The Ms. Makeover

How the magazine repackaged feminism for the middle class.

Inside Ms.: 25 Years of the Magazine and the Feminist Movement
By Mary Thom
Henry Holt and Co.; 244 pages; $25

To call Ms. a Media Event sounds less invidious than obvious. Isn’t that what all journalism is, by definition, and what even serious activism aspires to nowadays? Most single-issue magazines can only dream about the eye-catching niche that Gloria Steinem and her fellow editors carved out for America’s first glossy feminist publication 25 years ago. With the glamorous Steinem at its helm–and intermittently on its cover–Ms. was just the promotional vehicle the feminist movement needed to go mainstream.

But Inside Ms., as you might expect of an “authorized” account of the magazine, prefers to think of it as a Historic Event. Mary Thom is herself a staff veteran, who arrived as a researcher at the very start and went on to serve as executive editor under Editor in Chief Robin Morgan in the 1990s. Thom touts her reliance on “oral histories of many founders and long-time staff members.” It is clear that she aspires to a down-in-the-trenches record of a pioneering endeavor that, in her opinion, transcended the ordinary boundaries of journalism. As such, Thom requires unconventional characters, daunting circumstances, and heroic goals, all of which she does her best to supply.

Hence Gloria Steinem, one among a large cast of path-breakers struggling to fulfill an unorthodox dream. Hence the many pages devoted to the uphill battles on the business end. Unsurprisingly, bold determination prevailed, and a new kind of magazine was born. “Ms. seems more like a social movement than a national magazine,” Thom writes. The offices were both “a publishing enterprise and a center for activism.” Ms. “represent[ed] a state of mind.” Ms. was a “feminist mecca.” A flood of visitors were eagerly greeted–and vetted–as potential recruits to the cause. Funds flowed out from the coffers of the Ms. Foundation for Women, giving fledgling feminist projects the boost they needed.

Such an epic saga of political activism may have been what Thom meant to write, but soon enough she settles down into the blander form of the press release. Hers is not the book to read for a serious assessment of the ideas in the many articles she makes sure to mention by author. (Her former colleagues, she is well aware, will head straight for the index.) She rehearses the main criticisms leveled against the magazine: that it was politically conventional, emphasizing male-dominated electoral politics and skirting controversy; that it was sentimental about sisterhood, forever holding up individual women as inspirational role models. But her reply to the critics consists of providing an exception or two to each of the complaints and then moving swiftly on. She dutifully describes the big dramas that got Ms.’ editors all riled up–the crusade for and defeat of the ERA; the smear campaign in 1975 by the radical Redstockings, who attacked Steinem for work she’d done a decade earlier on behalf of a liberal cause that had CIA backing; the nationwide women’s conference in Houston in 1977. What may have been the larger philosophical questions behind these contretemps? Here is Thom’s idea of an answer: “Then as today, feminism was not an ideology set in stone, but rather an adaptable set of attitudes and beliefs.”

A nd yet, bromidic and blurry though this public-relations job is, it is in its way not inaccurate. For Steinem never was an editor of the sharp, analytic variety; she was a repackager. Her aim was not to subvert the women’s magazine but to give it a makeover, to translate feminism into something familiar to the middle class. Go back and reread the Ms. of the 1970s, and you rediscover how psychological how-to-ism for women at home became consciousness-raising for women newly out in the world. Confessional narrative became first-person testimonial about the choices and changes in women’s lives. In the coping-with-children department, the message changed from advice to mothers on, say, avoiding “martyr complexes,” to advice on lobbying for child care and avoiding gender stereotypes with sons and daughters. Soft-focus messages about sexuality–the importance of pleasing your man–became pointed discussion of abortion rights and the myth of the vaginal orgasm.

By the 1980s the positions had grown predictable (Ms. was pro-abortion, pro-day care, pro-ERA, pro-welfare rights, pro-clitoral orgasm). But it is no small tribute to Ms. that most of the issues it raised over the years are still around. Ms. was among the first women’s magazines to run pieces about sexual harassment, spousal abuse, breast implants, the economic impact of divorce–all based on real reporting. The formula was not original and didn’t pretend to be–“soft” personal stories, plus “hard” facts, with some prescriptions for action. It was service journalism, and its depth and quality were uneven, as it generally is with service journalism. Ms. also relied a great deal on book excerpts, hardly a sign of bold editorial entrepreneurship. As for Ms.’ political coverage, crusades heavy on symbolism preoccupied the staff through the 1970s (the ERA, the Houston conference). If the magazine followed electoral politics a little doggedly, it participated in gestural politics a little overenthusiastically. In “Cracking the Women’s Movement Protection Game” in 1978, a staff writer was honest enough to acknowledge the journalistic–and political–pitfalls of such boosterism. (She had puffed pro-ERA forces although they were in complete disarray.)

Ms.’ radical critics were right. It was not in the business of making sustained ideological arguments or issuing eccentric polemics. Few distinctive writers emerged from the magazine, though over the years many contributed to it. From the choice of name onward, Ms.’ real specialty was promotion–above all of a usable, salable symbolism. It probably didn’t hurt this larger endeavor that fellow founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the author of How to Make It in a Man’s World (1970), had a career as a high-powered publicist behind her. But it was Steinem’s inspirational role at Ms. that was the model for Ms.’ role with its readers. She was not a theorist. She was an icon, a catalyst, plugged in to American women via the lecture circuit, and to establishment men, such as boyfriends Mike Nichols and Mortimer Zuckerman, via the social circuit.

It’s fitting, then, that Thom perks up whenever she’s describing a party, a gala, a television show, a promotional tour. This was the true Ms. “state of mind,” and there were many such events to boast about. The premier issue in the spring of 1972 got a plug from The David Frost Show, on which Steinem and others appeared. Then there was a big party at the New York Public Library to celebrate. The next year “the magazine’s own birthday … was the occasion of larger gatherings, several of them aboard a chartered Circle Line boat.” “Everything we did,” one member of the staff recalled, “got a tremendous amount of attention.” It would all sound narcissistically frivolous were it not so earnest. And so ineffective financially; the magazine was all but broke from the start, and stayed that way.

In the 1980s, “The New Ms.,” which had been granted not-for-profit educational status, launched a campus issue to attract younger readers, but a hectically busy Steinem was devoting less editorial energy to the magazine, and it showed. (You can sense a magazine’s desperation when it tries to generate hoopla on both its 10th and 15th anniversaries.) In the 1990s, after being sold and resold, Ms. lost its spark, but it still carries on. Its covers are as flashy as ever, though an arid cleanliness reigns within; it resembles nothing so much as an alumnae magazine. (Ms. has been ad-free since 1990.) Inside the current issue you will find, what else, an excerpt from Inside Ms. On this 25th anniversary, there is no gala. Instead, there’s a book that reads like a genteel obituary.