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Scholarly journal on women's studies is light on pictures, rich in scope

Signs is not the sort of magazine that would casually lie on someone's coffee table. Like most scholarly journals, it is stodgy in design; it has a cover with a minimal amount of graphics, articles that can exceed 25 pages, loads of footnotes, and no pictures.

But the topics inside are intriguing. And they are often on the cutting edge of the women's movement. Where some journals might get bogged down in intricate debates on punctuation's ability to influence prosody, Signs presents a lively and relevant array of articles on housework, economics, and social work, to name a few.

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Thumbing through one past edition of Signs, a special on "Women and the American City," turns up titles such as "Older Women in the City," "Masculine Cities and Feminine Suburbs," and "What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?"

Said Barbara Gelpi, the new editor of Signs: "The topics are the stuff of women's lives."

Signs, which bills itself as a journal of women in culture and society, was started eight years ago by the University of Chicago Press. It offers an interdisciplinary approach to the broad realm of women's studies. English professors explore Chaucer's insights into the roles of women. Religion scholars ponder what became of God the Mother. A credit expert discusses women, housing access, and mortgage credit.

The journal is interdisciplinary because that is "just the nature of the beast," says Barbara Gelpi. An examination of women in culture has to include their involvement in the economy, society, history, and science.

Signs supporters say the journal establishes that scholarship on women is serious and substantial. The journal offers a forum where writing about women is not thought to be silly or an aberration.

And it is taken seriously. Some of its articles are considered classic resource material in other areas. For example, Arthur Schlesinger referred to a Signs article in a book review he did for the Washington Post.

Signs seems to be healthy. It has a circulation of over 6,000, which Barbara Gelpi says is usual for a journal of its size. Academicians read it, as well as men and women in business, law, medicine, and government -- people who shape policy and seek ways to meet the needs of women. Readership is worldwide. There are advisers, contributers, and subscribers from countries such as Germany , France, and the USSR.

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But there is no doubt that Signs is aimed at scholars, who insist on proofs and rational analysis in the writing. The vocabulary is not restricted to specific fields, but it is clearly "academic-ese." It takes a trained reader to sift through the erudite findings, relationships, and conclusions.

Signs editors try to offer a balance of disciplines in each issue. Although there are occasional special issues, such as the one of women and the American city, most include a broad range of articles. An editorial in front often links some of the included topics.

"Otherwise it is hard to be bumped from Chaucer's insight into the role of women to economics."

Dr. Gelpi does not perdict any change now that Signs has come to the West Coast from the East, where Catharine R. Stimpson edited it from Barnard College. But she adds that since women and the arts are important in the West, that field may get more coverage.

"We will continue to keep a national perspective," she says.

Dr. Stimpson, who is now at Douglass College, notes that the journal's founders decided from the start that the editorship should be a rotating job and that a new region was consciously chosen for "fresh energies."

As the retired editor, Dr. Stimpson says her work gave her a new insight into the depth of the women's movement.

"In general, [the nation] is in a period of shallow thinking," she says. "The obituary of the women's movement will be written day after day. And if the Equal Rights Amendment is defeated, it will be written big. But it is all premature. The moveme nt is strong."

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