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The Revolution Has Just Begun

Magazines: Twenty-five years after shaking up women's publications, Ms. is hanging tough and setting new goals.

September 17, 1997|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1972 and women's magazines were dishing up the usual fare: How to have thin thighs, get rid of ring-around-the-collar and wow the ladies who lunch with dazzling Jell-O salads.

Then along came Ms.

Proclaiming itself "The New Magazine for Women," it hit the newsstands that spring, with a cover illustration of an eight-armed woman with a baby in her womb and tears on her cheeks, juggling the tools of both home and workplace.

Articles included a call for desexing the English language and a piece on welfare as a women's issue. Rating that year's presidential candidates, Ms. noted, among others, that Sen. Edward Kennedy "seems to like women, but only in their place" and Richard Nixon was "neither a ladies' man nor a women's rights advocate."

That was nothing. Under a bold black headline--"We Have Had Abortions"--53 women, including Nora Ephron, Lee Grant, Lillian Hellman, Billie Jean King, Anais Nin and Gloria Steinem, asked readers to join in the fight for reproductive freedom.

That issue--300,000 copies--sold out in 10 days. Ms., the first national magazine born of the women's movement, had arrived with a bang, not a whimper.

From the start, the magazine's mission was clear; its survival, iffy. As, with bravado, Ms. predicted ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment within a year, its staff, pounding rented typewriters in makeshift Manhattan quarters, struggled to find financing.

"We were swimming in a sea of pessimism about our survival," recalls co-founder Steinem. "The first issue was greeted with Harry Reasoner on television saying that this could not possibly last more than six issues. . . . He apologized in year five."

Launched as a monthly at a newsstand price of $1.50, Ms. depended in periods of crisis on the kindness of its angels, including Los Angeles philanthropist Joan Palevsky. "I loved the idea of Ms.," she says. "Ms. to me then was like the Sisterhood Bookstore is to me now. I never go into it, but I like the idea that it's there." She still subscribes.

After a blip of Australian ownership in the '80s, Ms. was sold in October 1989 to Lang Communications, which suspended publication that December, then relaunched Ms. in July 1990 as an ad-free bimonthly, its cover proclaiming, "Ms. Lives!" In June 1996, Ms., together with Working Woman and Working Mother, was purchased by MacDonald Communications Corp., and continues its ad-free format. At $5.95 an issue, it is supported entirely by its 200,000 readers.

Content was always provocative. Writers have included Alice Walker, Erica Jong, Maxine Hong Kingston and Margaret Atwood. But advertiser support was always problematic. When Ms. ran a cover story on Soviet feminists protesting the war in Afghanistan, Steinem remembers, "We lost Revlon. They said, 'No, forget it, these women don't have enough makeup on.' "

When Ms. illustrated a cover story on workplace sexual harassment with a puppet being groped by a male hand, "We were put off the newsstands in a number of chains," Steinem says. Still, Ms. survived, at its peak reaching 550,000 subscribers. And, says co-founder Patricia Carbine, who relinquished editorship of McCall's to help launch it, Ms. made it OK for other women's magazines to touch the untouchable, "widened the lens on the editorial eyes" of some of the more traditional women's magazines.

"Traditional women's magazines have a how-to kind of premise," she explains, and 25 years ago that translated as "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," Carbine says. In a time when it was popular to dismiss women as whiners--after all, didn't they run, and own, the world?--Ms. pointed out "that women, by God, didn't control the economy, that women couldn't get into graduate school in anything like representative numbers, that [divorced] women were very often cut off from pensions."

*

Today, publications such as Glamour, Vogue and Mirabella tackle controversy. The current McCall's has both the ever-popular celebrity cover (Julia Roberts) and an article on when to tell a child he was conceived by donor insemination.

By contrast, Carbine recalls a senior executive at McCall's telling her in 1971, "The women in Darien [Conn.] with whom I spend every Friday and Saturday night don't want to have to be made to think."

Carbine hired women to sell advertising in Ms.--then "unthinkable"--and they reeled in ads for products such as financial services, a first for a woman's magazine. The liquor industry was quick to see Ms. readers as "very much holding their own in social settings," Carbine says, but "We couldn't ever persuade Gallo." Ernest Gallo once said, "After Pravda, we'll do Ms."

Ms. rejected advertising it felt was in conflict with its editorial message. Virginia Slims was turned down--no, said the editors, baby hadn't come a long way.

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