Playing by Our Rules
After 50 years, Ms. magazine remains as brazen as ever
“First, there were some women writers and editors who started asking questions. Why was our work so unconnected to our lives? Why were the media, including women’s magazines, so rarely or so superficially interested in the big changes happening to women? Why were we always playing the game by someone else’s (the publisher’s, the advertiser’s) rules?
“Then, there were questions from activists; women who were trying to raise money for an information service and self-help projects, particularly for poor or isolated women, and having very little luck. Mightn’t a publication—say, a newsletter—serve to link up women, and to generate income as well?
“The two groups met several times early in 1971, and agreed that we all wanted a publication that was owned by and honest about women. … The idea of a full-fledged national magazine came up; a publication created by and controlled by women that could be as serious, outrageous, satisfying, sad, funky, intimate, global, compassionate, and full of change as women’s lives really are.”
When it launched 50 years ago, Ms. magazine was a brazen act of independence— demonstrating the untapped potential for journalism that centered news and analysis on women and their lives and made a feminist worldview more accessible to the public.
That potential quickly pivoted to power. Ms. didn’t just cover the news—it made news. It reported on trends and helped to create them. Over the years, Ms. has sparked laws and judicial changes, influenced policy, generated new vocabulary and forced action on issues too long ignored. Articles in Ms. have won multiple awards, led to movies and books, spurred new feminist scholarship and are widely reprinted and included in textbooks and collections. Ms. has helped shape contemporary feminism, with its editors and writers translating a movement into a magazine.
Today Ms. continues to publish the print magazine you hold in your hands (or are reading on your tablet), which is distributed quarterly through membership subscriptions and newsstand sales and at feminist conferences—and is also sent free to thousands of women in prisons and domestic violence shelters.
Ms. has a growing digital presence. Our website, msmagazine.com, drew more than 4.6 million readers in the past year alone. Breaking news content is published daily, with 150 new articles posted each month. Among the most popular and widely covered topics: protecting reproductive autonomy post-Dobbs and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, along with dispatches from grassroots and global activists. Ms. has a social media following of half a million across key channels and an active membership list receiving daily and weekly newsletters.
Building on the magazine’s rich legacy, Ms. Studios launched in 2020. Led by women of color, it is home to an array of multimedia programming, including popular podcasts On the Issues With Michele Goodwin and Fifteen Minutes of Feminism. Our newest digital platform, Women & Democracy, provides in-depth analysis on a wide array of issues impacting full and fair representation. And Ms. Classroom brings the magazine into curricula at colleges—and increasingly at high schools—nationwide.
Year after year, Ms. endeavors to inform, encourage, enlighten, mobilize and entertain our readers. We hope Ms. continues to be the place where feminists find information and inspiration. And we thank you, our loyal readers, for these past 50 years—and the next 50!
As the earliest editors of this magazine wrote, “Ms. belongs to all of us.”
The preview issue, published by New York magazine, includes such classic articles as “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue” and “We Have Had Abortions,” a “coming out” petition signed by 53 prominent American women who had abortions when the procedure was illegal (or added their names in solidarity).
“If Men Could Menstruate”
Gloria Steinem imagines how different the world would be if it weren’t women who had monthly periods—for instance, sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.
“There Are Alternatives to Mastectomy”
Ms. reports that lumpectomies followed by radiation can be just as effective.
Gender Gap ID’d
Ronald Reagan is elected president with 8 percent fewer women’s votes than men’s, which NOW president Eleanor Smeal (current Ms. publisher) identifies and names the “gender gap.”
“Date Rape: The Story of an Epidemic and Those Who Deny It”
We uncover the prevalence of sexual assault against college women and commission a national study of date rape.
“Sex, Lies and Advertising”
Gloria Steinem concludes that magazines can’t be independent while taking commercial ads. Ms. is reborn as an ad-free bimonthly, with Robin Morgan as editor.
“Femicide: Speaking the Unspeakable”
Ms. makes the connection between murder and misogyny in the case of a mass shooting at the University of Montreal.
“Dispatches From Bosnia”
Ms. reports on ethnic cleansing and rape campaigns in war-torn former Yugoslavia, exposing rape as an instrument of war.
