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.