In the years leading up to the birth of “Ms. Magazine”, women had trouble getting a credit card without a man’s signature, had few legal rights when it came to divorce or reproduction, and were expected to aspire solely to marriage and motherhood. Job listings were segregated (“Help wanted, male”). There was no Title IX (banning sex discrimination in federally funded athletic programs); no battered-women’s shelters, rape-crisis centers, and no terms such as sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Thus begins a completely awesome article in “New York Magazine” about the history of “Ms. Magazine”, which forms an amazing lens for the history of feminism. I think a lot about the history of feminism as a movement, because it makes me so incredibly mad when people air idiotic anti-feminist grievances that show zero understanding of how effective and important the movement has been.
My personal favorite feminist history quote ever came from an older rape survivor I know, who was assaulted in 1970. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Rape Trauma Syndrome had not yet been defined, and rape itself was often not acknowledged or slipped under the rug. The survivor had an absolutely horrible experience in the hospital, but the especially shocking quote from her history came in 1974, when she finally went to a therapist and asked for help. They had a friendly session; towards the end, she pulled together the courage to tell him she’d been brutally assaulted in her home four years before, that she had trouble sleeping, that she froze up sometimes, that she had flashbacks, etc.
The therapist took off his glasses and looked at her skeptically. “Do you really think that’s important?” he asked.
Some more great quotations from the “New York Magazine” article. Most of the article takes the form of a dialogue among various feminists, as well as some snips from letters or memos or other related communications:
Newhouse: Clay [Felker, a "New York Magazine" editor who helped start "Ms."] and Gloria [Steinem] had knockdown arguments about the first cover. Clay wanted a photograph of a man and woman, back-to-back, tied to a big pole. The idea was that they’re tied together, struggling.
Steinem: His cover was negative … limited. It was focused on marriage, not on all women.
Pogrebin: Gloria preferred a drawing of a female figure with many hands, juggling the tasks of a woman’s life.
Steinem: It had a universality because it’s harking back to a mythic image—the many-armed Indian God image. And it solved our problem of being racially “multibiguous” because she’s blue: not any one race.
Mary Peacock (co-founding editor, 1971–77): When Ms. started, you couldn’t pick up the phone and say, “Ms. Magazine,” because what people heard was “Mmzzz” and they’d ask, “What are you saying?” This would happen 25 times a day. So when we picked up the phone, we said each letter separately: “M-S magazine.” But gradually something changed—I could shoot myself that I can’t remember when it changed, because it was a huge watershed: Suddenly you could say “Ms.,” and everybody knew what you were talking about.
Also, let’s talk about sexual freedom and its correlations with feminism:
Steinem: Clay and many magazine people told me not to include a lesbian article in the first issue — and so, of course, we did.
Of course there are bits that I have, um, something of a problem with:
Mary Kay Blakely (contributor, 1982–2002): Even debates among editors who were close friends became defensive, judgmental, and hostile. You were either a vanilla-sex feminist or a bad-ass feminist.
Pogrebin: I threatened to leave over a manuscript by a woman who was a former editor of ours who was writing about why she was a masochist and trying to make it an okay choice. I would rather leave than work for a magazine that published that. And we didn’t publish it.
God forbid we accept female masochism! I do wonder what some of these accomplished feminists, women who I so admire, think of little ole me. Oh, well.
Anyway, behold how very, very similar the things are that historical detractors said about “Ms.” — compared to the things that people say about feminists now:
Syndicated Columnist James Kilpatrick, December 1971: “[Ms. is a] C-sharp on an un-tuned piano,” a note “of petulance, of bitchiness, or nervous fingernails screeching across a blackboard.”
Harry Reasoner on ABC’s Nightly News, 1972: “I’ll give it six months before they run out of things to say.”
President Nixon to Henry Kissinger on White House Audiotapes, 1972
Nixon: [Dan Rather] asked a silly goddamn question about Ms.—you know what I mean?
Nixon: For shit’s sake, how many people really have read Gloria Steinem and give one shit about that?
New York Times Headline, March 22, 1972:
“In Small Town U.S.A., Women’s Liberation Is Either a Joke or a Bore.”
Syndicated Gossip Columnist Earl Wilson on the Ms. Launch Party at the New York Public Library, June 30, 1972
“Speaking of libraries, some Women’s Libbers were well stacked and some ain’t never been stacked and never will be.”
Carbine: We learned that “Ms.” was being removed from public libraries as unsuitable reading material.
Steinem: Abe Rosenthal at the “New York Times” told me that no one would ever hire me again as a journalist; I’d thrown away my career.
Bernikow: I still meet women who say they had to hide their “Ms.” magazines from their husbands. It woke women up and spurred them to go out and do something.
Levine: I can’t understand where we got the chutzpah to turn people’s lives upside down.
This article is so full of brilliance and historical inspiration — it’s so touching for me. I’m serious, I’m almost in tears while I write this. Read it, please.
(Relatedly on the feminist history topic, a while back I wrote a post called “Grassroots Organizing for Feminism, S&M, HIV and Everything Else” that talked a bit about mid-1900s feminist organizations such as those that advocate for rape survivors, or “Jane”, the women’s collective that provided illegal abortions for those in need.)