The last gasp strategy is to return to its roots. But are they still there?
Art Director: Kerry Tremain
I was eleven when Tibetha Shaw showed me my first copy of Ms. magazine. Tibetha had untamed orange hair and was the only girl in the sixth grade of Minneapolis's John Burroughs Elementary School who wore black all the time. Her mother, unlike the mothers of the rest of my friends, worked outside the home and had an apron emblazoned diagonally with three-inch-high white capital letters that said HOUSEWORK IS BULLSHIT, which Tibetha proudly showed me the first time she invited me over to play. I don't think I ever met the exotic woman who probably would have insisted on being called Ms. Shaw. And I don't recall hearing anything about Tibetha's father. In retrospect, I imagine her parents were divorced. At that time, in our idyllic midwestern community, separation was still something you did to remove the yolks from the whites of eggs; it would be a good two or three years before my classmates' families would begin exploding around us.
My own mother subscribed to Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies'Home Journal. She welcomed me home from school each day with freshly baked treats and milk. At Tibetha's, there was no adult supervision. There was dust on the furniture. There was Ms. We ate Oreos and pored over the magazine, not quite understanding the anger, but grooving on the energy.
Ms. had resurrected Wonder Woman, the Amazon Princess from Paradise Island who parried bullets with her steel bracelets and brought pernicious forces of evil to their knees with her magic golden lasso. Inspired by her, we fastened towels around our necks with clothespins and climbed onto the roof of the Shaws' garage. The houses on Lyndale Avenue were close together, and the distance between the pointed garage roofs was slightly longer than a leggy eleven-year-old's stride. Yet we took deep breaths and leapt-screaming "WONDER WOMAN! WONDER WOMAN!" -flying from roof to roof and back again, towel capes streaming out behind us, buoyed up by exhilaration, discovery, and danger.
In the dead center of times square, there is a building wrapped by the world-famous news zipper, a building suspended over endless subway catacombs and topped by the glowing ball that drops on New Year's Eve to the strains of Guy Lombardo. As I walk in to the ground floor, a young, female bible thumper looks at me deadeye and screams that I'm going straight to hell for unbridled forn-i-cation and for murdering babies through abortion. When I ride up to the eighteenth floor and enter the soothing pink-and-mauve decor of the Ms. offices, Gloria Steinem is waiting, with a different kind of damnation on her mind.
"I read thirty women's magazines recently and it was very depressing how little they'd changed," she says, in her ever-modulated, always polite tone of voice. "There was the occasional piece on domestic violence -unillustrated- or a survey of readers' opinions on abortion, which is carefully equivocal.
Today a writer called me because she was doing a serious article about what women think of the fact that a lot of women are allowing their bra straps to show out on the street. I told her to please quote me exactly and said, 'I think women should be able to wear anything they fucking well please.'"
That was precisely the attitude that led to the founding of Ms.
The story of Ms.'s first issue, launched as a supplement to 1971's year-end issue of New York magazine, is the stuff of Andy Hardy movies: A group of women meeting in living rooms around New York City wanted to create a publication in which readers could find information on the women's movement without joining any organization. Someone suggested a newsletter. "No, no," said Brenda Feigen, an officer of NOW. "Let's start a magazine!"
The women envisioned a publication that would be both slick and beautiful, one that would appeal to newsstand browsers who didn't necessarily identify themselves as feminists. But when a group led by the already famous Steinem went looking for backers, everyone they approached laughed.
"We had the impossible condition that women control the magazine," says Steinem. "There are still no women controlling women's magazines financially. It was only because Clay Felker, for whom I'd been working as a political columnist, needed a theme for his year-end double issue that it happened. He wouldn't pay our salaries, but he said he'd pay for the costs of producing one sample magazine if he could pick from it whatever he wanted for his own magazine."
Three hundred thousand copies of the first bona fide issue of Ms. shipped to newsstands in January 1972. Steinem began a cross-country promotional tour, but in every city she encountered complaining crowds. "People came up to her and said they couldn't find the magazine anywhere," says JoAnn Edgar, the magazine's de facto managing editor from the pilot issue until the spring of 1989. "She'd call Clay and say, 'It's not here! Get on the distributors!' It turned out that all 300,000 copies sold out in ten days. We got 30,000 subscribers from that one issue."
