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How Do You Spell Ms.

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Demonstrators at the New York Times offices demand that editors accept use of the title “Ms.,” March 1974.  

Steinem: I couldn’t look into Betty Friedan’s head and heart, but she was hostile not just to me but to Bella [Abzug] and pretty much anyone who challenged her ownership of the women’s movement.

Thom: I think we at Ms. found it hard to be critical of the women’s movement. The first time we decided to treat controversy as controversy was when we did the piece that explored how one woman’s pornography is another woman’s eroticism [April 1985].

Levine: That debate was intense. And some people never got over it.

Mary Kay Blakely (contributor, 1982–2002): Even debates among editors who were close friends became defensive, judgmental, and hostile. You were either a vanilla-sex feminist or a bad-ass feminist.

Pogrebin: I threatened to leave over a manuscript by a woman who was a former editor of ours who was writing about why she was a masochist and trying to make it an okay choice. I would rather leave than work for a magazine that published that. And we didn’t publish it.

Ruth Sullivan (co-editor, 1972–85): Alice Walker was very much for publishing it. I remember she quoted Tennessee Williams in her editorial comment on the story: “Nothing human disgusts me.”

Alice Walker (contributor, 1974–86): I don’t recall this at all! Me, quoting Tennessee Williams?

Braudy: I argued for a brilliant short story by Harold Brodkey to be included in the men’s issue. It was partly about this Harvard student performing oral sex on his true love, this Radcliffe beauty … I said, “I want to put this in as an example of this emotional and intelligent rumination of a man.”

Levine: I thought it was a horrible piece.

Sullivan: At one editorial meeting, Pat Carbine announced that Ms. was going to be recorded for the blind. I said I felt sorry for the poor reader who had to read the Brodkey story. Can you imagine the long pauses and the “oooooohhhs” and “ah, ah, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhs”?

Lyons: There were staff, readers, and critics who would complain that Ms.’s coverage of lesbian issues was lacking.

Lindsy Van Gelder (contributor, 1977–92): Anything that equated feminism with lesbianism lost Ms. potential advertisers, and the first article in which I came out [February, 1984] was radical even by the lesbian standards of the day. It was called “Marriage As a Restricted Club,” and it was about my decision not to attend weddings of straight friends and family members. It was also a plea for straight feminists to understand that they had rights I didn’t.

Steinem: It was always clear to me that feminists were going to be called lesbians … so the only answer was to make clear that being a lesbian was as honorable as any other way of living. When people on the road asked in a hostile way if I was a lesbian, I always said, “Not yet.”

Lyons: Ms. was perceived as middle class and elitist. Perhaps an editorial staff comprised of mainly white, Ivy League–sister-school alumna can’t overcome that perception. But the content speaks for itself.

Edgar: Some women said they did not see themselves enough in Ms.

Alice Walker’s Resignation Letter, 1986
“I am writing to let you know of the swift alienation from the magazine my daughter and I feel each time it arrives with its determinedly (and to us grim) white cover … It was nice to be a Ms. cover myself once. But a people of color cover once or twice a year is not enough. In real life, people of color occur with much more frequency. I do not feel welcome in the world you are projecting.”

Walker: The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a Ms. cover showing two pregnant women, both white. This would have been such an easy cover on which to show a bit of diversity.

Marcia Ann Gillespie (editor/contributor, 1981—2001): After Alice resigned, I asked myself if I wanted to be associated with the magazine. I decided to move forward with Ms. because I felt there was a need to keep pressing from within.

Sullivan: I think Alice felt the burden of being, as she described it, the token black woman at Ms. Even though this was literally not the case. But when she worked in the office, it fell on her to generate the articles dealing with women of color.

Van Gelder: I was present at at least one editorial meeting where the editors openly talked about their belief that putting black people on the cover would depress newsstand sales.

Carbine: When we wanted our piece on Alice Walker to have the importance of a cover story, we knew we were endangering our newsstand distribution in the South. Sure enough, Ms. distribution was curtailed, and our distribution company was very unhappy with me.


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