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Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 edited by Mary Thom; introduction by Gloria Steinem (Holt: $18.95; 264 pp.)

July 26, 1987|Mary Ellen Donovan | Donovan is co-author of "Women and Self-Esteem" (Penquin)

When Ms. magazine premiered in 1972, the first issue alone elicited letters from 20,000 readers. In the decade and a half since, thousands more have written, not only to comment on or criticize the magazine's content, but to share their personal experiences and voice their thoughts and feelings on a wide variety of topics, from sexual fantasies to weightlifting to institutional sexism. As a result, the Ms. letters column has served as a public forum in which the magazine's predominantly female readers speak as much to each other and the world at large as to the editors to which their missives are formally addressed. The letters column has also come to be regarded by many as the most interesting part of the magazine, the one that must be turned to first. It's fitting, then--and savvy, too--that to mark the magazine's 15th anniversary, the editors have produced "Letters to Ms., 1972-1987," a lively and engaging collection culled from the enormous volume of mail sent to the magazine since its founding.

Mary Thom, an editor on the Ms. staff from the start, had the formidable task of selecting the letters and figuring out a way to organize them into a coherent, readable book. The hundreds of letters have been divided into broad subject categories, then into more specific sub-categories, and then arranged chronologically within each sub-cate1735357049Revolution Was It?" for example, begins with letters from the 1970s lamenting the sexual dissatisfaction many women, particularly heterosexual ones, were experiencing in the midst of what was then billed as an era of unprecedented freedoms and pleasures. Later, rape fantasies, lesbianism, the sexual abuse of children, the sexuality of women with disabilities, and a host of other topics are discussed.

Feminists are often portrayed as dogmatic joiners who stick close to a strict party line. But the selections presented in this volume make it clear that just as there is no such thing as "the woman's point of view," there is no such thing as "the feminist point of view" either. In an exchange of letters about spanking during sex play, for example, a wide variety of opinion is expressed, with one reader reacting to the practice with "Gross me out!," and another saying "being a woman is tough enough without having to worry whether our sexual impulses are 'politically correct.' "

Feminists are also frequently portrayed as humorless, but these letters debunk that idiotic notion too. One woman relates her son's response after she told him that the golden rule means "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Oh," said the boy. "I know where you got that--at all those ERA meetings." In another account, a reader tells of observing her daughter's sixth-grade class on a day they discussed pestilence, war and famine. When asked what famine is, a boy in the class promptly replied, "discrimination against women."

Not all the letters, however, were written by those who support Ms. and its aims. Many letters are from feminists who are strongly critical of Ms., claiming its politics are not radical enough, and that it too often reflects only the narrow sensibilities of women who are white, middle class and heterosexual.

Attacks from the other side of the political spectrum are included here as well. In one, an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan complains that someone had put his name on the subscription list, and that he wishes it removed. He says that he reads enough in the local Houston papers about blacks, Jews and ". . . and Communist lesbians without having to look at your trash," he says. Another reader holds Ms. accountable for the crime and dehumanization that "are the norm now," and also for all those "children by the millions (who) have no parents or homes." Really, she asks, "has it been worth all this just to get some women into the military academies?"

Over the years, many readers have written to Ms. to express--often for the first time--the pain, confusion and loneliness they have experienced as a result of being female in a world where men historically have had a monopoly on power and prestige. Ultimately, these are the most moving entries, and the ones that stand as the most compelling evidence that in towns and cities throughout the nation there is still a great need for a mainstream feminist magazine like Ms. and for a political movement that has as its primary concern the liberation and improved status of women as well. In one, a middle-age woman reports that all her life she waited for the chance to see Halley's comet, but that in the end, she could not because her husband would not permit her to get a telescope or travel to an observatory, and she had no money of her own. "I feel so alone!" she says as she describes the utter powerlessness of her position in her marriage. But what really makes this letter stand out as particularly sad is that it was written not 10 or even five years ago, but in 1986.

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