In the late eighties and throughout the nineties, Ms.’s popularity waned as women’s legal and professional statuses improved and a crop of new magazines were launched, often co-opting Ms.’s message and readership. In a 1990 Mother Jones cover story, Ms. Fights for Its Life,” Peggy Orenstein wrote, “Magazines such as Working Woman, Savvy, New York Woman, and Mirabella may have poached some of the Ms. terrain, but they’ve manipulated the message, reflecting change but not inciting it.” And for many women, the word feminist became freighted with anti-male or militant-lesbian associations. “Those from journalistic backgrounds felt Ms. was getting defensive in the eighties because the movement was under attack and had become too ideological, and there was some leave-taking,” says Lyons. As a result, the ads that were always hard-won for Ms. became even harder to get, circulation fluctuated, and the magazine switched owners six times in fourteen years. Today, Ms. is published by the Feminist Majority Foundation, headed by Eleanor Smeal, which bought the magazine in 2001 and puts out four issues a year. While the magazine has developed a strong presence on the web and its archives are used widely in college curricula, Ms. never reclaimed the full cultural influence of those early years.
Gillespie: The magazine, despite its flaws, provided so many words that had been missing. So many silences finally broken. Ms. changed lives, changed attitudes, helped to create and change laws, policies, practices.
Bernikow: The power of Ms. was its ability to provide a language for people outside New York City or California, who never would have otherwise penetrated the right-wing wall that said feminism was nuts, man-eating.
Morgan: Family secrets spilled out, abusive homes and relationships were exposed, “It’s always been that way” customs and prejudices were shown up.
Black: Those of us who were there were on a mission.
Rita Waterman (production, 1972–79): For me, the burden of Ms. was that I had to get it right. Failure or letting people down was personally and professionally unacceptable.
Edgar: If I had known how big it was, I would have taken more notes and kept a diary.
Morgan: It couldn’t have been done without Gloria. It was her baby. Her own writing career has suffered, her books have suffered. It completely took her over.
Steinem: I confess that there were moments when I realized that I was fantasizing that the magazine would burn down. And I thought, “Why am I dreaming of this over and over?” And then I realized that if it burned down, I would be free, and no one would be mad at me because it wasn’t my fault. There were those times.
Edgar: She was always reluctant to take what she called an “office job,” and this was her first.
Steinem: I just remember saying to Clay, “I’m only doing this for two years.”
Carbine: I knew that I was electing the road that would, I hope, be a small contribution to helping make this change happen for women and therefore for men. I wanted the world to be different. I knew what my trade-offs were when I committed my life to Ms., that I became even less marriageable and would grow old as a single woman.
Morgan: Men are better at celebrating successes. They have parades and trophies. But there was a transformation in those early Ms. years—in terms of family structures, the workplace, and our language. It would still be decades before the New York Times would come onboard to use the term “Ms.” [It was in 1986.]
Bernikow: I still meet women who say they had to hide their Ms. magazines from their husbands. It woke women up and spurred them to go out and do something.
Levine: I can’t understand where we got the chutzpah to turn people’s lives upside down.
Susan Brownmiller (author of Against Our Will): I’ll say that for me, Ms. never had anything that was a revelation. We radical feminists, we were raising new issues first, and then they would get to Ms.—eventually, but not initially.
Gornick: I don’t think it did a damn thing for feminism.
Steinem: I can understand if longtime feminists wanted more. But there needed to be articles that were for readers picking up a feminist magazine for the first or fifth or the tenth time.
Pogrebin: We consciously tried to recognize and publish for the entire spectrum.
Steinem: If you’d asked me in the beginning how long it would last, out of both pessimism and optimism, I would have probably said, “Three or four years, tops.”
Braudy: The lessons that were imprinted on me are like religious beliefs.
Brownmiller: Women of course don’t know the history and tend to think of feminists as funny old people.
Blakely: It’s hard for my journalism students today to even imagine what the culture was like before Ms. raised public consciousness.
Steinem: I’m not at all sure that I understood it at the time because I was so conscious of what there was to do and what we had to leave out. But today I reread the first issue and said, “This was really good.”