Ms. Understood

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.


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.


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.


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.”

“Did you really burn your bra?” asks Gonzales, a recent Berkeley graduate with long, dark hair gathered in a ponytail.


“No!” cries Kort, flopping back in her chair. “Like, one person burned their bra someplace.”

But the myth of militant women brandishing flaming undergarments persists as a mainstream view of feminism’s foundation--and the typical Ms. reader--even with young women such as Gonzales. Decade after decade, both the movement and the magazine have faced the same controversies and misconceptions, harnessing them with the task of constantly explaining what they are about. At worst, talk of the women’s movement often brings up dour images of an anachronistic corner of society devoid of makeup, hair dye, high heels and, most certainly, humor. At best, it points to a cadre of uber-women who are intent on career and power, making the rest feel slightly ashamed of their fondness for Jimmy Choo shoes and men who open car doors. Either way, it’s often perceived as a cliquey club with a secret handshake.

“I expected the office would be this feminist utopia,” Gonzales says. “Everyone would be walking around in their little power suits, all confident and powerful and just sharing ideas, like this feminist summer camp kind of thing. But it’s not like that. It’s just normal.”

It’s hard to describe a “normal” feminist, though. There is a women’s movement, says a former Ms. editor, and then there are women who are feminists. They are very much the same, but also very different. The distinction is difficult for even longtime women’s movement activists to articulate, but it’s a point that has defined much of the last two years of the magazine’s history. In fact, it led to a change of editorial leadership at the magazine soon after the new owners took over.


Last week we had lunch in a restaurant. Our waiter said, “Well, girls, have you decided what you would like to eat?” We then explained to him that we were no longer girls. We were women. He laughed and pointed to two older women at another table and said that he had even called them “girls.” Later, still infuriated, we called him “boy.” He went off in a rage. We tried to explain to him that he was as much a boy as we were girls. He didn’t understand.--Letter to Ms., April 1973.


Like many journeys to Beverly Hills, Ms. Magazine’s was fueled by the search for cash. In the late 1990s, Gloria Steinem, the magazine’s co-founder, had put together a collective under the banner of Liberty Media for Women to purchase the magazine back from, as she puts it, its “last accidental publisher.” From the years between its first sale in 1979 and Liberty’s takeover, the magazine had been passed around from one publisher to the next--six in all.


But the magazine business had grown increasingly tough, and Liberty Media was running out of money by September 2001. In order to keep Ms. alive and protect its editorial integrity, Liberty members decided to give the magazine to a women’s rights organization--if they could persuade one to take it. They targeted the Feminist Majority Foundation, a research and activist outfit started in 1987 and headed by Eleanor “Ellie” Smeal.

“I can remember to this day Ellie walking in the room and saying, ‘Well, I just talked to Gloria Steinem and you’ll never believe what the conversation was about,’ ” says Katherine Spillar, the foundation’s vice president. “It just wasn’t on our radar screen. But we are all lovers of Ms. and we thought, ‘Well, of course, if this is what it means to keep this institution alive and vital, then we have to think seriously about it, but we’ve never published a magazine before.’ In the end we thought we ought to give it a try.”

Liberty members gave their stakes in the magazine to the foundation--along with $1.2 million in debt--and the activist organization became the next “accidental” Ms. publisher.

One of the first decisions was to move Ms. from New York to the new foundation offices in a Beverly Hills building, which is rumored to have once hosted a women’s bridge club. The decision was primarily financial. The foundation was moving its own offices there and had extra space. Incorporating Ms. saved on overhead.

The new owners also set about finding an editor--a woman who could lead the magazine to resurgence both as a feminist voice box and a broader journalistic force. After weeks of debate (insiders say there is no such thing as a quick decision at the Feminist Majority Foundation) the choice was Tracy Wood, formerly the investigations editor with the Orange County Register and one of a handful of female combat correspondents during the Vietnam War.

But from Wood’s start in June 2002, the foundation’s inexperience as a publisher caused problems. The nonprofit debated so long about transitioning the Ms. offices to the West Coast that the magazine hadn’t actually made the move by the time Wood started. She only had 12 weeks to put out the first issue, and she didn’t even have a computer to use. “Everything was in New York,” Wood recalls. “We didn’t even have back issues to look at, so we were running to the library trying to find them.”

