need to exist. But until then Venus does need to exist."

Would it be accurate, I asked, to say that Venus still needs to exist, but not necessarily as the old Venus?

"That's good!" Schroeder said. "Maybe we're getting closer to the day when Venus doesn't need to exist."

To Schroeder, that's progress. To Beardsley, it's a message she has no intention of sending to the 140,000 or so readers she doesn't have yet. Schroeder says she began Venus as a "niche publication," and feminism was the niche. Beardsley will be marketing Venus as a vital enhancement of its readers' already rich and vibrant lives; and to those readers feminism—which it goes without saying will go without saying—is a done deal. There's no going back to the magazine's roots, when it was created to be essential.   v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com/media.

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