Ms. editor: `I believe in the joy factor'

Publishing: As a black woman at the helm of a mainstream magazine, Marcia Ann Gillespie stands nearly alone. Her mission at the feminist magazine is to find a way to broaden its audience and keep it afloat.

June 17, 1999|By Katti Gray | Katti Gray,NEWSDAY

Sartorially speaking, Marcia Ann Gillespie was fly, suited up in pumps, a navy jacket and a matching skirt hiked just enough to show off the calves she religiously buffs at the gym.

She headed down a nondescript hallway to an equally unremarkable conference room. There, Gillespie, the lady in charge, jump-started the staff meeting with a singular, ordinary call: "I don't think Steinem will be here today because the Gloria Awards were last night "

Feminist celebrity Gloria Steinem had lingered at Ms. magazine's annual salute to women activists. But Ms. editor-in-chief, Gillespie, detached early to ensure she got the requisite sleep for the next morning's editorial meeting of the struggling magazine's staff.

Assembling her mostly thirtysomething-and-under crew of editors and interns that Tuesday morning, she looked refreshed. Her fingernails were a spangling salmon pink. A pair of sunshades hung from the scoop of her silky blouse. Wire-rim spectacles were parked in her dreadlocks.

Since 1993, Gillespie, 54, has directed the 26-year-old publication, which ended a five-month hiatus and returned to newsstands with its April-May issue.

As a black woman in the top job at a mainstream American magazine, Gillespie is in a league almost entirely her own. The only other African-American editor-in-chief, outside of black-owned magazines targeting black readers, is Danielle Smith of the hip-hop publication Vibe. She's also one of a relative few blacks with a household name among avowed feminists.

It is precisely her blend of ethnicity and feminism -- her efforts to transcend race, class, gender, generation and geography -- that both Gillespie and the magazine's backers are banking on as Ms. fights to keep afloat. The aim is to boost circulation and revenues by appealing to a veritable rainbow of readers. Filling its pages with content that is cross-cultural, multiracial and international in tone has been a mission at Ms. from the beginning. But co-founder Steinem said even before she approached an all-female group of investors about rescuing the magazine when its previous owner dropped it last fall she had to be assured of one thing.

"I would not have gone out to raise the money if Marcia had not been willing to continue," she said.

Gillespie, Steinem believes, brings a broad world view to a magazine that has always considered itself pretty worldly.

Steinem and Robin Morgan, Gillespie's predecessor, tapped her for the editor's post. Ms. first identified Gillespie when, as editor at Essence in the 1970s, she was penning an often politically charged column on an array of women's issues.

Initially, Gillespie joined Ms. as a contributing editor. She rose to featured columnist and, after a brief stint at the New York Times, returned to Ms. as executive editor. Gillespie was as surprised as anyone about her selection as editor-in-chief. "It had never crossed my mind as a possibility. It was clear -- because of the way this industry functions -- that the chances of my becoming editor-in-chief, except at a black magazine, were slim to none," she said.

When Ms. made its offer, she thought long about whether to accept.

"I call myself a rock 'n' roll feminist. I didn't have the history of being an organizer in those early days. I hadn't read everybody. I was well aware that the readership was primarily white women. And I wasn't sure what, other than feminism, bound them. ... I asked myself if I could really be of service, what I could bring to the party," she said.

In particular, she pondered what she would bring to the pages of Ms. as "a black woman feminist at the close of the century."

Among the basic issues confronting her is the lingering matter of what it means to be feminist. So many women have lived the part even as they shunned the label, Gillespie says. Feminism is still a dirty word to plenty of folks, she adds, singling out those in her own community reluctant to call a feminist a feminist.

"There are not so many black women who identify. But whether we are calling ourselves feminist or womanist or not, we are exactly that in terms of what we are doing, in terms of our activism," Gillespie said. "So much of this is about our fear of alienating our men. But look at the number of African-American men in prisons, drive-by shootings, what is happening to all of us economically. I am not saying feminism is the answer but we ought to be considering as many avenues as possible -- 'cause this other stuff just ain't working."

The tasks now confronting Ms. are grand. Not the least of these is the fundamental question of how to bolster circulation, now hovering around 200,000, down from a peak of more than twice that number. The magazine has cost a relatively high $5.95 at the newsstand, in part because it has refused paid advertisements since 1991. Its latest subscription offer is six issues a year for $35.

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