Steinem went trolling for backers again, and this time no one snickered. She raised a million dollars, which Ms. needed to begin monthly publication, from Warner Communications.
During those early years, the pages of Ms. were consumed by revelation, by the simple act of naming: pay equity, maternity leave, wife battering, date rape, sexual harassment. If contributors to Ms. found an exuberant power in diagnosis, the magazine's readers found strength-and relief-in being diagnosed. The letters section of Ms., significantly longer than those of other magazines, showed the publication's effect most directly (and voyeuristically). Readers talked to each other in the pages of Ms.: chords were struck, confessions proffered, anger vented. By the end of 1973, the magazine received two hundred personal letters a day, most of them as powerful as this one, written anonymously, in December of that year:
I am writing this on a day when I could not possibly feel any greater depression, alienation or isolation. I am writing to you because I have no one, male or female, to talk to who will not try to push, cajole, threaten, even beg me into accepting my "proper" role and "duties" as a housewife and mother… I had been losing courage and had started to believe there was really something wrong with me, until I began to receive your magazine. It has been literally a "lifesaver."
The feverish new swirl of ad hoc political groups also took Ms.'s politics personally. Feminist activists dropped by the Lexington Avenue offices to offer up advice and critique what they viewed as their magazine. "Housewives came and said we weren't doing enough on homemaker issues," says writer and editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin. "Lesbians came by, younger women, women of color. In those days, people really made their feelings known. And we heard them out."
As the seventies rolled on, though, the myriad concerns of the women's movement became difficult to contain in a one-hundred-page magazine. Women channeled their energies into specific issues-reproductive rights, lesbian rights, crisis intervention-and they bumped against their differences. Anti-porn and pro-sex feminists squared off, women of color felt shunted aside by white feminists, rural women were bulldozed by urban professionals. Diagnosis was no longer enough. Ms. had to change with the political culture, to try to address the diversity of its constituents as well as their sophistication and occasional disillusionment.
"In the early seventies, we were riding on this rainbow of enthusiasm," says Edgar. "We thought if you just explained the injustice of discrimination, it would go away, because everyone would see it's not nice to discriminate against women. We were naive, to say the least."
As students in one of the most liberal of liberal-arts colleges in the early eighties, concerned about sexism in the classroom and the curriculum, militant about Taking Back The Night, and obsessed with the quest for better access to contraception and abortion, my friends and I had numerous dinner-table disputes over whether to call ourselves "feminists." We weren't interested in labels of any kind, we said, let alone one that an older generation had already freighted with such finger-wagging, beleaguered connotations.
We weren't alone in our ambivalence. Ten years after Ms. began, Ronald Reagan had been elected president and the country seemed to be hurtling backward. Membership in the National Organization for Women began a descent, which was to last until the decade's end. For us as young women, the early successes of the women's movement-particularly in employment and discrimination battles-made it less likely that we would rebel in the same way as our elders. Instead of feeling indebted to or proud of feminism, we saw in it the threat of permanent marginalization (Would we have successful relationships with individual men if we hated them as a group? Was the commitment to feminism irrevocable and intractable?). In a sense, the women's movement had provided us with the luxury of inaction, of splitting hairs over semantics.
Feeling assured, however naively, of success and equal treatment in the "real world," I was impatient with Ms.'s Horatio Alger-like tales of (women's) triumphs against all (male) odds. With fewer real victories to report, and an acute fear of revealing divisions within the movement to the voraciously hostile outside world, Ms. fell into a pattern: it continued to remind its readers that the same old inequities were still the same old inequities, and it found smaller, individual victories to exult in, victories that often seemed sugar-coated.
"My husband used to leaf through Ms. and say, 'This is a cheering squad for women," says feminist writer and occasional Ms. contributor Katha Pollitt. "They'd write a positive article about any woman who was doing anything, regardless of whether it was interesting.' And I'd say, 'Well, there's a place for that. It's like how our grandparents were always thrilled when a Jew did things.' Part of it is opening new roles.
