The XX Factor

Ms. Turns 40, Always a Mixed Blessing

Gloria Steinem co-founded Ms.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

I don’t know anyone who subscribes to Ms. Magazine. But I have friends who would have if we had come of age in a different era—a time when it was just about the only place to get smart feminist commentary.

Gloria Steinem originally wanted to print Ms. as a newsletter. In last year’s oral history of the magazine, co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin explained that feminist publications of the time often came in that form and were read by only the most dedicated of activists. In settling on a sleek weekly magazine instead, Ms.’s founding editors hoped to fill a void in the mainstream media—and they did. The first 300,000 copies sold out in a matter of eight days. By the end of its first month, Ms. had over 26,000 subscriptions. For comparison, The Ladder, a lesbian feminist monthly, had just 3,800 subscribers at the same time. 

Ms. and its contents quickly became part of the American cultural conversation. Some of the women who worked on it—Steinem, Pogrebin, and Bella Abzug—became household names.

With distinctive earnestness, Ms. agitated for change by publishing a list of women, both famous and not, who had abortions before the procedure was legal. And though it was a magazine with serious goals, Ms. often used a light humor to draw out common experiences. The cover of the 1976 Sex Issue was a questionnaire that read: “How’s Your Sex Life? Better, Worse, I Forget.”  

This year, Ms. celebrates its 40th anniversary. And it barely needs saying that the magazine no longer fills the gap that it once did. Forget weekly or even monthly magazines—anyone with a computer or smartphone can access a constant stream of feminist news through Jezebel, Feministing, Feministe, HuffPost Women, and our own DoubleX. Feminist blogs have sprung up on college campuses across the country. As Ms. did in the 1970s, these websites have inserted themselves into popular consciousness, discussing everything from 50 Shades of Grey to Title IX. And they are popular. In April of 2010, Jezebel had 1,570,003 unique visitors. By contrast, Ms. comes out in magazine form just four times a year. It has a blog, but my peers neglect to check it on any sort of regular basis.

Jezebel and its friends obviously take different tacks than did their predecessor. The formula at Ms. was movement-defining straight commentary: abortion + domestic violence + ERA + pornography = feminism. At Jezebel, the formula is celebrity photo + snarky commentary or expression of outrage or both = a (hopefully) significant statement about women in our society.  In a recent post, one editor typically managed to turn a picture of Katy Perry into a diatribe about the irresponsible sexualization of children.

Maybe it is sad that a once-relevant publication has become mostly a historical artifact. But it’s also OK. Ms. lost steam; Jezebel and Feministing gained. Ms. is the old guard; they are the new. Sometimes the transition from generation to generation requires a fresh start.

I don’t always identify with Jezebel’s particular brand of self-righteousness—not by a long shot. But give credit where it’s due: The site has successfully learned from the ghosts of feminists past. While editors filled the pages of Ms. with the feminist party line on certain topics, the new feminist blogosphere applies feminist ideology—and even ideologies, plural—to everything under the sun. If you consider yourself a feminist today, you don’t have to resign yourself to conventional conversation pieces. What you talk about is almost less important than how you talk about it, and even there, you don’t have just one choice. Let’s toast Ms. on its anniversary because that’s where it all started.