“Made in the U.S.A.”
Ms. editor Helen Zia goes undercover in a New York garment factory to expose sweatshop conditions.
Women Take on All-Male Augusta National
The National Council of Women’s Organizations, chaired by Martha Burk (current Ms. Money editor), begins its campaign to admit women to the male-only golf club, home of the annual Masters tournament. Ten years later, two women are finally invited to be members.
“New Battleground for Survivors of Priest Child Sex Abuse”
Ms. reports on a California law that extends the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases, thus increasing the chance of bringing perpetrators to justice.
“A Shot Against Cervical Cancer”
Ms. is one of the first magazines to write about the HPV vaccine and how it can help women prevent certain cancers.
“Hanging by a Thread: What’s at Stake if We Lose the Supreme Court”
Ms. shows that it’s not just abortion rights at risk, but the right to birth control as well.
“A Brave Sisterhood”
Ms. is on the ground reporting from Afghanistan during the country’s first democratic elections, in which women candidates, defying extremist violence and threats, win 29 percent of seats in parliament.
“Good Ole Boys”
Ms. exposes Ward Connerly—whose anti-affirmative-action crusade seriously impacted women and minorities—for his close ties to business interests and the huge salaries he drew from his nonprofits. Later that year, Connerly ends his crusade.
“This Is What a Feminist Looks Like”
Capturing the nation’s high expectations, Ms. depicts President Barack Obama as a potential superhero opening his jacket to reveal a feminist T-shirt. Shortly after his inauguration, Obama ends the global gag rule, and the first bill he signs into law is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Ms. Goes to College
Reflecting the magazine’s long collaboration with feminist scholars, Ms. publishes a survey of women’s studies programs nationwide and founds Ms. Classroom, a fully digital feminist teaching curriculum based on current and classic articles from the pages of Ms.
“For the Price of a Pad!”
Ms. highlights the work of an Indian investor and his inexpensive machine for making sanitary napkins. The story leads U.S. teens to found the Pad Project, which inspires the Oscar-winning documentary Period. End of Sentence.
The “Feminist Factor” Cinches President Obama’s Reelection
Looking at polling data from the 2012 election, Ms. identifies and names a key constituency: feminists. It isn’t women who secure Obama’s victory but feminist women and feminist men.
“Blowing the Whistle on Campus Rape”
Ms. leads the charge on combating campus sexual assault and reports on new tools to fight it; our coverage is soon followed in the mainstream press with a Time magazine cover story.
“The Weinstein Effect”
We look for the ways the #MeToo movement and the downfall of Harvey Weinstein can lead to lasting change for women.
“The Patriarchs’ War on Women”
We delve into the role of male supremacy in the Jan. 6 insurrection—and the patriarchy in the rise of authoritarianism.
“We Have Had Abortions”
Ms. launches a new petition, and 10,000-plus signers demand a return of abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
“When it comes to providing comprehensive coverage of women’s issues with world-class editorial quality, Ms. is in a class by itself.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)
“Ms. was like a lightning bolt of inspiration and information. From changing what we called ourselves to challenging how we (and others) looked at ourselves, Ms. helped to change how we are in the world.”
“Two letters, bathed in bright pink and printed in broad strokes, changed everything. Ms. told me I wasn’t alone.”
Francesca Seni Pardo
“Ms. made feminism modern, relevant and accessible for me. It grounded an otherwise abstract concept into the lives and lived experiences of all kinds of diverse women and I recognized myself in many of them.”
Amy C. Willis
“In 1972, Ms. magazine launched, and I immediately subscribed. I knew it had words of wisdom for me. However, I never expected it to speak so directly to me and for me.”
“Ms. has taught me so much and has kept the fire alive in me. I have been a champion for women’s rights for decades. Ms. motivated me to get politically involved and, even in the worst of times, helped me not give up.”
“Very early on, Ms. magazine published names of women who had abortions, which helped to make it OK to say the word out loud. And now we are mobilizing to make abortion legal again.”
“Today, I have fewer rights than when I discovered Ms. I need Ms. more than ever. … Keep going for 500 years, Ms.!”