"But it's true that they didn't like to run unfavorable book reviews. And they bought into this women-are-better line. I remember when Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed-they ran this piece about how she was going to be better because, as a woman, she'd be more this and less that. Maybe she's not as bad as Rehnquist, but she's pretty much a standard Reaganite figure who has not done great things for women. They were a little gullible because they wanted to be optimistic."
"I remember feeling, when we were celebrating women coal miners, that we were celebrating black lung and we should think about that," says Pogrebin. "Just because you got a piece of the pie doesn't mean the pie wasn't full of worms. But the counterargument was that women wanted these jobs and they're proud of themselves and if they want to take this chance, they have a right to take it. As much as it bothers me, it's a point of view. You can't be a purist in support of women."
Ms. may have been flawed, but it was the only women's magazine that showcased intelligence, placed some premium on substance over style, and tried consistently to push independent voices into the mass market. I wanted to be one of those voices. So I leapt at the chance in 1982 to leave the flatlands of Ohio to take an internship at Ms., working for then-contributing editor Robin Morgan on Sisterhood Is Global, an anthology of women's writings worldwide.
When I arrived in New York, the magazine was financially imperiled. Paper and postage costs (the most expensive aspects of magazine production) had skyrocketed. In desperation, Steinem and publisher Pat Carbine had turned Ms. into a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization in 1979. Although the move prevented Ms. from continuing to rate and endorse political candidates, the postage break alone saved hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and under the auspices of the Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication, Steinem could raise funds more aggressively.
I spent nine months hovering on the periphery of the magazine, doing part-time fact-checking work to support myself while I plumbed statistics on policies and practices of eighty countries on contraception, abortion, violence against women, family law, labor law, suffrage, and women's history, in research for Morgan's book.
The editors, for the most part, were warm and friendly; I admired the genuine financial and emotional sacrifices they'd made to keep their magazine and movement alive. I was star struck by conversations in which Andrea Dworkin apprised Gloria Steinem of her encounters with William F. Buckley, Jr., while, nearby, Robin Morgan chatted on the phone with Kate Millett. But because of the enormous injustice I was uncovering in my research, I was also going through a process of discovery, a politicization that I felt these women were well beyond.
When I returned to college, I read Mary Daly, Susan Brownmiller, Susan Griffin, Kathleen Barry, Audre Lorde, and Nawal El Saadawi. I read everything I could get my hands on. But I still only skimmed Ms. for an occasional news flash, even though I wanted badly to return to the magazine after graduation. Now an ardent feminist committed to the idea of writing about women in a political way, I couldn't imagine where else I would work. Redbook? Vogue? Middle-class, middle management slicks like Savvy and Working Woman? I began to understand why most of the editors of Ms. had remained entrenched there for ten years; Ms. was a beachhead in a war to change cultural patterns, but the invading army still hadn't gotten off the beach.
Unable to find a niche at Ms., where every would-be feminist journalist in America applied for a job each year, and unwilling to give up the dream of working at a glossy magazine, I called Robin Morgan that summer and told her I'd taken a job at Esquire.
"Esquire?" she said. "Oh, Peggy, how could you?"
I answered flatly, "I didn't have a choice."
Ms. conceptions: "We had the impossible condition that women control the magazine (financially]," says Gloria Steinem.
As a young editor at Esquire, I quickly learned that he magazine industry is among the most cutthroat and sexist industries in the country, primarily paid for -and often dictated to- by advertisers. In spite of spiraling production costs, there were about 650 more publications on the newsstands in the mid-eighties than the mid-seventies. Most mass-market publications cut subscription rates so low that they actually lost money on subscriptions, under the assumption that the extra body count would lure advertisers in this extremely competitive market.
Many magazines weren't above promising a little extra incentive to curry advertising favor. When I was editing Esquire’s semiannual travel section, the magazine's advertising department regularly provided me with a list of vacation spots to cover. Readers, of course, were none the wiser. A few years later, Vanity Fair stood accused of running adulatory profiles of designers Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein-two of the publication's bigger advertisers. And, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, the New Yorker, once the home of Rachel Carson and Jonathan Schell, recently toned down a piece on the history of environmentalism by former Sierra Club Books editor John G. Mitchell to satisfy the needs of a toothless Earth Day advertorial section.
