April 18, 2024

Ms. after 50: Gloria Steinem and a feminist publishing revolution

As the women’s liberation movement was picking up steam more than half a century ago, feminism – the idea of equality for women – was a new and controversial idea. Gloria Steinem says the very word “feminism” seemed to threaten people for two reasons: “One, because they didn’t understand it, and two, because they did understand it!”

Knopf


Now 89, Steinem was a 30-something columnist for New York magazine when she joined with a group of other journalists to create a new magazine aiming to push feminism into the mainstream. 

Even the title, Ms. – a newly-emerging designation for those who didn’t want to be bound by Mrs. (for a married woman) or Miss (for a single woman) – was an issue. The New York Times even referred to her as “Miss Steinem of Ms. Magazine.”

She said, “We wanted to be able to write about trying to make an equal marriage, or to write about abortion. We didn’t want to just focus on women’s outsides, but also our insides.”

In fact, Steinem said she became an activist as well as a journalist while covering an abortion hearing. “Suddenly I realized, wait a minute, I had an abortion when I was in London, and why has this common experience not been spoken about? So, in the very first issue of Ms., we had a massive petition signed by all kinds of people saying, ‘I have had an abortion and I demand that it become safe and legal.’ And of course, we’re still fighting this battle in some states.”

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Ms. Magazine


Amid fears about how Ms. would be received, Steinem’s boss, legendary New York publisher Clay Felker, volunteered to publish a sample issue within the pages of his magazine. Steinem and the Ms. team hit the publicity circuit: “And when I got to California, somebody called the radio show I was on and said, ‘You know, we can’t find it.’ And I called Clay Felker in a panic and I said, ‘It didn’t get here.’ And it turned out, it had sold out! That was a moment of recognition that, you know, it had an audience.”

An audience that’s lasted more than 50 years! 

Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms., spent two-and-a-half years compiling an anthology, out this coming week, “50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited a Revolution” (Knopf).

The magazine, Spillar said, “started trends and it amplified the trends. A lot of articles about men and marriage and relationships and childrearing and politics and violence against women – [issues] that keep coming back. And it shows the endurance of this movement, but also the endurance of our opponents.”

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Ms. Magazine


Published monthly, there were lots of Wonder Woman covers, and stories about women’s emerging political clout. One of the most popular features has been letters from readers. One of Spillar’s favorites read, “My husband says I used to be a bitch once a month, but since I subscribed to Ms., now I’m a bitch twice a month.”

Letters often end with the word “Click!,” inspired by one of the earliest articles by Ms. co-founder Jane O’Reilly describing the moment a woman realizes she is experiencing sexism. “It’s an automatic connection to other women who are suffering the same injustices,” said Spillar.

Long before the #MeToo movement, Ms. was writing about sexual harassment on the job. For the magazine’s cover, the editors at the time resorted to using a man fondling a doll. “As it was, a lot of newsstands pulled this off, refusing to sell the issue, but it absolutely represented what way too many women in the workplace experience, then and now,” Spillar said. 

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Ms. Magazine


And selling advertising for a women’s magazine that covered these issues became a challenge. According to Steinem, the head of a major cosmetics company told her that women who read Ms. didn’t buy blush or makeup. “Took me to lunch to tell me that, yes!” she laughed.

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Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem.

CBS News


Also, car manufacturers didn’t want to advertise because they didn’t think women bought cars, and that it would devalue a car to see a woman driving it. “I mean, they told me that in Detroit. I’m not making it up!” Steinem laughed.

In 2002, Ms. started being published by the non-profit Feminist Majority Foundation. Today, Ms. is a quarterly, and is still inspiring young women, according to Ileana McDonald, who works for the Foundation.

Braver asked, “To the question that some people have which is, ‘Hey, is this fifty-plus magazine still relevant,’ what’s your answer?”

“Absolutely,” McDonald replied. “It’s relevant now for the same reason it was relevant back in the seventies, because it’s providing a platform, it’s encouraging discourse that still needs to be encouraged. It has been 50 years, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem couldn’t agree more. But she’s also optimistic about the push for equality: “Yes, we have to imagine something before it becomes reality. So, yes, I am a hope-aholic!”

      
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Chad Cardin. 

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