A greater problem quickly arose: Wood lacked firsthand experience with the women’s movement. Like many women, she viewed feminism as an individual viewpoint and didn’t know much of the movement’s history. The foundation knew that when it hired her, and believed that its members could fill in any gaps. But the divide in perspective was bigger than anyone had realized, and within weeks it became clear that “You don’t know what you don’t know,” as Steinem puts it.

“They needed somebody who was really in tune with the movement, and that was not me,” Wood says. “It just became clear to everybody that if an issue came up, I would think of it one way, and they would think of it a different way. I would look at it as a straight news thing, and they would look at it as a movement thing.”

She uses the slang term “grrl” as an example. To Wood, the word was an empowering term for young women. But, she says, to many at the foundation it was a sexist term. “To me, that was young woman teen slang, and that was it,” Wood says. “But to women who had come through the movement and fought the battles, they didn’t care how you spelled it, it was still the word ‘girl.’ And they had had such a fight against that word. You know, ‘How are you girls doing?'--the patronizing approach to women, those kind of nuances. To me, they were just part of life. To them, they were also part of life, but a very sensitive part of their lives.”

After months of discussion and consultations with Steinem and other past editors, the foundation decided to hire a new editor in chief less than a year after Wood’s start. Placing the magazine in the hands of a consultant for two issues, they began a new search for a lead editor and quickly focused on Lafferty. Lafferty has a long history in feminist and political activism--one of her first fights with her mother, when she was 11, was about her mother’s refusal to let her attend the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago--and she has known Smeal for years.

But she had one trait in common with Wood: After landing the job, she too was given only 12 weeks to put out a new issue, with minimal staff and no stories in the pipeline.


So why am I a reluctant feminist? Because I don’t think my personally chosen life style would meet with Ms. approval. I expect--perhaps wrongly--that you would be contemptuous of me, or at least condescending. You see, I’ve been happily married for twenty-five years . . . I’ve even had three children and enjoyed it . . . I feel that before I could become an active feminist I would have to walk away from my family, apologize for my life; I would have to think of all males as “the enemy” and live a battle that only one sex can win. Is there room in the feminist movement for someone who doesn’t want to judge everyone by their sex, but by their humanness, or lack of it?--Excerpt from a 1975 letter to Ms.


Lafferty says her goal is to create the kind of general-mix publication that not only will reach out to reluctant feminists with a more inclusive tone, but that will relocate the magazine’s traditional newsstand spot among “alternative” magazines catering to niche demographics and place it alongside mainstream publications including newsweeklies and literary magazines, whose coverage these days is equally likely to involve topics such as gay marriage or reproductive rights.

The daughter of a jazz trumpet player and a stay-at-home mom, Lafferty has the journalist credentials, if not the editor in chief experience, to back up that goal. For 10 years she served in the Los Angeles bureau of Time magazine, building a reputation during the O.J. Simpson trials as a reporter who broke stories in a competitive environment.

“She was a pistol,” says Cathy Booth Thomas, Lafferty’s former Time boss and its current Dallas bureau chief. “She focuses in incredibly on the kind of stories that most people are eager to dash in and dash out of.”

Jeffrey Ressner, a Time correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau, describes Lafferty as a “shoe leather” journalist who is “graciously tenacious.” “She was tireless,” he says. “She definitely spent many hours cultivating sources and meeting people and doing research and getting both sides of the story.”

Despite success at Time, Lafferty left in 1998. She signed on with the Irish Times and requested that the paper send her to Kosovo. She covered events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other hot spots before returning to the States to help friend and Fox talk-show host Greta Van Susteren write a book.

When she took over the helm at Ms., Lafferty found a magazine that was adored by many American women but read by few. In an age of Carly Fiorina and Condoleezza Rice, it’s difficult for many women to believe that there is anything for feminism to fight. After all, women have soared into space, filled the top jobs in professions such as medicine and law, and run for and won public office. There is no place a motivated woman cannot go--except maybe Augusta National--and no goal she cannot achieve.

To younger generations, “feminism belongs to their mothers,” says Rosanna Hertz, professor and chair of the women’s studies department at Wellesley College. “To them, it’s history. It’s not a part of their lives.”

So what’s a feminist editor to do?


In a letter appearing in your Spring issue, [a reader] stated that coverage of issues related to lesbians, minorities and the radical fringe have caused her to contemplate canceling her subscription. Although I don’t think Ms. is particularly radical--any more than I think feminism is radical--I have to wonder on what grounds anyone could think that issues important to lesbians or minorities could be excluded from Ms. or any other magazine.--Excerpt from a letter to Ms., summer 2003.


