Feminist Journalism is Essential to Democracy

How Women’s Magazines Ignited a Revolution

Feminist journalism is essential to public discourse. It is essential to political debate. And it absolutely essential to free and fair democracy. Explore more at Feminist Journalism is Essential to DemocracyMs. magazine’s latest installment of Women & Democracy, presented in partnership with the International Women’s Media Foundation.

(POLITICO illustration / Photos courtesy Ms. magazine)

This article was originally published by POLITICO‘s Women Rule. It has been republished here with permission.

In 1971, a group of young women journalists and writers sat on the living room floor of Brenda Feigen’s “tiny” New York apartment.

Earlier that year, Feigen had joined forces with Gloria Steinem to create the Women’s Action Alliance, an organization that aimed to support and connect activists in the feminist movement across the country. Steinem and Feigen had decided that the Alliance needed some sort of publication. Steinem suggested a newsletter. Feigen suggested a magazine.

“I said, ‘You’re famous enough. We have enough money,’” Feigen told Women Rule in an interview.

So Feigen and Steinem gathered the up-and-coming young writers that they wanted to write for the magazine in for what would become a historic—if slightly improvisatory—meeting.

“And we decided to have one more meeting in case we missed anybody,” Feigen said. “The next meeting was at Gloria’s apartment. So that really was the beginning of Ms. magazine.”

Now, it’s been over 50 years since the Ms. was founded—a milestone that the magazine is commemorating with a book called 50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited a Revolution, released on Sept. 19, 2023.

When Ms. was founded in 1971, the vast majority of publications for women were about homemaking, parenting advice and fashion and beauty tips.

Ms. was far from that, created with the intention of giving a national voice to the feminist movement of the ‘70s—and railing against the idea of the perfect homemaking housewife that was perpetuated by many of the other “for women” publications.

The first issue was dated “Spring 1972” with the intention of allowing it to stay on newstands for months. It sold out in just eight days.

Ms. was founded at a pivotal time for women. Abortion was about to become legal nationwide with the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and women were entering the workforce in droves.

It’s a setting that doesn’t seem too foreign. In the past few years, the Supreme Court issued another landmark decision on abortion, this time overturning Roe, and women are navigating their return to the workplace after a global pandemic upended the nation’s workforce.

And in the past few years, other outlets that specifically dedicate themselves to serving women—like the 19th—have popped up.

Their editors say that their success hinges on the fact that they’re covering topics that are under-covered by mainstream outlets, from a different vantage point than legacy outlets—just like Ms. has aimed to do for the past half century.

“The levers of power are very imbalanced still to this very day, not only on sex but also race and ethnicity,” Kathy Spillar, the magazine’s executive editor, told Women Rule. “Ms. has played a major role in constantly putting that in front of the public so that people understand.”

Since its beginning, Ms. made abortion one of its central topics. The very first edition, released before the Roe decision legalized abortion across the U.S., included a petition titled “We Have Had Abortions,” with signatures from 50 prominent women, including Steinem, Billie Jean King, Susan Sontag and Nora Ephron.

“[The signers] essentially were admitting they had broken the law, because with rare exception, abortion was illegal in most of the country,” Spillar said. “It made visible what had been invisible. Women were shamed and did not talk about their abortions.”

In the years since, Ms. has rerun the petition many times. On the most recent petition, over 10,000 people signed. “We put every name in the magazine.”

A few years before Ms. started, Essence, a lifestyle and culture magazine specifically targeted towards Black women, began publishing.

When Linda Villarosa was a child, she saw the magazine on her mother’s nightstand and grandmother’s coffee table.

“The magazine offered images and articles that celebrated Black women, which was important and even life-saving for me growing up in a predominately white suburb of Denver and having few Black role models outside of my family,” she told Women Rule in an email.

When she first joined Essence as the health editor in the late ‘80s, she made a point of driving coverage of the AIDS epidemic, “which at the time was ravaging the Black community, though flying under the radar as U.S. news outlets which first focused on gay white men and later on the disease overseas.”

Villarosa, who later served as executive editor at the magazine, also focused on coverage of the crack epidemic because “mainstream media was blaming the crisis on us—though crack was flooded into our communities and people who were addicted were criminalized rather than helped,” and made a point of pointing out how discrimination in the healthcare system was contributing to the high maternal mortality rate for Black women. (Villarosa has also written for Ms. and has a piece included in the magazine’s forthcoming book.)

“It was especially important to have positive images in the first decades of the magazine, to counteract the negative stereotypes of Black women that were and still are infused in media coverage,” said Villarosa, professor of journalism at the City University of N.Y., a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on Health in America.

“It was and is important that we see ourselves and our accomplishments and our heroes, every month.”

Maternal mortality has been a focus for another, newer publication, too: The 19th.

The 19th was founded by former Texas Tribune journalists, who could not understand why there wasn’t a daily outlet dedicated addressing the intersection of gender and politics.

The idea first formed during the 2016 election—as now-editor-at-large Errin Haines and her colleagues watched the way gender tropes played into the election. By 2020, the 19th was up and running.

“We just really wanted to try to change the narrative around the way that gender and politics are covered in this country and who gets to cover that,” Haines told Women Rule. “We wake up thinking about a gender lens on our stories every day.”

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Sophie Gardner is a digital producer at POLITICO. She recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in journalism. She has previously interned with the Daily Hampshire Gazette and FRONTLINE PBS, and contributed to the Washington Post's "Made by History" section.