Ms. Magazine

In 1971, a group of women editors and activists dreamed of publishing a magazine for women that would truly address the problems they and other women were facing, a magazine that would feature writing by women and be edited and controlled by women. Other magazines aimed at women readers were limited to featuring non-issues like “how to have thin thighs, get rid of ring-around-the-collar and wow the ladies who lunch with dazzling Jell-O salads” (Beyette). Several feminist publications existed already, but none with nationwide availability or appeal for the typical woman, and none in the glossy color format of other women’s magazines. With this dream, Gloria Steinem, Joanne Edgar, Nina Finkelstein, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and the other founding editors of Ms. magazine began an undertaking that was believed to be doomed from its birth but which has endured for more than 25 years. Ms. has survived advertising difficulties, in-house staffing and editorial complications, and public controversy to serve a loyal and responsive readership.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) had been started by Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique who is credited with beginning the suburban housewife revolution. But NOW seemed “only prepared to deal with large, national issues such as the ERA” (Heilbrun 208). Freelance journalist Gloria Steinem and her friend Brenda Feigen decided in 1970 to form an organization that would fight at the grassroots level to help women with issues like job discrimination, spousal abuse, and child care. They named it the Women’s Action Alliance (WAA). Steinem and Feigen received sacks of letters from women, some addressed simply to “Women’s Lib” at their office building. This response convinced Steinem to undertake the production of a WAA newsletter that would both inform its members and provide income for the organization. But Feigen and others suggested that a glossy magazine would be even more effective (Heilbrun 208-09). Because Steinem “did not see her ideal audience as being composed either of intellectuals or those who were already members of feminist organizations,” she saw the value in a magazine that would look similar to mainstream women’s publications and be available all over the country (247).

Steinem gathered together the few women magazine editors and journalists she knew of, along with women activists, to discuss the idea of a new magazine for women. The list included Susan Brownmiller, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, Susan Braudy, Jill Johnson, and Vivian Gornick; these women “wanted to write for a woman-owned and feminist-run magazine … and knew they hadn’t been able to write about their real interests in traditional women’s magazines” (Heilbrun 218). After talking with these women, Steinem was convinced that the new magazine could be a vehicle for feminist writing that “no other magazine would publish, let alone assign or inspire” (219). But next came months of efforts at fundraising, all unsuccessful. Finally, Clay Felker, editor of New York magazine (which Steinem had co-founded), agreed to publish a 30-page section as an insert in its annual double issue and then publish a separate 130-page preview issue as a further test of public interest. New York would keep all advertising profits from the insert and the preview issue and would also receive half of the newsstand profits from the preview, but would retain no further ownership or interest in the magazine thereafter (219). Felker also insisted that he have the final say on the contents of the insert and “that there be a limit on obscene language” (220).

When it came time to decide on a title for the magazine, its editors-for the first issue, they included Steinem, Edgar, Bina Bernard, Finkelstein, Pogrebin, Nancy Newhouse, and Mary Peacock (Heilbrun 220)-decided on “Ms.,” a form of address for women that had recently begun to come into wide use and “did not require a knowledge of [a woman’s] marital status” (220). The most daring article in the first issue was one titled “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions. (Abortion was illegal at the time.) The piece listed 53 famous women under a headline that stated “We Have Had Abortions.” The list of names included Lillian Hellman, Billie Jean King, Anais Nin, and Gloria Steinem. This premier issue, which cost $1.50 at the newsstand, sold out the first printing of 300,000 copies-which was supposed to last three months-in 10 days (Beyette). Immediately after the preview issue was published, the editors received more than 20,000 letters from women nationwide. Carolyn Heilbrun notes that “a typical women’s magazine, with a circulation of, say, seven million, received fewer than two thousand letters an issue” (229).

Why was Ms. so immediately popular? Patricia Carbine, the magazine’s publisher beginning with the second issue, explains: “Traditional women’s magazines have a kind of how-to premise… how to improve life inside the home, 15 new ways to do your hamburger, how to lose 10 pounds in two weeks. … The how-to premise for Ms. was how to change your life.” Pogrebin says that Ms. was the first women’s magazine to notice that “you don’t have to be middle class to have a life,” and that it “reminded readers that there were such things as lesbians, women in prison, that women of color were Americans” (Beyette). Ms. would later break ground in reporting on issues like domestic violence (which was not a term even in use at that time), alternatives to mastectomy for those diagnosed with breast cancer, and flaws in the research done on silicone breast implants (Harpaz; Lauerman).

