Gloria Steinem on Ms. Magazine and Feminism Today

From a New York Times opinion piece by Jessica Bennett headlined “‘I Feel Proud, and I Feel Mad as Hell’: Gloria Steinem on Ms. Magazine and Feminism Today”:

Ms. magazine’s first standalone issue came out 50 years ago, in the summer of 1972 — a publication for women whose interests went “beyond the limits of home and husband.” It was the first mainstream magazine by and for women, and it counted Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison and Vivian Gornick among its early writers. Kathleen Hanna, the Bikini Kill frontwoman, used cutouts from her mother’s copies for early feminist art projects. Judy Blume, the children’s author, has said it helped her feel less alone. Some women hid it from their husbands; for others, it was a catalyst to leave them.

Advertisers scoffed at the idea of paying money to appear in its pages. The magazine was banned from some libraries, and some distributors refused to sell it on newsstands. At least one prominent male journalist snarked that the women would “run out of things to say.” Even President Richard Nixon thought it was preposterous — wondering, in a conversation with Henry Kissinger, how many people “give one shit” about Gloria Steinem’s feminist magazine.

The answer turned out to be millions. The magazine’s preview issue sold out in eight days and yielded at least 20,000 letters in response.

Ms. has faced its share of controversies over the years. The magazine was criticized as too radical but also not radical enough. There were jealousies and disagreements. Was Ms. doing enough for lesbians? For ​w​omen of color? For rural women? Alice Walker — who would express her own controversial positions later in her life, including some considered to be antisemitic — resigned in 1986, dismayed by how white the magazine’s covers had become. (She would later return as a contributor.)

But for all its controversies — or perhaps because of them — those young issues of Ms. have never felt more prescient. Last month, the Times convened a handful of early Ms. editors and writers to reflect on the magazine’s founding and where the feminist movement is today. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why the name Ms.?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Ms. co-founder: I remember we considered “Sisters” but rejected it because people would think it was going to be about nuns. Another possibility was “Sojourner,” in honor of Sojourner Truth, the 19th century African-American women’s rights activist, but it sounded too much like a literal travel magazine. At one point, Gloria suggested “Bimbo.” She meant it as an ironic appropriation, but in those years, we didn’t have the luxury of irony. We ended up calling it Ms. because it described a woman without reference to her marital status — an equal analogue to “Mr.” The term “Ms.” already existed in secretarial manuals, which routinely counseled using “Ms.” when addressing a woman in a business letter in cases where it couldn’t be established for certain whether she’s married or single.

Janet Dewart Bell, Ms. contributor: My mother thought the title “Ms.” was absolutely brilliant — that it brought dignity, that it brought power and understanding of equality. She felt, even though she never used the term “intersectionality,” that it made women more alike than different.

Gloria Steinem, Ms. co-founder: It took something like 15 years for The New York Times to use it. I was “Miss Steinem of Ms. magazine.” When The New York Times finally changed, a whole bunch of us went to see Abe Rosenthal [a former executive editor of The Times] and gave him flowers. And he said the most infuriating thing, which was that if he’d known it mattered so much to us, he would’ve done it sooner. We just wanted to punch him. I mean, we had previously picketed him, because many other publications and newspapers were already using “Ms.” as the equivalent of “Mr.”

Cottin Pogrebin: That was a time when you felt that protest led to action, led to reaction and people changed and things changed and institutions responded.

One of the early covers of Ms. depicted the eight-armed Hindu goddess Kali, pregnant and crying as she tries to juggle work and household tasks. The accompanying story was called “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” by Jane O’Reilly.

Cottin Pogrebin: Jane’s piece was such an earth shaker, in the sense that it was the “Click!” that so many homemakers needed. I never noticed, prefeminism, that both my husband and I went out to work and when I came home, I started dinner and he picked up The New York Times and sat down. Because my mind-set was so rooted in this norm that women make dinner. And I think for millions of readers like me, Jane’s piece woke them up to those assumptions.

Jane O’Reilly, Ms. contributor: I was, at that point, a divorced mother and freelance writer in New York. When we all picked topics to cover for the first issue, I picked housework. I thought I could make it funny. Maybe I had been irritated by a friend’s husband at dinner the night before, who had asked, “Does feminism mean I have to wash the dishes?” After two months of hard work, I had written a manifesto. How to make your children pick up their own laundry. How to persuade your husband to vacuum. How to make your family value your work and, essentially, you. Women still read it and write to me, thanking me. After 50 years. Not quite as swift a revolution as I hoped for.

Cathie Black, Ms. advertising director: When you think about how many women have been at home throughout the pandemic, taking on all of those old tasks, it’s like, “God, has nothing changed?”

O’Reilly: It was horrifying to me that it was assumed during the pandemic that the woman in the family would stop working or work under the most difficult circumstances because she didn’t make as much money.

Steinem: Theoretically, at least, during the pandemic, men have done more at home. I’m always the optimist, hoping that this experience has helped to make them see that babies are interesting and that housework is a lot.

Early issues of Ms. featured an argument for gender-neutral pronouns, a piece about the Black family and feminism, and a proclamation signed by 53 women, including Anaïs Nin and Billie Jean King, that “we have had abortions.” Were you ahead of your time, or has the country moved backward?

Steinem: I feel proud, and I feel mad as hell. We are still dealing with the same issues.

Cottin Pogrebin: My feelings are of frustration and rage and deep disappointment when I look at how far we’ve slid back on two things: reproductive rights and nonsexist child rearing and education. There was a period of time when we were reporting on nonsexist curricula and teacher training and biases in textbooks. And now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and books are being banned, and very rigid definitions of sexual socialization are again back in the public discourse.

I’m sad to say that abortion is still something people do not speak of comfortably. I went public with mine in The Times Magazine, and women came up to me and said, “How could you do that?” And I said, “Have you had an abortion?” And they’d say yes. And I’d say, “Well, that’s why we’re not getting anywhere. You will not stand up and become the face of it. You’re a person with four children. You should be the face of it.”

Alice Walker, Ms. editor: I’m very grateful for the strength of the argument for abortion that was in the magazine. Though it’s true that people tend to slide back, it’s also true that once you really open people’s awareness to a situation, it’s very difficult for them to slide back altogether. If the magazine and the women in the movement had not stood firmly all those years ago, I shudder to think how young women would be feeling today. They would have no backup, no history to look back to. So I really applaud the women’s movement and the magazine for standing really firm on abortion.

Dewart Bell: One of the things about Ms. that I most appreciated was the willingness to tackle all sorts of issues. My husband and I had a conversation some years ago with Letty, who was trying to give up her white privilege. And he said, “Well, you can’t do that. But what you can do is use your white privilege as you have done to advance racial and other kinds of justices.”

Steinem: The alliances between Native American women and Black women and white women on the question of how to achieve control of their own physical selves, whether it was on birth or fertility, are endless and ageless.

Cottin Pogrebin: Which reminds me of the fact that our magazine was pulled off the stands whenever we had a woman of color on the cover.

Steinem: In the South. Not everywhere, but in the South.

How difficult was selling ads for a feminist magazine?

Black: Advertisers didn’t want to see us. You could see this look on their faces, like, “Oh, my God, what’s going to happen to me?” A look like, “I don’t want my world to change.”

I remember when we got the Philip Morris account, which we were very excited about. There was an ad for Virginia Slims — Philip Morris, the parent company, was very proud of having a woman’s cigarette. And Gloria, in her steely way, said, “We can’t run that ad because it says, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ and, well, we really have not come that far yet.” A day or two later, they called and said they would withdraw their advertising if we didn’t run those ads. But we stood by Gloria.

Steinem: That also illustrates why we became a foundation and ceased being a for-profit corporation, so we could raise funds in different ways.

How did you know you were making an impact?

Steinem: I remember once going off to try to publicize the magazine in California. And when I got there, someone called to say they couldn’t find it. I called in a panic to say, “It didn’t get here! It didn’t get here!” And it turned out it had already sold out. And that was the beginning of an understanding that we definitely had an audience.

Cottin Pogrebin: It didn’t just sell out in New York and L.A. and Chicago. It sold out in tiny little towns in Kansas and community colleges and all over the place. That gave us the first inkling that we were really onto something.

We were the repository for people who didn’t feel they had a connection to the women’s movement. And once they read Ms, they did, and they felt there was an address where they could write.

There were overstuffed mailbags of letters. What astounded me was how personal they were. I was used to getting letters from women, but this was different. This was gut level. This was blood and bone. The number of letters admitting to being an incest survivor blew me away. So when we started to write about subjects that were verboten in mass market women’s magazines, we knew that we were reflecting women’s real lives. It was all in the letter bag.

Steinem: And those letters we’ve saved. They’re now in an archive at Smith.

What was the Ms. office like?

O’Reilly: Nonhierarchical.

Cottin Pogrebin: Writers would bring their kids and know there was always a place for them. I had Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter, on my lap half the time when she was in the office. I always loved to listen to her talk. She was a talker. My kids were in whenever they were on vacation. We created a physical tot lot.

And because I was the de facto family editor and I got the task of evaluating toys every year, my desk was often surrounded by toys. And, of course, that was a magnet for the kids.

Now I have a stroke when I go through toy stores where still everything is pink and blue. When you order a toy online, they say, “Is it for a girl or a boy?” They don’t say, “Is this a child who’s interested in nature or in bugs or in dinosaurs?” They say, “Boy or girl?” That was gone in the ’70s and ’80s. But that’s all slid backwards.

Walker: I remember my little daughter running around Xeroxing her hand a lot. Rebecca and Gloria had a really lovely relationship, and she liked to go and play with things on Gloria’s desk and possibly try on whatever beautiful thing she was wearing. So there was a very sweet feeling, for me, of feeling that my child was safe among all of these people who were quite different.

Steinem: It was wonderful for us who didn’t have children. There were children in our life. It was a gift.

Alice, one of your early articles for Ms. was a piece called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which is credited with helping revive interest in Hurston’s work. What did you see as your role at Ms?

Walker: My world was very different, and I was always very aware of it. And so I brought what I needed to bring from my world to the magazine.

Steinem: You brought us South African writers, African writers —

Walker: And also writers from the South, you know, people who really live in a different world. You know, some women did graduate from scrubbing floors and raising too many children, but many women haven’t. And I was always very aware of that. And in my time there and the things that I chose to do, I wanted to make sure that those women were represented.

What do you say to young women when they ask you where we go from here?

Steinem: I don’t say to them; I listen to them. That’s the whole idea. I’m not lecturing them. I’m saying, you know, “What do you want to do? What do you want to be? And how can I help you?”

O’Reilly: So what do they say?

Steinem: Well, they’re quite specific, usually. “You can, you know, help us publicize this issue or this essay” or “We need a place to meet. How about your living room?”

Cottin Pogrebin: They sometimes ask me, as a person who had a family while being in the movement, “How do you balance it?” And one thing I say is just simply, “Don’t expect too much of yourself. Don’t drive yourself into the ground. Or get together with five other women and make sure you cover each other if you’re doing independent work and you need time off.”

Steinem: The companionship, right?

Cottin Pogrebin: The companionship in your struggle. It doesn’t occur to them somehow. Or the way it occurred to us that solidarity creates change. You know?

Dewart Bell: We have to really be very aware that there are people who are hungry for information, even though sometimes they’re tired. But we have to say it in a way, simplify it in a way that does not dumb down but it makes it accessible to people. People who don’t understand their history don’t understand that they have a future.

Cathie Black, a former chairwoman of Hearst Magazines and publisher of USA Today, began her career in advertising at Ms.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms., is a writer, lecturer and activist.

Janet Dewart Bell, an early Ms. contributor, is the author of “Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Jane O’Reilly wrote Ms.’s first cover story, “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.”

Gloria Steinem is an author and political activist who was a co-founder of Ms.

Alice Walker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was an early Ms. editor and contributor.

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