These pressures are doubly fierce for magazines perceived as "political" or as "hostile editorial environments." Nothing scares off advertisers like controversy, and nothing spells controversy like politics. Mother Jones, the Nation, Harper's, and the Atlantic all rely on big‑money donors or wealthy owners to supply hundreds of thousands of dollars in deficit spending each year. Without such a deep pocket, Ms. was increasingly at the mercy of advertisers. And advertisers rarely showed much mercy.
Steinem virtually stopped editing after the pilot issue; she and publisher Pat Carbine devoted themselves full‑time to finagling more than two million dollars' worth of ads a year. "Some advertisers would spit on the magazine," Steinem remembers. "There was a food advertiser in California who made us take him to the world's most expensive dinner, which we could ill afford. After the meal, he threw the magazine on the table and said, 'I wouldn't advertise in this fucking piece of shit if it were the last magazine on earth.' People loved to have us make presentations with the purpose of humiliating us."
"[Prospective advertisers] took us personally," says Pogrebin. "They didn't want to buy an ad in Ms. because it was the reason their wives left them, or because their product showed motherhood as Madonna and child and we'd show pictures of bloody, natural birth."
Without the promise of editorial obeisance, Ms. didn't stand a chance of tapping into the gold mine of cosmetic and fashion ads (the fact that a proliferation of those products in the magazine would have been somewhat antithetical to the Ms. message is, perhaps, an irony best pondered by the financially solvent). Instead, the magazine looked like it was produced for fast‑driving cross‑addicts: its ad pages were almost exclusively the province of cigarettes, hard liquor, and cars.
Those advertisers also had their unspoken demands. Mary Thom, an editor of Ms. since its first issue, admits that the magazine went light on its coverage of women and smoking: "We tried to cover those issues when there was news‑when research on fetal alcohol syndrome came out, that kind of thing. But to do a major job on addiction or on cross‑addiction meant that those advertisers couldn't be in the book. So we didn't cover it in an in‑depth, ongoing way." And Steinem remembers nearly coming to blows over an offensive portrayal of Volkswagen. "There was a piece about Nazi Germany by Andrea Dworkin in which she had used 'Porsche' [which is distributed by Volkswagen]," she says. "Volkswagen doesn't interfere at all; they don't ask anything of you, unlike women's products. Except they don't want to be in a piece about Nazi Germany. It was too late to change the fact that the ad was in the issue and Porsche was in the piece. So I changed Porsche to 'expensive car.' Andrea was furious. Really, really, seriously furious. It really jeopardized our friendship. And I felt really victimized. I said, 'Andrea, you don't understand this.' I tried to explain. Now I realize she was right. But at the time, in the context‑some of us weren't making salaries; we didn't know if we could meet the printing costs; we were making ends meet with contributions. This was one of the few advertisers who wouldn't interfere. Finally, the pressure of running at a constant deficit, reducing or going without salaries, and never knowing if the next issue would be the last became too much. The Ms. Foundation began hunting for someone to buy its major asset in late 1986. "I can't even begin to express what the pressures were like," Steinem says, with despair in her voice. "It was giving us all ulcers and sweaty palms. We knew that if we closed our doors, that we could wrongly be seen as damaging the women's movement. Like losing the Equal Rights Amendment. I can't tell you how terrible that feels." Anne Summers, an Australian feminist who served for three years as chief advisor on women's issues to Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, had been spinning her wheels as the U.S. political correspondent for a John Fairfax, Ltd., newspaper when she heard Ms. was for sale. Together with Sandra Yates, who had come stateside to launch a smart‑talking publication for teenage girls, she convinced Fairfax to bid for Ms. The girls' magazine, they reasoned, could become the cash cow that would keep its older, prestigious sister afloat.
"Fairfax was clearly a better choice than Hearst or Condé Nast, who would've turned it into a totally conventional magazine," says Steinem now. "We would've liked to have the money to go on ourselves, but we never thought we were the only people who could do this." When the deal closed in October 1987, Summers ‑who, with her platinum hair and black, thick-framed, round glasses has a look as singular as Steinem's ‑was named editor of Ms.; Yates was named publisher.
And nothing worked out as they planned.