Despite its responsive readership, Ms. would find itself on shaky financial ground for the next 18 years. Advertising, without which the magazine industry could not survive, was difficult for a feminist publication to obtain and keep. According to Steinem, the editors discussed an ad-free format from the very beginning but decided the magazine industry would not take them seriously without ads: “We would be seen as some do-gooder publication and not a serious magazine” (Lauerman). They also had a more idealistic reason: to foster an environment in which “advertisers would be rewarded for changing the imagery in their ads and for addressing women consumers with the kinds of products that had only been addressed to men before” (Lauerman).

In order to understand why Ms. had such a difficult time getting advertisers, one must examine the history of advertising in women’s magazines in the United States. In her study Decoding Women’s Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms., Ellen McCracken gives this brief summary. In the heyday of American magazines, 1825-1850, there were few advertisements. Specialized magazines appeared in the early 20th century. “TodayâÂ?¦the editorial focus of a magazine about to be launched is often partially formulated according to which advertisers the publishers hope to sell space to” (64-66). McCracken explains that advertisers encourage and sometimes require magazines to employ covert advertisements, which “inaccurately label or disguise one thing as another,” such as when a magazine’s list of the clothes, makeup, and perfume worn by a cover model is referred to as a “cover credit.” Furthermore, she asserts that “very little remains in most women’s magazines that is not advertising, either covert or overt,” giving the example of the January 1981 issue of Bazaar, in which 59 pages showed overt advertisements but 96 more showed covert ads (39-40).

Advertisers in women’s magazines insist on what they call “complementary copy,” which is editorial material that is designed to complement nearby advertisements. Many also insist on several pages of separation between their ads and a rival company’s. Steinem cites this example of a message from Kraft/General Foods regarding an Instant Pudding ad: “urgently request upbeat parent/child activity editorial, mandatory positioning requirements-opposite full page of positive editorial-right hand page essential for creative-minimum 6 page competive separation (i.e. all sugar based or sugar free gelatins, puddings, mousses, creames [sic] and pie filling)-Do not back with clippable material. Avoid: controversial/negative topics and any narrow targeted subjects.” (156-7) According to Steinem, this is not atypical. Most advertisers targeting the women’s market have similar requirements, and the results of not obeying their guidelines can be disastrous: “When Revlon wasn’t given the place of the first beauty ad in one Hearst magazine, for instance, it pulled its ads from all Hearst magazines” (Steinem 160). Steinem insists that there is a double standard in advertising-advertisers regularly place ads in general interest magazines and newspapers without benefit of the complementary copy they require from women’s magazines (155).

In soliciting ads for Ms., the staff was determined to avoid this double standard. They wanted to get ads for automotive, financial, insurance, travel, and other products that women used which were only marketed to men (McCracken 279). Their rationale was, according to Steinem, “Since those advertisers were accustomed to the division between editorial pages and ads that news and general-interest magazines at least try to maintain, such products would allow our editorial content to be free and diverse” (133). Furthermore, they wanted to add some of the less sexist ads for traditional women’s products such as clothes, food, and shampoo, but they were not willing to provide complementary copy (133). In this area, Ms. was largely unsuccessful. Advertisers refused to make an exception to their standards for a magazine that was obviously being marketed to women. Steinem describes reader letters expressing delight in being “addressed as intelligent consumers by a routine Honda ad with text about rack-and-pinion steering” but complains that “even now, Detroit continues to ask: ‘Should we make special ads for women?'” (137). Steinem says Ms. had similar trouble in talking to advertisers of electronics, who protested that women don’t understand technology. When Ms. responded that men don’t necessarily understand it either but still buy it, advertisers countered with the belief that if women did buy electronics, they did so after consulting with their husbands or boyfriends about what to buy. In response, Ms. produced “letters from Ms. readers saying how turned off they are when salesmen say things like ‘Let me know when your husband can come in.'” After that, the conversation would turn to the reason for the small numbers of women’s names sent back on warranties. Ms. would try to explain that though warranties may be sent back with the husband’s name, it was likely the wife who had done the buying; furthermore, women are such savvy consumers that they realize that warranties are rarely valid, as shown by the fact that they don’t often return warranties from “hair dryers, curling irons, and other stuff women clearly buy.” Steinem concludes: “After a few years of this, we get a few ads from companies like JVC and Pioneer for compact sound systems-on the grounds that women can understand compacts, but not sophisticated components” (139).

