This is what 40 looks like

Ms. magazine celebrates four decades of putting women's issues front and center

October 03, 2012|Susan Reimer

One of the first names they considered was Sisters, but they worried everybody would think it was a magazine about nuns.

When they answered the office phones "Mizz magazine," callers thought there was interference on the line.

Gloria Steinem thought maybe it should just be a newsletter. She gave it three years. Four, tops.

It has been 40.

Forty years since New York magazine publisher and patron saint of feminist journalism Clay Felker tucked a preview issue inside his magazine, and gave Ms. Steinem (a protégé who had helped put New York on the map) and friends the money they needed to publish Ms. magazine.

The name they settled on was short and sweet and made a good-looking logo, but it was also political. Men had a title that gave no indication of their marital status, and women had just invented one that did the same for them. In 1972, insisting that you be referred to as Ms. meant you were a feminist.

On the preview cover was an illustration of a many-armed Indian goddess with an item representing a woman's many tasks in each hand. A spoon, an iron, a typewriter, a steering wheel.

The inaugural cover featured a drawing of Wonder Woman striding over what might be war-torn Vietnam on one side and an American Main Street on the other. "Peace and Justice" says a billboard.

The 40th anniversary cover features Wonder Woman again. And she looks remarkably like actress, activist, sex symbol and mother of six Angelina Jolie. Same theme, really. A woman's work is never done.

The first Ms. Magazine arrived on newsstands labeled "spring," so it wouldn't look stale when it failed to sell, according to an oral history written for New York magazine (of course) by Abigail Pogrebin, the daughter of one of the founders. All 300,000 copies were gone in eight days. Women finally had a magazine that was about more than recipes, decorating, crafts and family.

Its headlines over the next 40 years read like a CliffsNotes of social change.

In the first issue, it ran a list of women who came forward to say that they had had abortions when the procedure was illegal in most states, or supported those who had: Susan Sontag, Anais Nin, Judy Collins, Billie Jean King, Grace Paley and Ms. Steinem. It appeared in the months just before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.

In 1976, it was the first publication to address domestic violence, with the picture of a battered woman on its cover. It was the first magazine to talk about the sexist way in which we were raising our children. It was the first to talk about lesbian love and the first, in 1984, to write about the unfairness of the nation's marriage laws. In 1977, it published a cover story on sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the first issues, Ms. Steinem wrote about how women vote — a topic eerily resonant this election season, four decades hence. But some things about Ms. have changed.

It seems that as women's status has improved, the fortunes of Ms. have faltered. It is published just four times a year instead of monthly, and it is notable for the lack of ads. But issues of Ms are archived on college campuses and used in classes on women's issues and social change.

And instead of a multi-tasking mother on the cover, a recent issue features the image of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, her arms crossed, the headline reading: "You called me what?"

Rush Limbaugh called this young woman a "slut" on national radio after she testified before Congress on the need for insurance coverage for birth control. After 40 years? Really? Nothing could make a stronger case for the continuing importance of a magazine like Ms.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @Susan Reimer on

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