We Are Not Alone: 50 Years of Ms. Magazine
Gloria Steinem on the Making of America's First Feminist Publication
Featured image: Ms. Magazine, Spring 1972.
If you asked me fifty years ago, when we started Ms. magazine, if this first woman-controlled magazine would still be alive half a century later, I would have said absolutely not.
Although there were no other magazines for women that weren’t about food, fashion, and family—and women’s magazines survived only through support from those same categories of ads—I believed that advertisers would soon realize that women’s interests were just as wide and deep as men’s interests are and there would be new magazines that were at least like, say, Esquire for women.
What I didn’t understand then was how little advertising would change over the decades. Though women actually buy more books than men do—and also buy wine, cars, and insurance—the full range of women’s interests is still not supported by advertisers of the products we actually buy.
Indeed, Ms. would not have been able to prove that women would buy even one issue of such a magazine if Clay Felker at New York magazine, where I was an editor, had not agreed to publish a sample of Ms. in its pages, and then an entire preview issue that was placed on newsstands nationwide. That gave women themselves a chance to show the breadth of their interests.
What was in that first issue? An article by Johnnie Tillmon, a brave organizer of women on welfare, called “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue.” We were told we absolutely could not include an article by or about lesbians in that preview issue, since, at the time, all feminists were characterized as lesbians. This only reinforced our conviction that we had to, and we did (with a piece titled “Can Women Love Women?”). And since abortion was then against the law, yet we knew that about one in three American women had needed one at some time in her life, we asked women if they would sign a petition, “We Have Had an Abortion,” demanding its legality and safety. Hundreds of women, some well known and some not, many of whom had never even told their families, signed this historic and politically powerful petition.
The cover was a challenge because we wanted all women to feel included.
An early version showed a woman’s face divided into various skin colors, but this didn’t feel real. Since I had been living in India, I suggested a woman who was blue and had many arms, like the goddess Kali, with hands holding symbols—from the cooking spoon to the car wheel—of women’s many tasks. Miriam Wosk, an artist then living in California, painted the perfect multitasking woman, and even put a tear running down her cheek and a baby in her body. It was titled “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.” (Ms. recently published a modern-day reprise calling attention to the overburdening of women during the COVID-19 pandemic and this time putting the onus where it belongs: it’s titled “The Nation’s Moment of Truth.”)
At the time that first issue was published, there were local feminist publications here and in some other countries, but there was no national voice for those of us who had the radical idea that women are people. I didn’t know what the response would be, especially on newsstands, with no precedent or place for a women’s magazine that wasn’t about home, family, and children.
The response was shocking. Though that first issue was released in January 1972 and dated “spring 1972” so it could stay on the newsstand for months, it sold out in eight days. Soon, bags of mail began arriving in our offices, so many that there was room for little else.
The letters were irresistible to read, personal notes or small novels, as if Ms. were a friend who had entered readers’ homes. One common theme was “At last, I know I’m not alone.” A movement is a contagion of truth telling: at last, we know we are not alone.
The mail came from writers of all different ages. One was written in crayon and concluded, “We girls are angry as turnips.” The very young writer explained that the boys got the best part of the playground and the girls had only a little corner to play jacks. I answered her letter. I bet she became a leader in expanding playgrounds to include us all.
Readers’ letters were a source of encouragement and support and editorial ideas. They were our lifeline, from the little girl on the playground to women talking about raising children on welfare or running for political office or confronting the double discrimination of race and sex. Readers have always told Ms. what they think and what they need. They were and are the source of what appears in Ms.
This is why Ms. brought national attention to issues years before they were covered elsewhere: domestic abuse, sexual harassment, acquaintance rape, sweatshop work, the national need for child care, limits on military spending. And there was always this feeling of unity with feminists around the world, this understanding that we could learn from each other, and Ms., because of its dedication to global reporting, could bring home those important facts, movements, issues, and ideas that might not otherwise get U.S. attention.
In 1973, our cover was “Chisholm/Farenthold: The Ticket That Might Have Been.” Even though she was on the ballot in only fourteen states, Shirley Chisholm declared for the presidency and single-handedly took the “White Male Only” sign off the White House door. Half a century later, a woman of color finally walked through that door.
Of course, all change is ridiculed at the beginning. In 1972, the 60 Minutes co-founder Harry Reasoner famously said that he would give us six months before the magazine ran out of things to say. (When Ms. celebrated its fifth anniversary, Reasoner apologized.)Both men and women have our whole humanity to gain.
The New York Times refused to use “Ms.” as a form of address for a dozen years; thus I remained “Miss Steinem of Ms. magazine.” For this and other reasons, women picketed. And when the Times finally relented in 1986, we took the editor Abe Rosenthal flowers. The most annoying thing he did was to say, “If I’d known it mattered that much to you, I would’ve done it much sooner.”
The biggest challenges we faced, though, were financial. We were going against the women’s magazine practice of editorial that praised advertisers, known as “complementary copy”; of newsstand distribution with covers that focused on beauty and celebrity; indeed, of pretty much everything in the magazine business.
In addition to dictating editorial content in women’s magazines, there was a profound belief in the advertising industry that magazines had to be racially segregated, yet we were a diverse magazine. That was a big part of the reason we eventually became an ad-free foundation, supported by subscriptions and contributions. After all, we buy books without ads, why not magazines?
But in the mid-1980s, when Ms. was still struggling to survive, it was bought by a couple of commercial publishers who didn’t understand its spirit. Ms. ultimately found a home with the Feminist Majority Foundation, as part of the movement and, thus, a nonprofit. This move was crucial to the survival of Ms. and its service to women and a movement.
There is now a big majority of the country that supports the radical idea that people are people, regardless of gender or race or sexuality or class or ethnicity. Yet there is still about a third of this country that is in backlash against this new consciousness. They feel robbed of privilege and have the power of resentment. We must be aware of the threat they pose, but make no mistake: they are not the majority anymore.
Patriarchy was the beginning of hierarchy, reinforced by racism and classism and nationalism, but since this began with controlling reproduction, free women can bring down the hierarchy. There is now a widespread understanding that democracy starts with the ability of women to make decisions over our own bodies, and that’s exactly what we are doing. At the same time, men get to be whole human beings by being active in the home as well as outside. Both men and women have our whole humanity to gain.
I won’t be around for the next fifty years, but you who are reading this may be. Imagining is the first step to creating. Let’s do it together!
At my age, in this still hierarchical time, people often ask me if I’m “passing the torch.” I explain that I’m keeping my torch, thank you very much, and I’m using it to light the torches of others.
Because only if each of us has a torch will there be enough light.
From 50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited a Revolution. Copyright © 2023 by Liberty Media For Women, LLC. Foreword copyright © 2023 by Gloria Steinem. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.