The answer, says Lafferty, is obvious if imperfect: Cover both what feminism was, and what it is. What it was is important because that’s the glue that binds Ms. readers together, even if they are not consciously aware of it--what Steinem describes as the “psychographic” of the magazine. Unlike most magazines that tally their subscribers by age or income, Steinem says a common understanding links Ms. readers. In fact, over the years, the subscription base has been split almost in thirds between young, middle-aged and older women--a rarity in the magazine world.

The typical Ms. reader is “an optimistic woman,” Steinem explains by phone from her New York apartment, where the activist famous for saying “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” has traded audaciousness for an evolving outlook. Steinem, who consulted with the new Ms. staff, says she’s “a woman who believes the world could be better in general, that her particular life or job could and should be improved.”

But underneath that optimism is the knowledge that unfairness to an individual woman often is rooted in some wider social inequality. It is not simply that her husband, father or lover does less housework; it’s that society still accepts that men are not in charge of the mop. It isn’t just that she gets paid less than a male co-worker; it’s that female-dominated jobs such as nursing are still less respected. It is what Ms. readers and writers have described over the years as the “click"--a realization that women still are not truly equal, and it’s OK to do something about it.

But many women today seem almost embarrassed to bring up gender discrimination, as if pointing to social inequalities is a cop-out for personal weakness. Women will live in trees to protest logging and suffer arrest to highlight problems with global economic policy, but they shy away from pointing out even the simplest acts of sexism. While a recent Ms. poll found that 56% of women identify themselves as feminists, how many would publicly blame their setbacks and problems on society’s treatment of women? Or credit their accomplishments in part to the women’s movement? What would you think of them if they did?

Covering what feminism has evolved into means expanding Ms. magazine’s definition of feminism to include the directions in which younger women have taken it. “The ideas of the women’s movement percolated through the popular culture in a way that none of us could have anticipated,” says Bettina Aptheker, a women’s studies professor at UC Santa Cruz. She points out that the leadership skills honed during the fight for women’s rights transferred naturally to other causes, from environmental reform to globalization.

The summer 2003 issue (the magazine is quarterly now, with plans to publish bimonthly next year) is a glimpse of Lafferty’s strategy for providing a little something for every kind of feminist. Even its packaging--a simpler but more vibrant cover design--strikes the positive, more accessible tone that Lafferty wants. Inside, coverage spans from sports to law, alternately digging into issues such as Title IX, which the magazine has covered for years, and venturing into newer areas such as illegal logging in Borneo and a look at women in Iraq. The new Ms. also stays true to its heritage by providing news and perspective not found in mainstream publications, such as a piece on the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “global gag rule.” That policy--initiated by President Reagan, overturned by President Clinton and reinstated by President George W. Bush--prevents many overseas health organizations that receive U.S. funds from discussing abortion with clients. At the same time, the magazine takes an easier-to-read, more conversational tone.

So far, Lafferty says, the response has been positive. Because Ms. accepts advertising only from nonprofit and cause-related advertisers, its circulation is not audited. The Feminist Majority Foundation claims the circulation is 110,000 and says it expects to sell about half of the summer issues sent to distributors (the industry average is roughly 38%). On college campuses, the so-called “sell-through rate” rises to about 70%. Interest in the magazine also seems to be up too--it recently added more than 400 bookstores to its list of 4,718 distributors. And despite the foundation’s publishing naivete, its business sense is paying off. The $1.2 million in debt it inherited along with the magazine has been reduced to $300,000, according to Smeal. The magazine is more financially stable than it has been in years.

The lingering question, though, is whether women will embrace the new Ms. beyond its much-publicized first issue under Lafferty. To her, the key to the magazine’s long-term success lies in its remaining an acquired taste, in letting new readers discover Ms. rather than make it over for each new generation. “I want 20-year-olds to read this magazine,” she says, “but I’m not going to tattoo myself and put a safety pin through my nose and go on the cover. On some level we’re your mother’s Oldsmobile. But your mother’s Oldsmobile had some really good things to it.”

Lafferty trusts that as young women mature, they will have enough personal experiences with inequality to see the relevance of feminism--and the value of a feminist magazine. She wants Ms. to be ready when they hear that click.