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How Do You Spell Ms.

Forty years ago, a group of feminists, led by Gloria Steinem, did the unthinkable: They started a magazine for women, published by women—and the first issue sold out in eight days. An oral history of a publication that changed history.

Ms. staff meeting in June 1972. From left: Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, Suzanne Levine, Mary Thom, Harriet Lyons, Patricia Carbine, and Ruth Sullivan.  

In the years leading up to the birth of Ms., women had trouble getting a credit card without a man’s signature, had few legal rights when it came to divorce or reproduction, and were expected to aspire solely to marriage and motherhood. Job listings were segregated (“Help wanted, male”). There was no Title IX (banning sex discrimination in federally funded athletic programs); no battered-women’s shelters, rape-crisis centers, and no terms such as sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Few women ran magazines, even when the readership was entirely female, and they weren’t permitted to write the stories they felt were important; the focus had to be on fashion, recipes, cosmetics, or how to lure a man and keep him interested. “When I suggested political stories to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, my editor just said something like, ‘I don’t think of you that way,’ ” recalls Gloria Steinem. “It was all pale male faces in, on, and running media,” says Robin Morgan, who was Ms.’s editor in the late eighties and early nineties.

But in the mid-sixties, feminist organizations such as New York Radical Women,Redstockings, and NOW began to emerge. On March 18, 1970, about a hundred women stormed into the male editor’s office of Ladies’ Home Journal and staged a sit-in for eleven hours, demanding that the magazine hire a female editor-in-chief. Says feminist activist-writer Vivian Gornick, “It was a watershed moment. It showed us, the activists in the women’s movement, that we did, indeed, have a movement.”

By age 29, Gloria Steinem had forged a reputation as a smart, pithy writer with her 1963 exposé in Show magazine about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny. She was a staff writer at New York Magazine when it debuted in 1968, along with Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. Radicalized by an abortion speak-out, which she covered for New York in 1969, Steinem started spending more time thinking, writing, and giving talks about feminism. She testified in the Senate in 1970 on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, and co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance and the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. That same year, she helped launchMs. magazine,which became the first periodical ever to be created, owned, and operated entirely by women. A forty-page excerpt of its preview issue was published in the December 20, 1971, issue of this magazine. Here are the stories of the women who were there.

Gloria’s Living Room
In early 1971, Gloria Steinem and attorney/activist Brenda Feigen hosted a crowd of female journalists at two meetings in their respective apartments—Steinem’s in the East Seventies, Feigen’s in Tudor City—to brainstorm ideas for a possible publication for women.

Brenda Feigen (co-founder, with Steinem, of the Women’s Action Alliance, 1971): It was amazing: jammed with well-known women writers, journalists, and activists. All of them said, “We can’t get real stories about women published.”

Jane O’Reilly (contributor, 1971–90s): People were sitting on the floor, on chairs, hanging from rafters. When it came to all the topics proposed, it struck me as being like your first trip to Europe: You think you have to go to every single country because you might never get to go back.

Article Ideas From a Confidential Memo
Some Notes on a New Magazine (4/71):

Susan Braudy (co-editor/writer, 1973–78): After one meeting, Gloria said, “I’ve been thinking about a newsletter.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin (co–founding editor, 1971–89) [Editor’s note: Letty is the mother of Abigail Pogrebin, the author of this oral history.]: There were lots of newsletters and radical broadsheets—things mimeographed on newsprint or paper towels—that never built an audience.

Feigen: I said, “What do you mean newsletter? You’re famous. We should do a slick magazine.” Gloria said, “I don’t know if there’s a demand for it.” I said, “Of course there is.”

Pogrebin: I think that being slick and being sold on newsstands was a stealth strategy to “normalize” or “mainstream” our message. Some feminists would have preferred the women’s movement to continue speaking to the converted.

Vivian Gornick (feminist and writer): For radical feminists like me, Ellen Willis, and Jill Johnston, we had a different kind of magazine in mind. We came out against marriage and motherhood. Gloria was uptown; we were downtown. She hung out with Establishment figures; we had only ourselves. It very quickly became obvious at that first meeting that they wanted a glossy that would appeal to the women who read the Ladies’ Home Journal. We didn’t want that, so they walked away with it.