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After 50 years, Ms. magazine remains as brazen as ever
“Fifty years ago, a small group … had the gutsy vision to create a national magazine that would provide a platform for women’s voices and ideas amid a mainstream media culture where our point of view was all too often marginalized or simply invisible. In the years since, Ms. has proven itself to be a vital part of our national conversation, shaping and informing essential debates about women’s rights and opportunities, and most importantly: giving women a voice.”
‘Tell Me a Story’
Editors from the ‘70s, ’80s and ‘90s on what it was like to be a part of the early years of Ms.
Thanks to each and every one of you for helping us celebrate 50—count ’em, 50—years of Ms. magazine. This is pretty good since on national television it was predicted we would only last six months.
Personally, I never would have believed I would be here at 88 years of age marking this milestone. But Ms. was and is created by readers, not corporations—and definitely not advertisers. Letters from readers, then and now, are also a history of the women’s movement. We’ve always loved reading them. I still remember one from a 7-year-old reader of “Stories for Free Children.” She said, “We girls are angry as turnips!” I thought, this girl is going to be a writer!
Each and every one of you is part of the Ms. story, still one of the very few women-controlled publications in the world. Tell each other your stories. As Margaret Mead said, “Tell me a fact and I’ll forget it. Tell me a story and I’ll always remember.”
BY SUZANNE BRAUN LEVINE
When people hear that I was at Ms. “at the beginning,” the response is often, “Oh, my god. Ms. saved my life. Thank you!” Of course, I am moved to hear that, but I want to reply, “Me too. Ms. saved my life, too.” I was as transformed by the articles I edited as were our readers.
I arrived at Ms. in 1972 dressed for a very different world: a pink silk blouse, a pink cashmere skirt—and a girdle! I walked into a small, crowded office; everyone was working intently, some sitting on crates at three-legged desks and the rest sitting on the floor. It was clear from the positions they were in that no one was wearing a girdle. That scene was my first experience of those moments of sudden clarity that Jane O’Reilly had defined in the preview issue as a “feminist moment of truth” or “Click!” Comfort counts.
Roe v. Wade was another milestone for me. The preview issue of Ms., which came out a few months before I had any idea I would be part of the magazine, had featured a petition entitled “We Have Had Abortions,” signed by 53 celebrities who were brave enough to admit that they had broken the law. I was stunned. Others shared my secret. Readers were invited to add their names. I sent in my coupon with a sense of relief. A few months later—by then I was at the magazine and helping to open the envelopes—we published the names of the hundreds of women who, along with me, had signed on.
Before coming to Ms., I had lots of magazine experience; I had worked for five of them, including two of the so-called women’s magazines, Mademoiselle and McCall’s. Each had its own “reader profile” and reliable menu of topics—fashion, beauty, makeup and a sprinkling of other interests like travel or fiction.
Ms. was different, a magazine with an editorial mandate as wide as women’s lives. So many of the articles we published uncovered life experiences that women hadn’t dared talk about, even to each other, that feminists had to literally invent words in order to share our stories: sexual harassment, battered women, consciousness-raising, reproductive rights. The realization that we are not alone was empowering. Since not every reader was in the same place, certain stories resonated with some and shocked others. I was careful to include an article or two in each issue that some readers might find a little hard to take. (“Getting to Know Me,” for example, a piece on masturbation by sexologist Betty Dodson, was shocking but also revelatory to many.)
We hoped the message that both the reassured and the shocked took away from each issue was that there was no one way to be liberated and no one way to be a woman. That we could appreciate one another’s struggles and learn from them. That we weren’t rivals but allies. That each of us could grow and change. We—editors and readers—could also change the world. And we did. Together.
SUZANNE BRAUN LEVINE was editor in chief of Ms. from 1972 to 1988.
Women, Children, Ms. and Me
BY LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN
Fifty years ago, simply because we put the interests of women front and center, Ms. was seen by some as anti- child. Which, to me, is as maddening as it is ironic when you consider the tiny but deeply meaningful fact that, among our many pro-child credentials, we were the only women’s magazine that featured, in every issue, a special section just for kids. Headlined “Stories for Free Children,” those four pages offered an antidote to the steady stream of submissive wives, passive princesses, macho dads and Marlboro Men common to kid lit of that era. In the early 1970s, it was virtually impossible to find books about children who were Black, Asian, Latinx, mixed race, disabled or adopted; or had moms and dads who were divorced, single, gay or gender nonconformist; or lived in families headed by grandmas, aunties or foster parents. As a founding editor of Ms., a veteran of the book publishing world and the only editor who had young kids (my twin daughters were 6, my son was 3), I was able to fill the yawning gap with quality literature that both reflected kids’ lived experience and helped them imagine a better, broader future.
Things started changing. Boys enrolled in ballet classes. Girls sued for the right to play on boys’ teams. Some moms returned to work they’d left when they had kids. Some dads decided to quit the rat race and stay home with their children. And Ms. kept up with it all, publishing multiple perspectives on issues affecting children and families, be it healthcare, schools, tax policy, poverty, civil rights, legislation, litigation, race relations, sexuality, climate crises and everything else that today falls under the rubric of intersectionality. My obsession was sex roles, how to jettison the straitjackets of “femininity” and “masculinity” and help kids become their best, truest selves.
The toy industry’s dispiriting images and discriminatory dog whistles moved me to produce a new service piece for our readers called “Toys for Free Children,” in which I would rate products by a series of feminist metrics and provide helpful recommendations to parents and teachers. To my surprise and delight, I discovered a good number of nonsexist, multiracial, multicultural, gender-neutral, fun-to-play-with toys that won the Ms. seal of approval.
At the end of the process, I deposited the best toys and games in the Ms. tot lot, which quickly became the most well-equipped playroom in town. A tot lot, by the way, was an unheard-of perk at traditional workplaces, including the major mainstream women’s magazines. Only Ms. had a dedicated room for children of staffers (we called them “Ms. Kids”) brought to work during school vacations or after a babysitter called in sick or a childcare arrangement fell through.
Ms. is and was a feminist enterprise. We didn’t just talk the talk, or publish our principles; we walked the walk. So much for the anti-child accusation.
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN, a founding editor of Ms., is a writer and activist, the author of 12 books and consulting editor on Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be… You and Me.
BY ROBIN MORGAN
Starting in 1976, I became a Ms. contributing editor, then consulting editor, then editor. In 1989 (reluctantly!) I became editor in chief—and therein lies a tale. The magazine’s sale two years earlier had devolved into another sale, but the new owners’ glitzy approach (fashion, movie stars) drove loyal readers up a tree and Ms. down a hole. So it was resold to Lang Communications, which already published a number of feminist and working women’s periodicals. They “acquired” it, I believe, to use our mailing list, and they froze Ms.’ publication, claiming it was losing too much money.
Enter Gloria Steinem, eyes blazing, using her considerable persuasive powers to convince them that the Ms. audience was there. Simultaneously, she began a campaign to convince me to become editor in chief. “Ridiculous!” I laughed, terrified of following in Suzanne Braun Levine’s path-forging foot- steps, which had led us all through the original 16 years. Gloria argued that since I wrote books and had edited the by-then classic Sisterhood Is Powerful and Sisterhood Is Global anthologies, it would be “a breeze” to edit a national magazine. “You’re crazy!” I hooted. “Books are totally different from magazines!” But Gloria is one clever sister. She got me musing about what I’d ideally like to see in the magazine if (only hypothetically, you understand) it could be saved. I said it would return to its unashamedly feminist values and, what’s more, would be audaciously international.
Readers were hungry for international coverage they could find nowhere else: the first articles on women in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell; Gulf War coverage by women in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Iraq; the interview with Chai Ling, woman student leader of Tianan- men Square; and news we broke before anyone else believed it: ethnic rapes and brothel/death camps of thousands of women in the former Yugoslavia.
I’d warned Gloria I’d stay for only one year. But she’s really persuasive. So the year stretched to two, then three, and those unforgettable letters from women readers kept me going. Finally, I proudly handed the magazine over to the first woman of color to edit Ms., Marcia Gillespie.
ROBIN MORGAN was editor in chief at Ms. from 1989 to 1994; she now serves as global editor.