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Ms. Understood

Can the Magazine That Helped Galvanize the Women's Movement Attract Readers Who See It as a Relic?

August 31, 2003|Anita Chabria | Anita Chabria last wrote for the magazine about California laws governing sexually violent predators.

Now that I have read your magazine, I know for sure you are a witch . . . long-haired commie dyke slut--who dates negroids. Isn't that just like a jew? -- A postcard from the mid-1970s to Ms. magazine's co-founding editor, Gloria Steinem.

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Ms. Magazine, the grande dame of feminism that sparked a startling level of passion in its glory days, recently relocated to Beverly Hills, the national capital of silicone silhouettes and ladies who lunch. It may seem like a mismatch at first, but what better locale for an aging icon to reinvent itself than Los Angeles, a land of perpetual metamorphosis.

With the summer 2003 issue, the magazine unveiled what it hopes will be a winning triad of new editor, new publisher and new location. But after a two-year struggle to get those three basics in place, and an even longer fight to keep Ms. alive, the magazine's biggest trial is yet to come--luring a new generation of readers to plunk down the $5.95 cover price for news that's filtered through a feminist lens.

Since its pinnacle of popularity more than a decade ago, the venerable magazine title has been in genteel decline, flirting with death by irrelevance as the fight for women's rights searches for a foothold with younger generations. As feminism has evolved (or devolved, depending whom you ask) from an organized offensive to an individual outlook, Ms. has bounced from publisher to publisher, editor to editor and coast to coast, trying to bridge the gap between its founding ideology as the voice of a movement and the changing perspective of American women.

Today Ms., launched in 1971, is hoping to ignite some of the emotion of its early days, because somewhere along the line, feminism lost its fire. The points won by feminism's pioneers had a Catch-22. They improved the options for subsequent generations, but also eased the frustration and sense of injustice that propelled many women to fight. Still, the women who back Ms.--both its old versions and its latest incarnation--have never shrunk from a challenge. The new Ms. has a mandate to remind American women that feminism isn't dead, isn't irrelevant and isn't lame just because your mother was into it.

"I don't think feminism is in a tough time, but I think the country is in a tough time," says Elaine Lafferty, the magazine's new editor in chief, pointing to recent civil-rights changes under the Bush administration as an example of issues of concern to feminists.

A former Time magazine journalist and war correspondent for the Irish Times, Lafferty was responsible for shaping the latest issue under the new ownership, which features Janeane Garofalo on the cover. With disciplined posture and a quick smile, sensible shoes and a chic all-beige ensemble, Lafferty skates on the edge of society's mental image of a feminist while staying on the safer ice of simply appearing professional. "I think feminism is in a good state, but it's amazing that anyone calls themselves a feminist if you listen to what the culture tells us about that word."

Lafferty's right. While Ms. may not receive many commie-dyke-slut postcards anymore, being called a feminist isn't always considered the badge of honor it was in the Mary Tyler Moore era. Feminism is now, well, unhip. And being the old-fashioned icon of a passe concept is not a huge selling point for a magazine.

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A woman who works for me has been going through very hard times with her man recently. Not wanting to preach to her about self-reliance, independence, and self-preservation, and yet wanting in some way to hold her hand, I bought her a couple of Ms. issues to read, saying, "This is by way of moral support." To which she said, "Oh, is that what Ms. stands for--moral support?"--Letter to Ms., July 1983.

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Feminism--and Ms.--have long legacies of being misunderstood. Inside the pea-green mid-century building on Beverly Drive that houses the magazine's new offices, soft sunlight filters through high windows and lands on approximately 50% of the magazine's full-time editorial team: senior editor Michele Kort, 53, and assistant to the editor and book review editor Sarah Gonzales, 25.

Despite the stacks of books waiting to be sorted for reviews and the piles of work inherent to a small staff, Gonzales is raptly listening to Kort talk about a question that has plagued Ms. since its debut and that has again become a hot topic as the magazine reinvents itself: What, exactly, is feminism?

"There was a quote that I saw recently from Drew Barrymore that said, 'I'm not a feminist because I really like men, but I'm an equalist,' " says Kort, paraphrasing from an interview in another magazine with the "Charlie's Angels" trio. "I'm thinking, where did it ever say that feminists don't like men? I mean, that's always what feminism has been painted with, and it's not true. It never was true." With a wide grin and a toss of her chin-length salt-and-pepper hair, she adds, "But we are all bra burners."

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