Wake Up and Smell the Estrogen!

Those were the words on the label of the otherwise unidentified pill bottle that came in Slate ‘s mail yesterday. Culturebox would never have lifted the lid (how good can estrogen smell?) if she hadn’t figured out that the mysterious item was a PR gimmick. That phrase also appears on the cover of the first issue of Ms . magazine–on newsstands today–published by its new owners: several female philanthropists, the current editor, Marcia Ann Gillespie, and the founding editor, Gloria Steinem. (Inside the bottle was an invitation to a party.)

Do Steinem and Gillespie fail to realize that one’s first thought on seeing a Ms. pill bottle is not, Just what the doctor ordered, but rather, Presentingthe Ms. magazine time capsule? After all, the accusation they were laboring under was that the magazine was long past its prime. When Steinem announced last December that she was going to buy Ms. from a media company that had acquired it in a package deal, Katie Roiphe denounced the magazine as irrelevant and said it should be folded.

Sadly, Roiphe has been proven right. Despite assurances by both Gillespie and Steinem in their introductory letters that, no, the magazine has not outlived its usefulness, the publication they put out is not only irrelevant, it is in flight from relevancy. Consider some of the challenges issued to feminism by its libertarian and conservative wings in recent months: Does the Clinton scandal prove that sexual-harassment legislation has gone too far? Can women balance work and mothering in a way that doesn’t hurt their children? How can we write child-custody laws so as to recognize that some fathers are better suited to raise a couple’s children but not to punish mothers who work? Has the ethos of sexual liberation harmed or helped young women?

Now consider how Ms. magazine responds. A feature with a series of short personal statements by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, bell hooks, Betty Friedan, other figures from the 1970s women’s movement, and a handful of lesbians and youngsters on the pros and cons of adultery. A feature on why there aren’t more women with powerful roles winning Oscars. A photo spread celebrating women with captions such as “Women grow more powerful as they intuitively pass their strength to each other.” There couldn’t be a compendium of articles that were more dated culturally or less meaningful politically. Even the magazine’s one attempt to be with-it lags behind the times: The essay defending the choice to get plastic surgery appeared in nearly every women’s magazine three years ago.

About a year and a half ago, Clinton’s advisory committee on race, made up entirely of members of the pro-affirmative-action camp, did genuine harm to the credibility of their position by refusing to hear the views of their opponents. Ms. magazine is doing something similar to feminism. People who don’t want to see the idea die out altogether ought to stand up and object.

Judith Shulevitz