In some ways, what Anne Summers was trying to do was to resurrect the initial vision of Ms., but to do it eighties and nineties style: "People my age and a bit younger would tell me, 'I used to read Ms., but then it stopped doing anything for me and I haven't read it since the early eighties,'" she told me one morning in her Upper West Side condominium. "I think a lot of women, as they started to get good jobs, started having kids, saw themselves developing in all kinds of ways the magazine wasn't keeping up with. I thought there was a constituency out there that I could claim."
Under Summers, who took the magazine back to a for‑profit status, Ms. could rate political candidates for the first time in ten years. The magazine showed new edge during the 1988 presidential campaign, when it offered updates on candidates' positions on child care, abortion, and women's employment issues. But Summers wanted to be a player on Madison Avenue as well as Capitol Hill. To create a "conducive" editorial environment, she introduced a column about gardening to the magazine. She also launched a controversial ‑and embarrassing‑ attempt at a fashion section: "Personal Appearances," which featured the everyday wardrobe secrets of prominent feminists, ran for seven issues. "That was a disaster," Summers says now. "It just put advertisers off because women were wearing their own clothes, which weren't necessarily fashionable. And readers said that they'd rather hear about a woman's ideas."
Summers never had a chance to find out if her new ideas for Ms. would work. Six months after buying the magazine, Fairfax fell into hard times and began scaling back operations, starting with its new U.S. holdings. Frantic to keep control of both Ms. and Sassy, Summers and Yates formed Matilda Publications, and raised twenty million dollars‑enough to buy the two magazines and infuse them with capital. But Citicorp Venture Capital, Inc., one of Matilda's biggest backers, took a particularly active interest in its investment. Matilda agreed to ambitious quarterly performance goals, which relied on everything going right. There was no room for slippage of any kind. Two weeks later, in mid July 1988, things didn't just slip, they crashed: six major advertisers pulled out of Sassy.
From its first issue in March 1988, Sassy had been a smash. Falling somewhere between the prom-queen primness of Seventeen and the tackiness of Teen, it tried to speak to what was really going on with teenage girls. Talking in an occasionally grating teen argot (like, you know, pointing out when the Red Hot Chili Peppers acted like total dags), it ran articles on previously taboo subjects: drawn in by promises of lipstick lessons and dish on Johnny Depp, the fourteen-to-nineteen-year-old audience was also instructed on how to protest the anti choice parental-notification rule, offered a condom update, introduced to gay teens, and educated about AIDS. In fact, with its younger and less judgmental readers, the early Sassy seemed to have found that delicate balance between frivolity and feminism, which often eluded Ms. Within seven issues, it matched its eminence grise, with 450,000 subscribers.
Then, after the magazine caught the attention of a couple of reactionary moms from Wabash, Indiana, two fundamentalist Christian groups launched a letter-writing zap against the magazine. Six of Sassy's biggest advertisers (including Revlon, Maybelline, Noxell, Gillette, and the ostensibly progressive Reebok) pulled their ads.
"We didn't realize initially how serious it was or how long it would go on," says Summers. "We thought advertisers would be back in a few months. But Sassy had become controversial. Big advertisers who said they'd come in after the second year, like Procter & Gamble and Bristol-Myers, backed off. Small advertisers got nervous. The impact was catastrophic. Some months in early 1989, Ms. had more ads than Sassy; then we really knew we were in trouble."
Major advertisers pulled out of Ms., too. While the number of ad pages went up slightly, to 503 in 1987 (still down from the old Ms.'s 555 in 1985), by the next year that figure had dropped to 343. "It became very clear that we'd become a marginal buy," says Mary Thom. "When ads began to go down in the industry, we were the first to be cut off the schedule."
Summers became painfully aware of stories that would insult advertisers. As with Steinem, her breaking point came when she perceived a threat to the magazine's much-needed car advertising. When columnist Barbara Ehrenreich proposed an acid satire about fast cars, Summers balked and asked her to write something else (the column eventually appeared in Mother Jones). "I felt shocked to be running into that kind of censorship at Ms.," says Ehrenreich. "And if it was any other place, as I told Anne, I would've quit right there. But because it was Ms. and I was trying to be understanding about the difficulties of surviving, I shrugged and did something else for them."
