Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Ms. has turned 35 and is celebrating with a collector’s issue, on newsstands till mid-January, illustrating how the feminist movement has changed women’s lives.

Ms. was conceived in an era when news commentators snickered about “women’s lib” and at least one airline sold seats through TV ads in which pretty flight attendants winked at the camera and said, “Fly me.”

The magazine’s founders were determined to show the multi-dimensionality of women that much of society and corporate America sneered at, and they succeeded.

The current cover–a bow to its famous first-issue “Wonder Woman” cover–is a computer-generated mosaic of past covers in the shape of the female superhero.

Wonder Woman and Ms. are fitting partners for a joint celebration. Not only is the comic strip now being written for the first time by a woman–Gail Simone took over the character’s antics last month–Ms. at 35 has shown heroic staying power and an unusual independence from advertising.

Through a series of owners–some for-profit, some not–Ms. has largely stuck to the idea of taking ads only from groups that share its sentiments. After a few publishing pauses, the Feminist Majority Foundation acquired it in 2001 to give it operational stability in a feminist environment.

For Ms., the Big 35 has “great significance,” says Executive Editor Katherine Spillar. “It’s also the 35th anniversary of Title IX, so it’s an opportunity to look back at how far women and girls have come in terms of education, the professions and workplace opportunities. January is the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The Equal Rights Amendment was voted out of Congress in 1972. So it’s a very significant time period to be able to look back and look forward.”

Survivors of the Second Wave

Ms. may be the best known 30-something periodical survivor of feminism’s “second wave,” but it’s by no means alone.

Dear to my own heart is the quarterly Media Report to Women, which I edit. Like Ms., it’s a member of the Class of ’72. Its founder, Donna Allen, a longtime civil rights and labor activist, believed that women must speak for themselves through their own media and keep a close watch on the mainstream media. Today, the report is a staple in university libraries and a key read for media watchdogs.

Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish and Frankly Feminist, launched in 1976 and charts Jewish women’s lives “with exuberance, rigor, affection, subversion and style.”

The Women’s Rights Law Reporter was founded in 1970 by, among others, now-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The quarterly is the oldest legal U.S. periodical focusing exclusively on women’s rights.

The mothership of feminist publishing, the Feminist Press, was founded in 1970 with the intent of “restoring to print women writers of high literary quality.” The New York house has published more than 250 works by and about women, many to critical acclaim.

The Feminist Bookstore News lasted for 24 years but ceased publication in 2000 as many independent bookstores succumbed to the muscle of online retailers and bookselling behemoths Borders and Barnes and Noble.

Filling the gap is the Women’s Review of Books, providing a forum for serious discussion of women’s writing since 1983. After a two-year hiatus, it relaunched in January 2006. Editor Amy Hoffman says the review has “a nonprofit-profit” partnership with Old City Publishing of Philadelphia, which pays a royalty to the Wellesley (College) Centers for Women, the review’s editorial home.

Collectives Often Launched Feminist Publications

Spartan nonprofits run by collectives or volunteers continue to publish although some are working without much of a net.

Still emphatically lower case, off our backs has the distinction of being the oldest continuously publishing U.S. feminist title. Its founders launched the paper in 1970 because “we can see the ways in which the mass media work to serve interests directly opposed to our own.”

Many periodicals spurred by women’s collectives, though, flickered out.

One exception is Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which produced the classic “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and today does business under that name. In the early 1980s, it went nonprofit and provides evidence-based information about health, sexuality and reproduction. It’s one of the few U.S. women’s health groups that doesn’t take funds from pharmaceutical companies.

Scholarly journals housed in friendly university environments with income from institutional subscriptions and grants have held on to a greater extent.

Feminist Studies, the journal of the National Women’s Studies Association, first appeared in 1972, when nascent women’s studies courses were scrambling for material. Founding editor Ann Calderwood ran the journal out of her apartment at first; it has been at the University of Maryland, College Park, since 1977.

Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies began in 1975 at the University of Colorado. At first the title signified the boundary between feminist and general discourse, but many readers assumed that it specialized in women in the U.S. West. Editors gave in. Today it does just that and is published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Others rooted in the fertile 1970s include Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (1972); the Australian journal Hecate (1975); Sex Roles (1975); Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (1975); Sinister Wisdom: A Journal for the Lesbian Imagination in the Arts and Politics (1976); Women and Health (1976); Women and Language (1975); and Canadian interdisciplinary journal Atlantis (1975).

One Newsletter Spurred the Burst

The outburst started in 1968 with the Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, spearheaded by a Chicago collective called the Westside Group. The Voice had revolving editors who gave copies to any person or outlet showing interest in the women’s movement. Its print run grew from 200 to 2,000 over seven issues before its exhausted founders folded it.

But its example inspired others. By 1973 the Voice had nearly 600 offspring in the form of newsletters, magazines and papers in communities of all types around the country.

The impetus was to change what activists considered the mainstream media’s patronizing coverage of the women’s movement.

“The press treated women’s liberation much as society treats women: as entertainment not to be taken seriously,” wrote the Westside Group’s Jo Freeman in her 1976 book “The Politics of Women’s Liberation.” “If they thought it would be funnier, newspapers even made up their own actions, of which the ‘bra-burning’ episode is the most notable.”

To set the record straight: No second-wave feminist torching a bra has ever been documented. Women protesting at the 1968 Miss America pageant crowned a sheep and tossed into a trash can girdles, false eyelashes, high heels and, yes, bras.

Lindsy Van Gelder, writing in Ms. in 1992, said she believes she unintentionally started the barbecued brassiere myth when she reported for the New York Post that protesters were considering burning the items. She suggested that since widespread draft-card burning was forcing the press to take the anti-war movement seriously, perhaps bra-burning could do the same for the women’s movment.

An overzealous headline writer picked up the irresistibly alliterative “bra-burning.” The rest is not quite history, just a very persistent myth.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of “Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism,” Strata Publishing Inc., which received the “Texty” Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of “Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World,” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.

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For more information:

Ms., 35th Anniversary Issue:

“Paula Kassell Always Took Women in New Directions”:

Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, “The Development of Communication Networks Among Women, 1963-1983”:

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