When Ms. came on the scene in the early 1970s, it was continuing in a well-established tradition of feminist journalism and criticism—but never before had those words come packaged in such a glossy publication.
In creating a mass-market magazine, the Ms. cofounders secured a space for their ideology in newsstands and convenience store racks across the country. At the time, the like-minded periodical off our backs likened this tactic to slipping feminist ideas “into American homes concealed in bags of groceries like tarantulas on banana boats.”
But this opportunity came with strings attached. The publication also had to establish itself as a mass-market, advertising-supported enterprise—a move some feminists condemned from the start, as a sort of capitalist original sin. And Ms. would indeed find itself handicapped, at times, by the necessity of attracting advertisers, many of whom were reluctant to align themselves with the magazine’s overt political message.
As the main publication in its category, boasting a substantial readership, Ms. also bore the responsibility of representing a multifaceted, dissenting, evolving movement within the monolith of one publication. The ways in which it succeeded (and failed) in this pursuit, as well as which strands of feminism it chose to lift up and which to omit, follow the contours of the popular second-wave feminism as a whole, as the movement gained mainstream traction.
With all of the magazine’s travails and triumphs newly dramatized in Mrs. America, FX on Hulu’s miniseries about the women who fought on both sides of the battle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, it’s a good a time as any to revisit the nearly 50-year history of Ms., beginning with its founding.
Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Ms. cofounder, in Mrs. America.
It got its start as an insert in New York magazine.
Gloria Steinem first pictured Ms. as a newsletter, but Brenda Feigen-Fasteau, then-national vice president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), convinced her to take a different approach. “I said, ‘What do you mean newsletter? You’re famous. We should do a slick magazine,'” Feigen-Fasteau recalled decades later in New York. “Gloria said, ‘I don’t know if there’s a demand for it.’ I said, ‘Of course there is.'” Steinem and Feigen-Fasteau held meetings with women in media, beginning to imagine what such a publication might look like.
Steinem was a staff writer for New York when it launched in 1968, and her connection to its cofounder, Clay Felker, provided Ms. editors with the in they needed to launch their magazine. (Of course, that doesn’t mean Felker and Steinem always saw eye-to-eye, or that Felker fully embraced their feminist ideology; cofounding editor Nancy Newhouse told New York that they had “knockdown arguments about the first cover,” and that “Clay wasn’t a feminist in the classic sense.”) Steinem cofounded the publication with Patricia Carbine and Elizabeth Forsling Harris, though Harris would finish her tenure at Ms. quickly, following an internal dispute.
The one-shot, 40-page insert was included in New York‘s December 20, 1971 issue.
Ms. wasn’t the only name the founders considered.
The existence of “Ms.” as an alternative to “Mrs.” or “Miss” was so little-known at the time that the magazine’s editors included an explanation for the title on the masthead, as Amy Erdman Farrell notes in Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism. “The use of Ms. isn’t meant to protect either the married or the unmarried from social pressure—only to signify a female human being,” it read. “It’s symbolic, and important. There’s a lot in a name.”
The editors settled on Ms. after considering several other potential titles, including Sisters, Lilith, and Bimbo.
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The first issue hit newsstands in 1972.
It was labeled as a “preview” issue (see the cover in the Instagram above), and also published with the help of New York. (Thereafter, Ms. sought its own funding.) That inaugural edition—which sold out of its 300,000 copies in a mere eight days—had some landmark features, including “We Have Had Abortions,” in which 53 women acknowledged having had the procedure. The magazine included a coupon for readers to add their names to the list. Other topics covered included welfare, lesbian relationships, job discrimination, how to raise children without gender roles, and many more.
From the jump, it established itself within the traditional “women’s magazine” format, promising to be a service publication—but with how-to’s for consciousness-raising instead of eyeliner.
Bella Abzug, Polly Bergen, and Patricia Carbine at Ms.’s 10th anniversary party in 1982.
Ms. didn’t just want to publish feminist content; it wanted to be a feminist organization.
The magazine vowed to reject all advertisements deemed sexist—a call to made made by its editors—as well as those that required the publication to include content relevant to their products (food, beauty, fashion, and other such companies often look to advertise in publications that cover their space).