Finally, even the magazine's covers fell under advertiser scrutiny. "The worst thing I ever did was change the cover because of advertisers," Summers admits. "We made the mistake of telling them once that Hedda Nussbaum was going to be on the cover. She'd been on Newsweek, and it was a legitimate news photo and an issue that Ms. readers were interested in. But that kind of cover is not tolerated in women's magazines. They want nice covers. We lost seven advertisers, but four came back when we promised to change it. We had two days to put together a new cover. It was a naked woman, a grainy picture that said 'Dangerous Liaisons: Women & Estrogen, Hedda & Joel, The Supreme Court & Abortion."
Citicorp waltzed into end Matilda's misery just as the July 1989 issue was about to ship. The company went back on the block, its attractiveness enhanced by the slowly recovering Sassy. Summers had tried desperately to find a partner who would allow her to keep the magazine going, but even sympathetic prospects, like multimillionaire Sallie Bingham, turned her down. "Ms. had been around for seventeen years," Summers says, "and every deep pocket was exhausted. The usual suspects had already been approached in the past and either had given money or didn't want to give."
In August, 1989, Dale Lang, who owns Working Woman, Working Mother, and once owned McCall's, signed a letter of intent to buy Ms. and 70 percent of Sassy (Citicorp retained the other 30 percent). Lang promptly left for a motorcycling holiday in Europe, without announcing his plans for either publication, but the word on the street was that he was not interested in Ms.
"He started running the publication about two months before he officially owned it," one publishing insider told me. "He was trying to sell ads in trios-Sassy, Working Woman, Working Mother, but not Ms. He made no statement supporting Ms., so ads naturally evaporated. To Madison Avenue, it looked like not even the white knight was supporting the publication, that he was actually trying to undermine it. Finally, there was an issue on the boards ready to go with only seven pages of ads. And he refused to print it."
On October 13, 1989, Summers turned full control of Matilda Publications over to Lang, and Ms., the publication founded on the principle of female self-determination, became the domain of a man. He immediately suspended publication. Editors were allowed to stay on, but the ad staff was fired. Some learned their fate from that morning's Wall Street Journal.
Summers still broods over the failure of her mass-circulation Ms. "I've thought a lot about what I'd do differently," she says. "We should've taken some stronger stands on some issues. I think I was treading softly, very conscious of potential criticism for tampering with this American institution. That was a mistake. I should've done savage profiles. We were too soft.
"But in the two years we were there, there wasn't even a quarter where we were free of significant business worries that impacted on Madison Avenue and which were used as an excuse or reason not to advertise in the magazine. Maybe we could've made it. Maybe. But never under those conditions."
According to Ms. staffers, Lang assured Summers that she would be editor of any new version of Ms. that was in the offing-a promise he did not keep. Instead, Summers was named editor-at-large for Lang publications. And when the new bimonthly, ad-free publication Ms.: The World of Women was announced in December of last year, the name topping the masthead came as something of a surprise. My old boss Robin Morgan, child actress and radio personality, founder of the RedStockings, organizer of anti-Miss America protests, international activist, antiporn crusader, prolific writer (most recently of The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism), had been anointed. Her name and high historical profile clearly signaled the latest direction Ms. would take, the language it would speak, and the women it would speak to.
"In this Ms., there will be no slick pages and no slick thinking," Robin Morgan announces in her ringing voice. She stands at about five feet and is waving one of the cigarettes she's forever trying to give up. "It was amazing what the magazine tried to accomplish in its pre-Australian period, considering all the tightropes that it walked. But the sheer effort of trying to be everything to everybody meant reaching a lowest common denominator to some degree."
It is May 1990 in the offices of the new Ms., and I have left Steinem to her rounds of meetings, interviews, and phone calls. It has been seven years since my last phone conversation with Morgan, during which time I navigated my way through several magazine jobs-leaving one when the editor resigned after refusing to pander to advertisers, and another just before the owner pulled the plug, citing lack of advertiser enthusiasm- before moving west to work at Mother Jones. Morgan and I have just had lunch. We have caught up. I have been held out to younger staff members as a shining example of where a Ms. internship will get you. Now she is walking me through the new magazine.
