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How Do You Spell Ms.

Gloria Steinem with the January 1978 cover.  

Carbine: I think people accepted meetings with us because, if all else failed, it would be nice to meet Gloria Steinem.

Steinem: They were just curious about me—you know, “It walks! It talks!” The good news was that we became the only ad-presentation meeting at agencies that the secretaries came to.

Carbine: They often were a big help in getting us the appointment in the first place.

Steinem: Advertisers like Whirlpool sent us issues of Ms. with every sexual word underlined in a yellow marker, to show why they wouldn’t advertise.

Carbine: When Ms. published our groundbreaking article on female-genital mutilation, the ad director of Working Woman magazine sent a directive to her advertising staff telling them to use it against us.

Steinem: They sold against us by saying we were the magazine of hairy arm-pitted, black, lesbian farmworkers.

Stan Pottinger (Steinem’s then-boyfriend, former assistant attorney general for presidents Nixon and Ford): Gloria and I were both in Los Angeles, and Gloria asked me to drop by a restaurant to join her and Pat while they pitched someone from the California Avocado Growers’ Association. Gloria gave me a tip before I showed up, saying that the avocado association was a tough sell because they thought Ms. was “lesbian” and sexually explicit. Gloria thought that if her real-life boyfriend showed up, it might take the edge off the homophobia thing.

The conversation got ugly pretty fast. The more Mr. Avocado drank, the more out of control he got. “Why the hell would I want to put an ad in a magazine for lesbians?” he said. “This magazine is garbage. You’re going to tell men to put avocados on their penises.” No kidding. I’ve been in some pretty bad meetings, but this one was about as bad as it gets. It was impressive that Gloria stayed in the ring for as long as she did. I don’t know many people who would have. But a few months later she said, “Guess what? The California avocado association bought an ad.”

Black: Oh my God, we would celebrate the breakthroughs. Volkswagen came in. Oldsmobile. But most of the time, people were pretty discouraged. It was hard to get up and pound the pavement every day.

Steinem: You know, I have made lots of mistakes all on my own, and I have done all kinds of things that I would like to change, but most of all, I would like to take back all the time I spent trying to sell advertising.

Packaging Versus Politics:
The Debate Over Ms. Covers

Peacock: Those of us who wanted better cover images and better cover lines got resistance from people for whom ideology ruled everything. They didn’t seem to understand what the medium was. The idea was to entice people to read the magazine.

Carbine: If we had not made the magazine appealing to a wide-enough audience, it would have been, as Gloria always said, “like preparing for an absolutely great party and not sending out any invitations.”

Lyons: We called it “sugarcoating the pill.”

Pogrebin: When we put a woman on the cover—a real person—she had to be a worthy real person, not a Hollywood beauty. We had Helen Gahagan Douglas [congresswoman, 1945–51], Shirley ­Chisholm [first black woman in Congress], Bella Abzug [congresswoman, 1971–77]. These were our cover girls.

Robin Morgan (editor/contributor, 1977–present): We had a debate over the sexual-harassment cover [November 1977], where we didn’t want to actually show it happening in a photograph.

Edgar: We used dolls, showing a man putting his hand down a woman’s shirt at work. I also remember the battered-women cover [August 1976], when we showed a woman with a bruised face, and the sex issue [November 76], when we ended up, after much discussion, with a text cover: “How’s Your Sex Life?” And three boxes: “Better, Worse, I Forget.”

Lyons: The most agonizing cover debate [April 1975] was over Warhol superstar Viva (we had a story about her still breast-feeding her 5-year-old daughter) versus the suspicious death of Karen Silkwood [union activist at a chemical plant]. We had an exclusive with Silkwood’s family. But it came down to the art: a crumpled car versus gorgeous Viva with hair flowing to the heavens. Viva won. Of course, we all regretted it.

Morgan: The ad department always wanted Gloria on the cover, and poor Gloria always fought that … But those covers sold well, so sometimes she lost.

Lyons: When you look at the best-selling issues, the men’s issue [October 1975] stands out; it flew off the newsstands because we had Robert Redford’s back with a copy of Ms. magazine in his jeans pocket with his perfect butt.