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Ms

Ms.

The premiere edition of Ms. magazine appeared on newsstands in July 1972, containing feminist political analysis, articles about women's issues, and critiques of male-dominated society. The first national "glossy" publication to emerge from the 1970s wave of feminism was greeted with guarded enthusiasm by members of the multi-faceted movement it attempted to represent, and with outright hostility by the establishment media of the day. "I'll give it six months," sneered the late Harry Reasoner, co-anchor of the ABC Nightly News, "before they run out of things to say." Reasoner went on to complain, "There isn't an article in Ms. that wouldn't look perfectly normal in one of the standard women's magazines, and has probably already been there, only better written."

Criticisms of the pundits aside, however, American women must have been hungry for what a popular feminist journal had to offer. The preview edition, which had been released on December 20, 1971, sold out its 300,000 copies in eight days and generated 26,000 subscription orders and 20,000 letters to the editor. Unlike traditional women's magazines, which tended to focus on homemaking, fashion, and "pleasing your man," the first issue of Ms. featured articles such as "Lesbian Love and Sexuality" by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and "Women and Madness" by Phyllis Chesler. Gloria Steinem analyzed women's role in the electorate with "Women Voters Can't Be Trusted," and Margaret Sloan-Hunter deconstructed beauty parlors in "The Saturday Morning Nap-Conversion." One of the most influential articles in the premiere edition was Jane O'Reilly's "The Housewife's Moment of Truth," describing the sudden moment of awareness when a woman realizes she is being dismissed or oppressed by attitudes and actions she once accepted as a matter of course. O'Reilly calls this sudden realization a "click! of awareness." This "click!" became a catch phrase in readers' letters as they wrote in to share their own experiences and sudden insights.

Undergoing several changes in ownership and format and a constant struggle to reconcile its feminist politics with the reality of the publishing world, Ms. has found enough "things to say" to keep the journal afloat for close to three decades. Though still the subject of criticism from both inside and outside the movement, Ms. remains the major national magazine of feminism.

Named for the title that feminists suggested should replace Mrs. and Miss, Ms. was founded by a group of journalists who were active in the women's liberation movement. New York magazine's Gloria Steinem and McCall's Patricia Carbine conceived the idea of popularizing women's liberation by publishing a glossy feminist journal that would sell on newsstands alongside the recipe, fashion, and dating women's magazines. They assembled a distinguished and enthusiastic staff. Some, like Rita Waterman and Margaret Hicks from McCall's and Bea Feitler from Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, were experienced in the world of magazine publishing. Others, like Susan Levine, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin were writers, lecturers, and activists who brought their movement experience and zealous energy to the journal.

In an effort to work in a way that was consistent with feminist politics, the staff attempted to organize itself without traditional corporate hierarchies, and even salaries were allocated by taking into account the individual needs of a staff person as well as experience and value to the magazine. These efforts to equalize power and money reflected a common trend in progressive organizations to of the 1960s and 1970s, though they were often only successful in masking power differences.

In seeking financing for Ms., Steinem and Carbine were insistent that control of the magazine remain in the hands of the women who created it. They did manage to get support from Warner Communications, which was willing to invest a million dollars in the fledgling journal without demanding a controlling interest, but financing would continue to be an issue for a magazine whose premise questioned the very basis of American patriarchal society and corporate structure.

From 1972 until 1989, Ms. continued to publish as an advertiser-supported monthly journal. From the beginning both editorial staff and readers had questioned the contradictions implicit in challenging the status quo while courting as advertisers those whose interest is served by maintaining the status quo. Advertisers insisted on content that complemented and did not criticize their products. Revlon Cosmetics pulled advertisements from an issue of Ms. that featured Russian women on the cover—bare of makeup. In 1986, African-American writer Alice Walker quit her editorial job with Ms., citing her disappointment in the dearth of people of color in the magazine, especially on the cover, a lack that was, at least partially, mandated by advertisers. Lack of coverage of lesbians, radical feminism, and labor and environmental issues could also be traced back to advertisers' demands. In one of the journal's bleaker moments, over 100 readers sent an advertisement for a Lady Bic razor from the pages of Ms. itself to the magazine's "No Comment" page, where egregious examples of sexism in the media are highlighted.

As the magazine bowed to pressure from advertisers, it lost credibility with many of its readers, and began to lose as much as $150,000 a month as circulation dropped from 550,000 to under a 100,000. Staggering under its problems, Ms. stopped publishing for about six months. During that time the staff, still under the influential guidance of Gloria Steinem, reorganized and re-invented the journal. In the summer of 1990, Ms. began publishing again as a bi-monthly with longtime feminist writer-activist Robin Morgan as editor. The new Ms. had a higher newsstand price ($4.50), a higher subscription rate ($40 per year), and no advertising. The glossy pages were gone, and the "popular magazine" look was replaced by a more "intellectual journal" format. The new magazine offered expanded international coverage and more in-depth analysis. No longer forced to bow to advertising pressure, the first issue of the new Ms. contained both criticism of advertisers' attempts to control media content and pointed apologies for advertisements the journal regretting running in the past.

The advertisement-free format was a success, winning back many of the serious feminist readers that had abandoned the journal during the years of compromising with advertisers, and Ms. has continued its moves towards independence. Though woman-owned for its first 15 years, the journal has since been owned by several different publishers, and it has always chafed at being forced to remain under mostly male ownership. In the late 1990s, Steinem again led the journal toward a new definition by seeking female investors with the aim of placing control of Ms. totally in the hands of women once again.

Born almost at the beginning of the women's liberation movement, Ms. has always been a very public representation of that movement. As such, it has always drawn both kudos and reproach from both supporters and critics of feminism. Non-feminist detractors have often stereotyped the journal with the same epithets used on feminists themselves, calling it shrill, petty, and humorless. Feminists have also always been quick to take Ms. to task when the magazine has fallen short of their expectations. Conservative feminists have questioned the journal's liberal bias, while radicals have consistently complained that Ms. does not go far enough. One of the most unique features in Ms. has always been the letters section. The journal receives around 200 letters a month, some laudatory, some critical, and many simply telling the reader's story, whether describing activist work or recounting a click! of recognition of some new facet of women's experience. It is this very personal interaction among its readers that sets Ms. apart from other journals, just as the principle "the personal is political" gave the feminist movement its unique perspective.

There is no name more commonly associated with Ms. magazine than Gloria Steinem's. An early proponent of women's liberation, Steinem was born in 1934 in Ohio. She learned early about the difficulties that faced a woman alone when her parents divorced when she was ten. Steinem was raised by her mother, a journalist who struggled with depression and societal attitudes about single mothers. Steinem began to earn her flamboyant reputation as a feminist writer and personality in 1964, when she wrote "I was a Playboy Bunny," about her experiences working in a Playboy Club. She followed in 1964 with more serious political analysis in "After Black Power, Women's Liberation." After helping to found Ms. she edited the journal until 1987, then rejoined the staff as consulting editor in 1990. In April 1999, the first issue of the woman-financed Ms. was published, with a letter from Steinem reviewing the magazine's history. She ends ebulliently, "I can't wait to see what happens now."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Farrell, Amy Erdman. Yours in Sisterhood: "Ms." Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Thom, Mary. Inside "Ms.": 25 Years of the Magazine and the Feminist Movement. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Van Gelder, Lindsy. "Chronicle and Crucible." The Nation. Vol.265, No. 5, August 11, 1997, 27.

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