NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal can’t remember the day they met.
When asked point-blank, they just laugh. “Oh, we’ve always known each other.” Finally, they surmise they met at the first, “enormous, life-changing” meeting of the newborn National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
In the rush of everything that had just begun, the journalist who had helped start New York magazine and the grassroots organizer moving from civil rights to the formation of the National Organization for Women were just two streams in a river beginning to push its way through the United States and the world. It would be another year before Steinem’s group, the Women’s Action Alliance, gave birth to the magazine that would become the voice of the women’s movement: Ms.
Now Smeal and Steinem are re-launching Ms. as an official partner of the Feminist Majority, the national women’s organization Smeal created in 1987. Steinem will continue in her role as senior advisor and the organization will own Liberty Media Corporation, the magazine’s publisher.
The Feminist Majority bought Liberty Media in November 2001, and is in the midst of making some big changes–relocating from New York to Los Angeles, hiring a whole new staff and reintroducing advertising, to name a few. But the mission of the magazine will remain unchanged–to give the feminist, activist movement its most prominent voice.
From Newsletter to Sold-Out Glossy
“At first, we thought of it as a combination newsletter and a means of raising money,” says Steinem, speaking of the magazine’s formative years in the early 1970s. The “we” in question was the Women’s Action Alliance, which began as an information clearinghouse for the burgeoning movement and included on its board Brenda Feigen, co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus; the now-U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton from the District of Columbia and New York’s Bella Abzug, who would soon become a member of the U.S. Congress; and Jane Galvin Lewis, founder of the National Black Feminist Organization.
“I was a little skeptical about this,” says Steinem, “because I knew how hard it was to start a magazine.”
Still, with initial support from New York editor Clay Felker, the first issue of Ms. hit the newsstands in July 1972 and sold out in four days. “I went to Los Angeles to promote the magazine and somebody on this call-in radio show said they couldn’t find it. I thought, “oh no, they haven’t been distributed out here.” Instead, she learned all the issues were gone. A collector’s item, “it’s now selling for $500,” Steinem says.
Shaping Women’s History
Readers who aren’t fortunate enough to have that first magazine in an attic somewhere can read articles from that and other early issues in its 30th anniversary issue, out on newsstands now. A retrospective filled with reprints and reminiscences of the past 30 years, it shows how Ms. both chronicled the women’s movement and broke new ground, covering issues and trends that are only now entering mainstream feminist consciousness. For example, Ms.’s early editorial staff included Alice Walker in 1974, and the magazine published Angela Davis in 1975. Walker, along with founding editor Joanne Edgar, sought out and published South African writer Bessie Head and other African women writers.
Both Steinem and Smeal were careful to point out that the women’s movement, even in its early years, was far more multi-racial than similar movements of that time, such as the environmental movement and that against the Vietnam War.
“Most of the early feminists had been involved in civil rights,” says Smeal. She adds that Aileen Hernandez was the second president and first African-American president of the National Organization for Women and the organization’s statement of purpose was written by the Rev. Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to become an Episcopal priest.”
Ms. launched the political gender-gap discussion with Steinem’s 1972 piece, “Women Voters Can’t Be Trusted.” Steinem pointed to studies that showed women were not, as generally believed, a conservative force in electoral politics–and didn’t vote the same as their husbands as much as the latter tended to believe. The gender gap went on to be studied and further quantified by Smeal in 1980, as part of the campaign to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.
“I think it’s changed the course of history,” says Smeal. “Nobody doubts that women vote differently now.”
And Ms. covered “global feminism” long before the term was invented, thanks to Robin Morgan, editor of “Sisterhood is Powerful” and “Sisterhood is Global,” who became the magazine’s editor in chief in 1990 but was on the team from its earliest years. From the beginning, the magazine had special sections that brought in women’s voices from overseas.
“That was our policy,” says Steinem. “Not to just have correspondents, but to hear the voices from those countries.” In 1980, it was Ms. that first brought to a national audience the issue of female genital mutilation, weathering the initial criticism that U.S. feminists were “culturally insensitive” to question such a practice.
Ms.’s Future: Working Globally when It Matters Most
The Feminist Majority has also been a global activist organization from its inception, playing a key role in mobilizing women’s organizing against the Taliban in Afghanistan long before Sept. 11. The future Ms. will tap into this organizational expertise in mapping out a vision for the magazine’s future, both Steinem and Smeal emphasized.
“We want to have stringers,” says Smeal, “reporting from on the ground–not only in Afghanistan but other areas of the world. There’s a very well-developed global women’s movement and we need to tap into it.” Steinem adds that this strategy will continue what Ms. did during the Persian Gulf War. “We had correspondents in Iraq, in Israel, in South Africa and the surrounding countries. I think we were unique in that regard.”
The Feminist Majority is hoping to develop a special fund for international reporting, as well as one for investigative journalism–“so Ms. can go out and crack stories,” says Smeal. Meanwhile, the magazine will go forward with a largely new editorial staff and will relocate from New York, where the magazine has been based for 30 years, to Los Angeles, where the Feminist Majority has its West Coast headquarters. They also plan on keeping some staff in the Washington area, from which the organization directs most of its grassroots and lobbying campaigns.
The magazine will also begin carrying ads again, but won’t go after the usual suspects who advertise in women’s magazines. Ms. had been ad-free since 1990, when Steinem and the editors at the time decided to drop all advertising to escape advertisers’ insistence on Ms. publishing ‘traditional’ women’s magazine content.
Revlon, for example, withdrew plans to advertise in Ms. in 1980 because a recent, award-winning story about Russian feminist dissidents publishing newspapers featured a cover photo in which the women wore no makeup. Steinem and Smeal say that taking ads now won’t lead to those consequences, however, because they will only accept ads from nonprofit groups and progressive businesses, especially women-owned businesses.
Vehicle for Action
When Ms. launched 30 years ago, the journalist Harry Reasoner declared “I’ll give it six months before they run out of things to say.” Ms. proved him and the many other detractors wrong by publishing three decades worth of cutting-edge journalism, media reviews and critiques, stories, musings, memories and jokes about the issues that women care about.
And they still haven’t run out of things to say.
In fact, Steinem and Smeal plan on being more talkative than ever, especially where the magazine’s and organization’s Web sites are concerned. They’re planning on more sophisticated activism alerts, dialogues, and chats. Ms. will become, says Smeal, what it was first envisioned to be: a vehicle for action.
Chris Lombardi is a New York-based freelance writer. In addition to Women’s Enews, where she wrote most of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” series, she writes for The Nation, The Progressive and other publications.
For more information:
Also see Women’s Enews, January 1, 2002:
“Seven Who Changed the Rules for Nations”: