Feminist magazine Ms turns 50: a beacon for rights, sex equality and Roe v Wade

The radical periodical has been fighting for feminism since 1972 – and now it’s as relevant as it ever was

The first issue of Ms magazine was published 50 years ago this month. The cover featured a pregnant Kali, Hindu goddess of death, time and change. Each of her eight hands holds an object that flagged up the average woman’s role as a domestic engineer and underpaid wage earner including a frying pan, a typewriter, a steering wheel and a broom. Half a century on, what’s changed?

To celebrate the anniversary, several Ms pioneers were brought together for a roundtable discussion by the New York Times, among them the feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, fellow co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin and contributors novelist Alice Walker (who briefly opted out of Ms because of the lack of diversity in its covers), Jane O’Reilly and Janet Dewart Bell. (Now quarterly, the first feminist national magazine has a print readership of more than 160,000 and millions of readers online: “Ms is more than a magazine. It’s a movement,” it still proclaims.)

“I feel proud, and I feel mad as hell,” said Steinem, now 88 and even more prescient than she realised, as a few weeks later came the US supreme court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade and allow individual states to ban abortion for the first time since 1973. “We are dealing with the same issues.

Inequality and the way in which class, race, gender and poverty interact and affect women are still big issues, but in the UK has much of the drive that fuelled radical change dissipated? Ahead is the government’s determination to introduce its own bill of rights, weakening women’s ability to challenge the state on its failure to protect, for instance, against male violence. But has the collective muscle grown flabby? Has one of the original slogans of the women’s movement, “What do we want?”, been supplanted by individual preoccupations?”

In the US, McCall’s women’s fashion magazine declared 1972 the Year of the Woman. Consciousness-raising groups woke women up to discrimination and sexism. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics was a bestseller as was Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. “We are rising with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history,” warned Robin Morgan, a Ms contributor. “This time we will be free or no one will survive.

Back in the real world, male critics didn’t believe there was enough material to keep Ms magazine going month after month if it did away with cosmetics, diets and tips on how to keep the hubby happy. In December 1971 a “one shot” 40-page version appeared as an insert in New York magazine. A suggestion by Clay Felker, its publisher, that one article should cover the shortage of maids in New York was politely rejected.

Steinem and colleague look at pages over cluttered desk with anglepoise lamps. Photographs pinned on wall behind
Gloria Steinem at the New York office of Ms magazine in 1974. Photograph: Images Press/Getty Images

Titles considered for the magazine included “Sojourner” after the black abolitionist and civil rights activist Sojourner Truth. This was rejected for sounding “too much like a travel magazine”, according to Cottin Pogrebin. Ms came from a 1930s secretarial handbook, advised as a nomenclature if a woman’s marital status was unknown. “It took something like 15 years for the New York Times to use it,” Steinem said drily. “I was Miss Steinem of Ms magazine.”

The first issue of Ms sold out in eight days, all 250,000 copies. O’Reilly had written an article, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth”, about how she cooked, cleaned, went to work and finally clicked that her husband failed to lift a domestic finger. “Women still read it and write to me, thanking me after 50 years,” she told the NYT. “Not quite as swift a revolution as I had hoped for.”

In the first issue, a year before Roe v Wade, 53 prominent women including Billie Jean King, Nora Ephron and Steinem said they had had an illegal abortion. Other early Ms issues, more familiar now, included battered wives, female genital mutilation and sex trafficking. Twenty thousand “blood and bone” letters poured in from readers. Dewart Bell said: “My mother …felt … that [Ms] made women more alike than different.”

Over the years, Ms was criticised for being too white, too elitist too hierarchical, too run by committee, too bland and too radical. Circulation rose to 550,000 at its peak in the 70s but it was rarely financially sound. In Risky Ms-Ness, Dr Melanie Waters says the image of the target Ms consumer in the first few issues was of “a chain-smoking, booze-swilling libertine”. “Safe” adverts (if not for the health) were largely cigarettes and alcohol. Steinem refused a Virginia Slims cigarette advert because of its slogan, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby”. Baby, she said, hadn’t come a long way at all.

So, what now? In the US, the supreme court’s decision and its consequences have set alight the women’s protest movement again. Here, arguably, much of the movement has become professionalised, salaried, subdued. In the book Responding to Domestic Violence, Davina James-Hanman makes some telling points. “Are we heading in the right direction or simply ending up in a cul de sac?” she asks. As the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector has expanded, she says, its feminist politics has contracted, “depoliticising the women’s anti-male violence movement and burying it in paperwork”.

She quotes the late Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

At the NYT round table, Dewart Bell said: “People who don’t understand their history don’t understand they have a future.”

But what kind of a future? Partly what the past 50 years has shown is the fragility of progress. The danger comes not just from reactionary forces but also because for some UK women’s organisations on the frontline, the collective anger and radicalism that is the pilot light of any revolution is too easily extinguished by the exhausting and divisive fight for funding, contracts and survival.


Yvonne Roberts

The GuardianTramp

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