The cofounders also hoped to create an egalitarian organization and hire a diverse workforce. It wasn’t wholly radical, though: employees didn’t have an ownership stake, and it still had an Editor and Publisher in charge.
The goal of diversity wasn’t fully realized, either. Despite attempts to include a wide breadth of perspectives and an aspiration to hire more people of color, Ms. was largely staffed by privileged white women, and many thought it represented a limited viewpoint.
And it wasn’t just those outside the organization that felt this way. In 1986, Alice Walker quit, explaining in her resignation letter that she felt a “swift alienation” from the publication. “I am writing to let you know of the swift alienation from the magazine my daughter and I feel each time it arrives with its determinedly (and to us grim) white cover… It was nice to be a Ms. cover myself once. But a people of color cover once or twice a year is not enough. In real life, people of color occur with much more frequency,” it read, per New York. “I do not feel welcome in the world you are projecting.”
Patricia Carbine and Gloria Steinem in the Ms. office in 1977.
From the beginning, Ms. had its critics.
On the left, more radical feminists, like the members of the group Redstockings, slammed the magazine for not hiring established voices who’d come up in the alternative publishing scene. Others criticized its attempt to work within the capitalist system, and its ostensible similarity to existing glossy women’s magazines. As Ms. evolved, liberals would develop a distaste for its individualist, careerist edge.
The real anger, though, came from the right. Carbine recalled Ms. being banned from public libraries; mainstream journalists declared they’d run out of things to say; even President Nixon condemned it in conversation with Henry Kissinger, released as a part of the White House tapes, asking, “For shit’s sake, how many people really have read Gloria Steinem and give one shit about that?”
Sometimes newsstands singled out certain issues to boycott, like the January 1973 issue, which featured presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm with her running mate Cissy Farenholdt. Eventually, in the 1980s—facing pressure from advertisers, librarians, and newsstands—Ms.‘s covers became less bold.
But there’s no denying its impact.
For many, Ms. appeared to be the mouthpiece of the feminist movement. At its height, it reached an estimated readership of three million. Famous and controversial covers about domestic abuse and sexual harassment helped bring awareness to those crucial, previously little-covered issues.
Letters from readers also offer a look at how the magazine personally affected people, many of whom felt isolated in their communities or families. The preview issue alone, with its mere 300,000 copies, amassed 20,000 letters from readers—a stunning response rate. Throughout Ms.‘s history, editors used this correspondence as a check on their work, often publishing missives that criticized shortcomings in previous issues’ articles. Many letters to Ms.are kept in the archives of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard.
Gloria Steinem, Freada Klein, and Karen Savigne in the Ms. offices in 1977.
Ms. went through some upheaval—but it’s still around.
After several years spent struggling to secure and retain ad dollars, from 1978 to 1987, Ms. became a non-profit magazine published through the Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication. Still, business was never that great, and in 1987, it was bought by Fairfax, a company based in Australia. It would change owners a couple more times in short order.
Over the next two years, the magazine made changes in the hopes of attracting advertisers—beginning to cover entertainment and fashion, albeit in its own way, and launching a publicity campaign to lessen its political association—that angered some of Ms.’s devoted readers. As Ms. editor-in-chief Robin Morgan told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, “the glitzification [of Ms.] was bumped up.”
After changing hands multiple times and still not finding a viable business model, the magazine stopped publishing for several months in 1989 and 1990. In the summer of 1990, Ms. was relaunched as an ad-free, bimonthly publication.
In 1998, a group of investors including Steinem purchased Ms. For three years, it was published under Liberty Media for Women, LLC, before the Feminist Majority Foundation took it over. It continues to publish a print magazine today.
Ms. editor-in-chief Robin Morgan, photographed in Sydney in 1993.
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Nowadays, other publications are carrying the feminist discourse forward.
While Ms. is still in print, it’s no longer front and center in the feminist discourse. Magazines like Bitch and Bust continue in Ms.‘s tradition of the feminist glossy, while websites like Autostraddle, gal-dem, and Jezebel have fostered online communities.
Even more impressive, though, is how feminism has suffused many corners of the mainstream publishing industry, transforming the way general interest and fashion magazines plan feature coverage and market themselves. It’s not that a feminist would struggle to critiques these publications, but they’re a world away from the “how to land a man” how-to’s of the 1970s.
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