"I'm trying to put together a magazine that's lively, fair, beautiful, funny, and moving," she tells me. "A magazine that will get people to act." As she begins to run down the list of articles in the first issues, though, I hear a litany of familiar, venerable names -Adrienne Rich, Lily Tomlin, Andrea Dworkin, Alice Walker, Marilyn French- and predictable topics that makes me uneasy. This sounds like a narrowly focused Ms., a magazine that will appeal overwhelmingly, perhaps exclusively, to its original constituency.
To its credit, and especially to Morgan's credit, the new Ms. places a particular emphasis on features and news briefs about women around the world. But the rest of the magazine seems designed not just for women who identify themselves as feminists, but for women who define feminism in a specific way, who want the best and the worst of their worldview confirmed rather than challenged. There is a "Feminist Theory" section on the centrality of ageism to the patriarchy; "Inner Space," on the angry face of the goddess; Bella Abzug on widowhood; an arts section featuring an essay hailing last year's release of Camille Claudel.
"The Accidental Activist," which spotlights ordinary people who were made political by circumstance (such as Karen Bell, whose daughter died from an illegal abortion and who was also featured in a recent issue of People), is the only nod to the uninitiated. There's even a section in the new magazine called "Instant Classics," which will reprint what Morgan calls "basic clicks that are hard to get a hold of." The first one is Judy Brady's "Why I Want a Wife," which appeared in the first issue of the old Ms. (It also appeared in the December 1979 issue, and its companion piece, "The Housewife's Moment of Truth," appeared in the October 1980 issue.)
I ask Morgan what she is doing for young feminists and for could-be feminists. She squints at me as if I've hit a sore spot, and lights another cigarette before responding. "There aren't as many young feminist voices in the magazine as I want," she says. "But I think they'll begin coming in. We're going to have a piece on frat gang rape in the second issue, and a young feminists' dialogue in the third issue… But I'm not going to search out younger women-thirty and under-to the degree I abandon baby boomers, people forty-five to fifty-five."
Steinem had told me that she always saw Ms. as an "intake mechanism" for the feminist movement. "We've never been like Commentary, where you grow old right along with Norman Podhoretz," she said. But that seems to be exactly what the new Ms. is doing, and, in the process, it may be giving up the last shred of hope of reaching beyond its natural grasp. Neither Steinem nor Morgan sees reaching younger, more casually feminist women as the critical focus it was back in 1972. Steinem says that there are now other intake mechanisms for the feminist movement, like women's-studies courses (Ms. is attempting to market itself to colleges as a text in women's-studies departments), but those certainly aren't comparable to a mass-market glossy magazine. When I persist in raising questions about this shift, Morgan finally says, exasperated: "Look, this is me you're talking to. I'm not going to go in for that either we're this or we're that. Reaching you women of whatever age is one function. But another and, quite frankly, more basic one is to speak to our own constituency, which has been ignored by everybody. Some of the feminist media, in trying to do outreach, has ignored the long-distance runners. We deserve some sustenance, too."
Since Lang now refuses to talk to the press, it's hard to say what his real intentions and plans for Ms. are; but a look at his business plan-in which the ad-free publication runs solely on its forty-dollars-a-head subscription revenue (with only a few targeted mailings to lure subscribers) and newsstand sales-leads one to suspect that the new Ms. may really be a step toward no Ms. In fact, fewer than 100,000 subscribers have signed on for the new Ms., less than half of the original estimate.
When his business plan was originally unveiled, Lang told Newsday that magazines such as the Nation, New Republic, and Commentary have long thrived on subscription revenue -which isn't true. The Nation runs at a deficit, made up by owner Arthur Carter. According to publisher David Parker, the publication also takes in $350,000 worth of ads each year. "There's no reason not to take some advertising, for products the readers might really want to see, except as a marketing ploy," says Parker. "Not that they were getting ads anyway. It's sort of like saying, '1 would never marry Princess Caroline of Monaco.' Well, she never asked." In reality, the most prominent of the few American newsstand magazines that survive without advertising revenue are Consumer Reports and MAD.
The fact is, Americans are used to magazines that are heavily subsidized by advertisers; we aren't accustomed to paying production costs of the media we read and watch. "There's no way Ms. is going to get away with charging three or four times more than other magazines," says Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper's. "It would be great if they succeed, because I'd be happy to imitate them. But we know from experience that readers won't do it. There's an immediate impact if you raise your rates."