Another problem with advertisers was that the ads they provided failed to speak to the reality of Ms.’s readership: “Women of color read Ms. in disproportionate numbers. … Nonetheless, [we are given ads] filled with enough white women to make the casual reader assume Ms. is directed at only one part of the population, no matter what the editorial content is.” Carbine made an effort to solicit ads featuring “African-American, Latina, Asian, and other diverse images,” but advertisers responded with “mostly ‘astonishment'”. Typical advertising images exclude “women who are not young, not thin, not conventionally pretty, well-to-do, able-bodied, or heterosexual-which is a hell of a lot of women” (Steinem 138).

Ms.’s staff also wished to avoid including ads for items that are damaging to women’s health, such as feminine hygiene sprays (which, Steinem says, “actually kill cockroaches and take the rust off metal” but carry no warning labels) and cigarettes (141). But because tobacco and liquor companies are among the advertisers who make few demands for special placement or complementary copy, Ms. could not afford to reject ads for these products. Steinem notes that antismoking groups had just begun at this time to pressure tobacco companies to place health warnings on their ads and packaging. Thus, Ms.’s staff agreed to accept cigarette ads if the tobacco industry complied with the warning request, because “few magazines can compete or survive without [cigarette ads]; certainly not Ms., which lacks the support of so many other categories” (142). Virginia Slims cigarettes, however, were one product Ms. could not advertise in good conscience because of the company’s advertising theme: “‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ has more than a ‘baby’ problem. It gives the impression that for women, smoking is a sign of progress” (141). Ms. attempted to explain to Philip Morris, the company that makes Virginia Slims, that this slogan was not appropriate for the pages of a feminist magazine, but the company refused to alter what it saw as a successful campaign. Finally, Ms. declined to accept the Virginia Slims ads; in retaliation, Philip Morris withdrew ads for all of its products (141). Ms.’s difficulties in obtaining advertisers proved damaging to its content. Steinem says that “higher costs and lowered income” forced the staff to alter the editorial-advertising ratio from the intended 60/40 to 50/50: “still a lot better than most women’s magazines’ goal of 70/30, but not good enough” (147). This reduced editorial space resulted in items like poetry and fiction being cut out, and “the length (and sometimes the depth) of articles” had to be sacrificed (147).

Somehow, Ms. survived these advertising disasters. However, they were not the only obstacle to the success of the magazine. One problem that presented itself early in the formation of the magazine was that the staff could not formulate an effective means of defining responsibilities. It was challenging “to run a communal, cooperative, nonhierarchical, democratic organization, in the tradition of the strict structurelessness of the early radical women’s movement, with its rejection of spokespersons and its assignment of duties by lot” (Heilbrun 248). This idealistic plan of staff organization proved difficult to put into practice. According to Steinem, “I had a hard time assuming any authority in the editorial area; on the publishing side, Pat Carbine had a hard time delegating it; having to fire anyone was such a difficult decision for all of us that it often got delayed, to no one’s benefit” (136). Weekly editorial meetings were held in a room full of carpeted steps to sit on so that everyone present would feel equal, and each staff member was equally welcome to speak her mind. Furthermore, more established or visible staff members like Steinem often tried to hold informal meetings with newer or younger staffers outside of the general sessions (Heilbrun 252-3).

Another example of the staff’s democratic principles was the absence of a traditional masthead. Instead of a hierarchical listing by job titles, Ms. used an alphabetical staff listing divided only by department (Heilbrun 252). Steinem’s biographer notes that some staff members found the lack of a traditional masthead problematic: “Some of the women came to require and demand, for professional reasons, public expression of their responsibilities” (253). Other staffers began to feel that the democracy of the magazine was not evident in day-to-day practice. Mary Peacock says that she felt her voice was heard in respect to articles but that she would have liked to have more say in what went on the cover each month (251). Ellen Willis, who left Ms. for “political reasons,” says that the democratic policy “drove writers completely mad” because “everything has to be vetted and edited by fifty people, and by committees.” She describes an incident involving a critical review of a book by Kate Millett, in which “people didn’t want to run it because it might hurt Kate Millett’s feelings,” despite Willis’ objection that Millett was an adult and should be treated accordingly (256-7). And Harriet Lyons, an editor at Ms. for eight years, states that “‘none of us had any voice in the true business decisionmaking,'” which was handled solely by Carbine (258). However, more than one staff member is grateful for her experience at Ms.: “[Janice] Grossman says that the esprit de corps at the magazine kept the entire staff going through the hard times, and gave her a prototype for other workplaces” (Thomas), while Valerie Salembier believes that her work at Ms. allowed her to move on to experiences she could not have had without this background: “‘I started in the secretarial pool at Time Inc. … And I often look back and think that, had I stayed, today-29 years later-I would probably be executive secretary to the chairman'” (Thomas). Finally, Salembier notes that the “emotional commitment” and feeling of “making a difference” overruled any other interoffice conflicts (Thomas).

