Fifty years ago, women’s magazines followed a formulaic pattern. To a one, they featured cooking, fashion and child-rearing tips alongside advice on multiple ways to keep the hubby — yes, that was the term that writers used — happy both in and outside of the bedroom.
Then, in the late 1960s, feminists had a eureka moment and began making clear that the diverse women’s movement not only wanted, but needed, more from the publications they read.
Rereading the words of Angela Davis, Billie Jean King, Audre Lorde, Pauli Murray, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker and other less famous feminists is energizing and uplifting.
At the time, activist Gloria Steinem was an editor at New York Magazine, and she convinced Clay Felker, its cofounder, to publish a sample issue of Ms. in its pages. Her argument echoed that of other activists: Women’s interests were “as wide and deep as men’s interests,” she said, and a magazine that focused on their political, social and cultural concerns would sell, and sell well.
The first issue of Ms., released by Felker in the spring of 1972, was also placed on newsstands throughout the country. And Steinem was right; the entire print run sold out in eight days. In the five decades since, the magazine has developed a regular publication schedule and has attracted a broad array of international contributors. Nonetheless, its history has included rough patches born of financial pressures and the ebb and flow of feminist activism.
To its credit, Ms. has survived and is now published quarterly as a project of the non-profit Feminist Majority Foundation.
Over the years the publication has tackled an incredible array of issues including female circumcision, sports, abortion, trans identity, poverty, gender-neutral language, menstrual equity, gender-biased children’s books, rape, the ERA, lesbian liberation, sexual harassment, child custody, domestic violence, divorce and femicide — as well as the many ways that race and class intersect with sexual and gender identity.
It’s an impressive mix of coverage, and 50 Years of Ms.:The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine that Ignited a Revolution celebrates the magazine’s vision and tenacity. A collection of more than 100 articles, essays, polemics, poems, short stories, graphics and photographs, the book provides a look back at the visionary reach of both Ms. and of feminism itself in upending entrenched marital, workplace and legal conventions.
But 50 Years of Ms. is more than a nostalgic look back.
It also showcases, albeit briefly, the many remaining challenges facing feminism, not the least of them from backlash movements that want to revert to a time when women, queer communities and people of color had fewer rights. Currently, the rightwing (the sway of the misogynist and deep-pocketed groups that oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, sex education, LGBTQIA inclusion and rights, marriage equality, and voting rights) is working to ban books and curtail what children learn in school.
These efforts create fodder for future issues of Ms. Likewise, the movements that oppose the right’s white-supremacist, misogynist agenda.
So, there’s still much to be done, and fights to be fought, but before we hunker down, let’s take a minute to lift a glass and celebrate Ms. Magazine’s first half century. Indeed, reading, or perhaps rereading, the words of Angela Davis, Gerda Lerner, Joy Harjo, Billie Jean King, Audre Lorde, Pauli Murray, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Michelle Wallace and others is both energizing and uplifting.
Congratulations, Ms. Magazine. Here’s to another 50 years of provocative, kick-ass reporting. May you thrive and continue to educate, activate and inspire.
50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine that Ignited a Revolution
Foreword by Gloria Steinem, Introduction by Katherine Spillar & Eleanor Smeal
Alfred A. Knopf Publisher; September 2023
544 pages; 196 illustrations