Ms. Heads West
At Ms. magazine's thirtieth birthday party in early December, Gloria Steinem--in leopard print and we've-come-a-long-way-baby leather pants--delivered some big news: Cash-starved Ms. is moving to Los Angeles and merging with the LA-based Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), helmed by Second Wave icon and former NOW leader Eleanor Smeal. "Ms.'s new home is exactly the right one," she said, adding to a knowing audience's suppressed chuckles, "It's a perfect marriage."
Steinem is by now well practiced at such announcements. "This will be a very important and helpful change for the magazine," said Steinem in 1987, when Fairfax Publishing bought Ms. and undid its not-for-profit status. "A necessary change," she said two years later, when Lang Communications stepped in. In 1996, when MacDonald Communications bought Ms., she said, "I hope things will take an upward turn"; and in 1998, when her own Liberty Media for Women took control, she acknowledged, "As readers change, Ms. has to change."
"They've been through so many changes that you just get used to it after a while," says Sharon Lerner, a Village Voice writer who has written for Ms. "I'm not at all surprised to hear they're re-forming, but I'm also not at all surprised that they'll make it through. They're survivors; they're hanging on." Harry Reasoner infamously quipped when Ms. was launched that the magazine wouldn't last six issues; it would run out of things to say (he issued a public apology five years later). While history has proved Reasoner wrong, it hasn't been a smooth course for the magazine. Halfway through this trip, Ms. took the political stand of ending all advertiser support, relying solely on readership, now around 150,000. "It's no secret that we've had a serious cash crisis for a long time now," says departing editor in chief Marcia Gillespie.
Does this reflect hard times for feminism itself? "It's dangerous to equate what's happening with Ms. with what's happening with feminism," says Sharon Lerner. All the same, the magazine has had a decade that has been shaky at best, coinciding with a period in which many feminists have seen the dwindling of the political movement. "I think feminism as a movement--not as an idea or a sensibility or a cultural fact--is at a very low ebb in this country right now," says writer and professor Ellen Willis. "A movement has to be about mass activism, about being able to get your issues front and center in the public conversation and put on genuine pressure to do something about them, and this does not exist on a national scale."
Not surprisingly, the people who turned out for the birthday celebration in Manhattan looked closer in age to Elizabeth Cady Stanton than Sarah Jessica Parker. The contents of the giveaway goody bags were largely related to estrogen replacement. And the tone was nostalgic. In the testimonials to its enduring power, Ms. was often referred to in the past tense. "I don't know what I would have done without Ms.," said a teary Jane Fonda, after disclosing her age, 64. "My mother had the good wisdom to make sure her daughters had Ms. magazine," attorney Roberta Riley declared, holding the hand of her own daughter.
Of course, the FMF hopes moving the magazine to Los Angeles will help to restore one of the movement's central symbols. While there's still no defined plan for the shape of the magazine to come--they don't even know who will be editing it--Smeal stresses that local access to celebrities will make the magazine more visible. After all, the FMF joined Mavis Leno (wife of Jay) to gain attention for the Taliban's abuse of women long before September 11. "This is standard in organizing in a popular-culture-saturated nation," says Martha Burke, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations. "It's really this simple: It's the difference between me calling an editor or booker and saying 'Gee, I'd like to be on TV' and Mavis Leno doing it. She'll get on, and I won't."
A central part of the mission is to raise the profile of feminism in the wider culture in order to influence politics. "The whole point is to get real stories into mainstream media," says Leslie Calman, executive vice president at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose Women's E-news service was created to get women's news out to the mainstream press. Many activists and feminist writers are quick to point out that mainstream women's magazines contribute a great deal to the reporting and dissemination of these stories. Jessica Neuwirth, who chairs the board of the international women's rights organization Equality Now, applauds Marie Claire's coverage, and says Equality Now has gained numerous new members through stories they've read in the fashion-friendly glossy. "I don't think it's that grim of a picture," concurs Cynthia Cooper, a freelancer who writes about women's issues. "Oprah is a feminist, and her editors are feminists, and people are actually reading her magazine." But still, she says, "we need writers and publishers who will continue to do what Ms. does. That's a critical function of Ms. They find those stories and get them out there."
Smeal says Ms. will now place a greater focus on international issues. "This situation in Afghanistan is an obvious doorway into reinvigorating things," says Neuwirth. Some critics, on the other hand, doubt anti-Taliban outrage will stir up the masses within our own borders. "As for the Taliban 'saving' feminism, forget it," says Willis. "We can only save ourselves, I'm afraid." But will we save ourselves? As "postfeminism" becomes more a buzzword than feminism itself (and "grassroots" a mere relic of vocabulary), perhaps in this next phase the magazine will become a bridge connecting the public with politics, putting the movement back in feminism. Ms.'s latest reincarnation may finally be the right survival strategy for the magazine--but let's hope it will be a survival that really matters.