One major area of controversy among staff members occurred in discussions of Ms.’s mission. Peacock remembers, “‘There was always the question of whether Ms. was a feminist magazine speaking to the converted, or a general woman’s magazine having a feminist base'”-a question that found no resolution (Heilbrun 252). Peacock also complains that the staff tried too hard “‘[not] to show any warts on women'” (252). In addition, Steinem’s “notorious” habit of hiring anyone she happened to meet caused problems among the staff; Heilbrun notes that Steinem “made some notably bad judgments in hiring people” (265). One of these bad judgments involved the involvement of Elizabeth Forsling Harris in the early stages of the magazine. Harris is described as a person who made a favorable initial impression upon people but eventually showed her true colors: “out-of-control, demanding, and sometimes self-destructive” (221). Because of her desire to wield too much control over the magazine, Harris was asked to leave and offered a separation package (227). In 1975, Harris sued Ms. for stock fraud; eventually, however, she dropped the suit (305).

The magazine has undergone several changes of ownership in its history. By 1978, when Ms. was deeply in debt, “Steinem, Carbine, and others concerned with Ms.’s survival came upon a solution: The magazine would have to become a nonprofit foundation, a subsidiary of the Ms. Foundation for Women. … Ms. was the first case of a company becoming, rather than starting out, nonprofit” (Heilbrun 337). But money problems from the lack of ads crept up again. In November of 1987, Ms. was sold to an Australian company called Fairfax. Steinem felt this was a better move than selling to an American company that would change the purpose of the magazine. Some senior editors stayed with the magazine, but the Australian company made the policy and did not actually consult the women listed as consulting editors (Heilbrun).

Fairfax bent under the pressure of advertisers and “to the dismay of some readers, [added] clothes, new products, more celebrities, gardening, and other editorial features” (Steinem 150). In 1989, Ms. changed hands again, sold to Lang Comunications, the American owner of Working Mother and Working Woman. Heeding the request of the editorial staff, Lang agreed to hand over editorial control to Ms.’s staff and to undergo a change to an ad-free format, with revenue coming in solely from reader subscriptions and newsstand sales. Steinem remarks, “The idea of having no ads at all is regarded as total folly by the magazine industry. … Nevertheless, checks come rolling in for subscriptions that cost nearly 300 percent more now that they’re ad-free. … [T]his new Ms. is self-supporting after only nine issues” (151). More recently, in 1996, Ms. was sold to MacDonald Communications Corp., which continues the ad-free format (Beyette). In 1997, each issue cost $5.95 at the newsstand, and Ms. was supported solely by its readership of 200,000 (Beyette).

It is this support from readers of Ms., according to Heilbrun, that indicates “its success [more than] an account of the more obvious financial and editorial problems” (249). Each month Ms. prints long letters from readers with “intelligent, thoughtful responses” to the previous issue, providing “a sense of real communication between the women who write letters and those who read them” (McCracken 281). Carbine says that Ms. has been for readers “‘a kind of national kitchen table where women’s real life experiences were shared'” (Beyette). Steinem implies that a goal of Ms. since the inception of its ad-free format has been to be “as editorially free as good books … as realistic as the best newspaper articles … as creative as poetry and films … as diverse as women’s lives” (163). And, though she acknowledges that topics first addressed by Ms. have become mainstream issues today, current editor-in-chief Marcia Ann Gillespie insists that Ms.’s work is far from done: “‘The real truth isâÂ?¦we still have a long, long road ahead of us'” (Harpaz).

Works Cited Beyette, Beverly. “Ms. Magazine at 25: Its Revolution Has Just Begun.” Los Angeles Times. 23 September 1997. Online at Harpaz, Beth J. “Ms. Breaks Another Barrier-25 Years.” Philadelphia Daily News. 18 September 1997. Online at Heilbrun, Carolyn G. The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem. New York: Dial, 1995. Lauerman, Connie. “Ms. Magazine at 25: Ad-Free and Holding its Own.” Detroit Free Press. 25 September 1997. Online at McCracken, Ellen. Decoding Women’s Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. Steinem, Gloria. Moving Beyond Words. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Thomas, Martha. “Revolution from Within.” Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management. 15 September 1993: 48-51.

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