Neither Steinem nor Morgan is a likely mark for the false promises of a male corporate executive, and each seems fully confident of Lang's integrity. "He may be discovering it feels good to feel good," Morgan says. "He was amazed by the mail when he suspended publication, by the real-life stories. Part of it is probably a sense of pride -he's big enough to own Ms."
Still, there was the little matter of the letter. When the new Ms. was announced, subscribers received an exuberant pink-and-purple mailing from Steinem and Bower, offering them the chance to "vote" with their dollar: since they had already paid fifteen dollars for the old Ms., they could cast their "ballot" for the first year of the "editorially free" Ms. for a mere twenty-five dollars.
The trouble was, not all subscribers got that letter. An unspecified number received a more subdued note on official stationery, informing them that Ms. had ceased publication and offering to fill the subscription with Ms.'s "sister publication," Working Woman. If that proved unsatisfactory, loyal subscribers could switch instead to Working Mother, "another sister publication to Ms." Far down at the bottom of the letter was a little PS: "Should a newly formatted version of Ms. emerge in the future, please let us know if you wish to be contacted."
Morgan says the second letter was a mistake; it was composed in October, when Ms. was in limbo, and should never have been mailed. "It was fuck-ups within fuck-ups. There was an error in circulation, one in fulfillment, one in the mailing place. It seems to not have been a mistake of venality, but of different layers of incompetence."
"The coincidence in timing is pretty strange," counters a Lang Communications insider. "No one knows how many people got it or how they were chosen. The truth is, Working Woman has a rate-base problem. They need to guarantee a million readers to advertisers and they can't. So they gave a certain number of people the second letter, then the next week dumped five months of back issues in their mailboxes." Magazine insiders took the episode to mean that Ms. was hanging by a thread, dependent on the whims of Dale Lang.
In that transfer of readers from Ms. -even a flawed Ms.- to Working Woman, something tragic occurs. Ms. has been on the ropes for a number of reasons: a decade-long backlash against the women's movement; mistakes made by its editors in an atmosphere where no mistakes could occur, in an industry where the ephemeral eclipses the enduring, in a culture where a magazine dedicated to selling women's ideas instead of their bodies is unacceptable; and finally -and perhaps most tellingly- because of the sheer gutlessness among advertisers whose influence over publishing has effectively narrowed the scope of voices on the newsstand.
But without Ms., or something like it, what is going to convince today's eleven-year-old girls that they can fly? I imagine Tibetha Shaw, still flame haired and rebellious, barreling defiantly down some city street in a pro-choice demonstration, clad in her regulation black. Or perhaps she decided feminism was her mother's trip, and joined the flocks seeking happiness through the great and powerful god, MBA. Either way, part of whomever she has become, and who I am, is due to Ms. We donned those towel capes because we saw, for the first time, that little girls could become not just women, but wonder women, women who could participate in the full scope of public and private life. Ms. was dedicated to that possibility, and no other mass-market magazine has taken up that torch since, or is likely to do so.
Magazines such as Working Woman, Savvy, New York Woman, and Mirabella may have poached some of the Ms. terrain, but they've manipulated the message, reflecting change but not inciting it. Ms. was the only magazine on the newsstand to take as its mission reaching out across lines of class, race, age, and experience to guard the interests of all women. And the potential for a magazine to do that now -when we need it as much as ever- died with a mass-market Ms.
At press time, Morgan and Steinem appeared confident that Ms. would survive. Although the first run of the magazine sold out at the newsstands, publisher Ruth Bower would not reveal the number of copies printed. Perhaps that's because, according to sources, the total was only about a tenth of the 300,000 copies that flew off the stands during the magazine's initial debut in 1972. "I haven't felt depressed about losing the old Ms.," Steinem mused in our final conversation. "I feel something healthier, which is anger. I feel angry-and we all ought to feel angry-that a magazine like Vanity Fair can waste fifty million dollars on fewer subscribers than we used to have. Or that Time, Inc., can spend more money than Ms. has ever had on testing a magazine that they never even published. I feel angry about that when I walk by the newsstand. And I'll never stop feeling angry."