Column: Ms. Magazine helped millions become feminists. Its workplace helped me become an adult
Ms. Magazine recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a party in New York, and as a former staff member I was invited to attend. I went not knowing quite what to expect.
It’s a complicated moment for women’s rights. The term “feminist” is no longer as contentious as it once was, but recent events, including the exposure of systemic sexual harassment, the pandemic-forced exodus of women from the workplace and, most recently, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade make it easy to feel that many of those 50 years of progress have been erased.
No such gloom hung over the 200 or so women who gathered in the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice on Sept. 8. Ms., as a website and quarterly magazine, continues to provide information for women seeking abortions in all states as well as doing what Ms. always did — advocate for women in all arenas. (According to executive editor Kathy Spillar, traffic to the site has increased by almost 400% since Roe vs. Wade was overturned.)
During her remarks at the anniversary fete, Eleanor Smeal, president and co-founder of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, which has owned Ms. for 21 years, assured the audience that the fight would continue and inevitably be won.
The mood was, in fact, one of celebration and, more important, reunion.
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It had been 30 years or more since I had seen many of the women who worked in the brilliantly energetic (and more than slightly grubby) midtown Manhattan offices when, fresh out of college, I joined the staff in the mid-’80s. So it was a bit shocking how quickly I was filled with decades-old emotions.
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Seven of the founding editors were there and, well, as Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra, age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.
Gloria Steinem, at 88, remains a figure of both comfort and awe, still lacing deep empathetic knowledge with frank outrage and dry wit. At 91, Pat Carbine, the former publisher of Ms., is as formidable and funny as she was when, as a young staffer, I flattened myself against a wall when she bustled by in her power suits. Robin Morgan, 81, held court and Letty Cottin Pogrebin watched as her adult children, three of the “Ms. kids” who had grown up in the magazine offices, led some of the featured guests to the podium. Joanne Edgar, who had largely organized the evening, darted through the crowd to corral the speakers.
“We recognized the opportunity to talk about the issues, “ Edgar said. “But the main purpose was to bring the staff together, particularly those who had been there at the beginning ... to celebrate those bonds. I went to the gym wearing my 50th anniversary T-shirt and a woman came up to me and said, ‘Ms. changed my life.’”
Many of the editors I had worked most closely with were there, as were most of the half dozen young women who formed my first professional friend group. One cannot survey a group of women like these and not think of feminism — and where and why things have gone wrong — but my head was mostly filled with thoughts about the relationship between work and friendship.
For me, the Ms. logo will always be as much a Proustian madeleine as the standard of an icon in American journalism.
Which it most certainly is. From the moment it launched in 1972 until today, there has not been a journalistic platform like Ms. As both the first magazine devoted to issues arising from the women’s movement and an antidote to the many other female-centric magazines that were not, Ms. not only gave women a new way to think about themselves and the world around them, it gave them a connection to other women seeking the same thing. “Ms. was a miracle created by our readers,” Steinem said during her remarks.
My time on its staff was relatively brief — three years — but miraculous. Like many college graduates, I thought I knew far more than I did. So learning how to complete the tasks I had been assigned, to hit professional deadlines and deal with authority, was a bit of a shock. Looking back, however, I realize how fortunate I was to begin in a culture where so many top editors and writers took care to foster the careers of the younger staff members.
New York was rife with crime, garbage, graffiti and crack cocaine. But it was still glossy with magazines, especially those aimed at women. Armies of young women emerged from the fug of subway stations every day to fill the offices of those magazines. Many of us knew people who worked entry-level jobs at Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue and even Good Housekeeping, but we were both of their ranks and separate — just as Ms. was technically but not traditionally a woman’s magazine.
We didn’t have the magazine-office sheen that some other young women had because we didn’t want it. We eschewed sheen in general. In sample-sale black, Chinese flats and thrifted cardigans, we rattled into midtown from tiny apartments in other boroughs. The Ms. office, with its narrow hallways, secondhand desks and piles of books, magazines, manuscripts and Facts on File, was our real home. A home filled almost completely with women. (When I left for another magazine, it took me a while to accept that men were allowed to be bosses too.)
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To our small group of young fact-checkers and assistants, we brought our troubles, our questions, our victories, our love lives, dealing them out on breaks and lunch hours for group analysis and commentary. We cooked communal dinners from “The Moosewood Cookbook” and roamed the roiling streets of Manhattan in little feminist packs.
It was an extraordinary place to work, and not just because on any given day Smeal or Steinem or Alice Walker might walk past your desk, might even stop and ask how it was going, but because it felt like a family. The women of Ms. taught me how to speak up in meetings and stay calm when I made a mistake; how to deal with troublesome roommates and gropers on the subway; how to hail a taxi and survive heartache; how to sincerely apologize and get a passport and avoid pickpockets; how to replace all my credit cards when I did not successfully avoid pickpockets.
All of this came rushing back across the decades as I stood looking at many of those women gathered at the party. Ms. the magazine helped me define myself as a woman, but Ms. the workplace helped me become an adult.
The experience of life in those offices is impossible to re-create, and probably that’s for the best. New York was not an easy or safe place to live in the mid-’80s, and I eventually fled the daily harassment of its streets. But as we continue to discuss post-pandemic reevaluations of the workplace, I do worry about the loss of that sort of instant community, particularly for young people.
Obviously, not every work experience is girded by such solidarity. The notion of “workplace as family” often is used to keep people underpaid and trapped in unhealthy power structures. Still, the friendships formed with colleagues, the people with whom you spend so many waking hours of the day, are often the most important, especially during the years you are learning how to do the work you have chosen, or just how to stand up for yourself against a terrible landlord.
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I’m sure you can now figure out how to get a passport on YouTube or how to deal with heartache on TikTok; I know some office cultures are toxic and commutes are the worst. But standing among all those former Ms. staffers, many of them feminist icons, I had to wonder: If working from home becomes the rule rather than the exception, how will you have the chance to brush shoulders with greatness?
More important, who’s going to show up to hug you when the place you once worked turns 50?
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