A Post-Election Celebration of Our 40th

Ms. alums who attended the magazine’s 40th anniversary party in New York on November 7, one of several held this year, were already giddy over the victories for women the previous day: reelection of President Obama, the first openly gay woman senator in Wisconsin, a record number of women in the Senate, an all-women congressional delegation and governor in New Hampshire, defeat of candidates who equated rape and God’s will and the list goes on. So the opportunity to celebrate yet another kind of victory for women was like icing on the cake.

Or maybe Ms. was the cake. For 40 years, the magazine has encouraged, documented and celebrated the achievements of women. More than 100 of its former editors, publishers, ad saleswomen, designers, researchers and production staff showed up in New York City, home to Ms. for most of those years, to renew old friendships, swap stories and bask in the shared glory of gains for women’s rights. Others, kept away by distance or the nor’easter that slammed the east coast that day, sent in their favorite memories.

Joanne Edgar [pdf], a Ms. founding editor who wrote the cover story on Wonder Woman for President in the inaugural issue and was with Ms. for 17 years, reported that the list of former and current Ms. staff compiled for this event had more than 400 names. Many credited working at Ms. as the turning point in their lives.

Harking back to the earliest days, Jane O’Reilly, whose 1971 essay “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” in the Preview issue became a classic, said:

It is important to remember how brave we were 40 years ago.  We thought we were expressing common sense, when we in fact were fighting what was understood as natural law.

Many early staff reinforced that appreciation of just how far the magazine (and what it stood for) has come.  As Barbara Nessim, a Ms. contributing artist/illustrator put it:

I remember one man saying in 1972, ‘It will never last–what’s there to talk about after doing the dishes and taking out the garbage?’ Plenty! Around 468 magazines covering thousands of issues over 40 years and still counting!

Cathleen Black, the first Ms. advertising director who went on to become chair of Hearst magazines, reflected on the uphill struggle to sell ads:

When I saw the first episode of Mad Men, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that is exactly what we encountered every single day. We walked into these offices, the guys with their striped suits and briefcases, secretaries in the aisles waiting on them hand and foot, and they thought we were from outer space. These guys did not imagine what this magazine was all about.’

Black credited Ms. founding publisher Patricia Carbine, who served as mistress of ceremonies for the reunion, for never giving up hope and encouraging the fledgling ad staff to successfully persuade dubious advertisers that women bought cars and homes and planned vacations.

The event was in every way a celebration of women by women.  It was held at the Fourth Universalist Society of New York, whose minister, Rosemary Bray, was a Ms. editor in the 1980s. Rev. Bray, recalling her time at Ms. as critical to her spiritual as well as her political development (she worked on a special issue about spirituality), delivered the benediction. The party was catered by Raging Skillet, owned and operated by a woman who thanked Ms. for her own successful battles to buck tradition and become a chef. Indicative of her courage, the one-named Chef Rossi managed to serve up a great meal for the Ms. party despite the fact that her own kitchen lay in the flood zone and had no power due to Hurricane Sandy.

Co-founding editor Gloria Steinem, fresh off the campaign trail, reveled in the 12-point difference women made in the presidential election and thanked voters who understood that “you can’t have democracy without feminism.” She also told about the people she has met around the world who credit Ms. for changing their lives: the woman who read Ms. in prison and eventually started a national organization to help women in prison earn high school degrees; the woman who got herself to a shelter because she read about domestic violence in Ms. and realized that what was happening to her had a name; and so many more.

At Ms., the mantra was “the personal is political.” Contributors often wrote about and from their personal experiences of sexism. The magazine nurtured so many new and distinctive voices, including fiction writers at a time when few magazines gave space to fiction. Phyllis Rosser recalled sifting through the huge pile of unsolicited manuscripts—300 a week—and uncovering a gem by a writer whose only identification was the return address on the envelope: L.M. Moore, English department, Cornell University. “I phoned the English department and was lucky to have someone answer who knew that L. M. Moore was Lorrie Moore and told me how to get in touch with her.  I don’t know whether this is the first manuscript she ever published, but every time I see her name I think maybe I discovered her.”

For me, working at Ms. during the 1980s was synonymous with raising my daughter.  I was hired as a Ms. editor when Liisa was less than a year old, and she became one of the second wave of Ms. kids who spent time in our offices. I particularly remember a Ms. photo shoot of the annual holiday feature, “Toys for Free Children,” to which some of us brought our own kids as models. The ensuing chaos kept escalating until the photographer forced the parents out of the room. It worked. I still treasure the great photo that appeared in the magazine of Liisa happily astride a scooter in overalls and a funny cap.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who presided over that feature for many years, remembers

Alice Walker‘s daughter, Rebecca, and my son, David, playing on the floor beside my desk with some of the nonsexist toys I was writing about. Rebecca, David, my daughters Abigail and Robin, Phyllis Langer’s daughter Alex, Mary Thom’s nephew Thom, and all the other kids who spent time in the Ms. ‘Tot Lot’ were my first responders and toy-testers.

Some of those tots, all grown up, were at the Ms. reunion. A few even brought their own babies, third-generation Ms. tots. If there is any lingering concern in this victorious election year that Ms. and feminism aren’t alive and well, those bawling and chortling babies made the case.

Photo of former Ms. editors and contributors by Joan Tedeschi. Front row, left to right: Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, Gloria Jacobs, Ellen Sweet, Gloria Steinem, Harriet Lyons, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Mary Thom; Second row, left to right: Nancy Wartik, Karen FitzGerald, Mary Peacock, Ruth Sullivan, Marge duMond; Third row, left to right: Curtis Ingham Koren, Suzanne Braun Levine, Margaret Hicks, Donna Handly, Phyliss Rosser; Top row, left to right: Susan Loubet, Janet Oliver, Kathy Burkett, Joanne Edgar, Mary Kay Blakely.


Ellen Sweet held various executive positions in nonprofit communications for more than 15 years, most recently as Vice President for External Affairs at Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. She was also Communications Director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, Vice President of Public Affairs at the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Communications Director at the Vera Institute of Justice. Prior to that, she worked for many years on staff and as a freelancer at national magazines including Ms. Magazine, where she served as senior editor and writer from 1980-1988. She has a BA from Smith College and an MAT from Yale University. She is currently volunteering her time for Girls Write Now, a New York nonprofit that pairs aspiring high school writers with professional writers as mentors.