Forty years ago, a new women’s magazine appeared on American newsstands alongside the periodicals exclusively devoted to housework, motherhood, and catching a man. Ms.Magazine, founded by veteran journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem and backed by glossy New York Magazine, promised to be something more: a place where women could read about real women like themselves, and connect to the nascent women’s movement - devoted to equality in the workplace and in all aspects of their lives.
The right to legalized abortion and birth control was just one of many powerful issues embraced by the women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s. Like the civil rights movement, equality, justice and community were key ideals for the feminists of that era.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor, says Ms. was a product of that moment and also helped it to coalesce.
"I think it had a double purpose: to say ‘this is what’s happening’ and also ‘you’re not alone,’ and also ‘here is what to do if you are already annoyed, angry, upset, or oppressed.’ You organize," explained Pogrebin. "You start by having consciousness raising groups, that is, little groups of women who met once a week or a couple times a month to share their commonality, to say ‘When were you ever denied your rights?’ ‘Have you ever done anything about it?’"
Pogrebin says that in the offices of Ms. and on its pages, the conversation about feminism was often lively and probing.
“You say ‘why was it foreordained that women will not be able to handle tools? Why was it foreordained that there’s something sissy about being able to take care of a baby?" Pogrebin explained.
Suzanne Braun Levine edited the magazine from 1972 to 1988. She says members of Ms.’s staff were discovering for themselves where they stood on various issues - from prostitution to the changing role of men and the meaning of equality itself.
“Although nobody really believes it, we really didn’t have an agenda as such," noted Levine. "The agenda was to illuminate women’s experience, and to thereby reassure women that they weren’t alone and they weren’t crazy. Still, that was the political message. But the other aspect of the magazine was to tell the storiesof creative and adventuresome and interesting and funny women and what they were really doing."
Some radical feminists felt Ms. was “watering down” their ideas for mainstream readers. But the magazine did break new ground, says Pogrebin. One issue dealt with domestic violence. It had a woman with a black eye on its cover.
“The idea of putting that on a cover was just beyond imagining for that era," Pogrebin noted. "You couldn’t find acknowledgment that the greatest amount of violence that was committed against women was from people they knew and supposedly loved or who supposedly loved them.”
Ms. is credited with being among the first to bring the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to widespread attention. Ms. pointed out what women already knew: that such behavior was more than a personal violation. It forced many women to choose between their dignity and their jobs.
“A secretary would say what her male boss did and a woman executive would say what her male boss did. So it crossed class because masculine power kind of trumped every other kind of class distinction,” Pogrebin said.
Ms. was also critical in changing views on abortion, which was illegal in most U.S. states except to save a mother's life. The magazine published a statement signed by thousands of women, admitting they had had abortions.
“It was an exposure, It was dangerous and I thought therefore it was one of the most meaningful things we did," Pogrebin said.
In 2012, American women live in a vastly different world than the one that Gloria Steinem and her staff navigated in 1972.
Suzanne Braun Levine says the fact that her 25-year-old daughter takes the possibilities and accomplishments of women for granted is bittersweet.
“I am so glad she doesn’t know how it was," Levine said. "She can’t imagine getting anyone’s permission to get a credit card. She can’t imagine needing a companion to go to a restaurant she likes. The downside is that as, for example, we lose the right to abortion, I am not sure she understands how important it is to fight to hold on to it."
Ms. Magazine is only quarterly now. Other causes and media are filling the niche it once monopolized.
The magazine turns 40 this month.