Wake Up and Smell the Estrogen -- The Return of Ms. Magazine

After a six-month publishing hiatus and several years of rough times -- suffering from what one insider called Battered Women's Movement Syndrome -- Ms. Magazine is back on the newsstands with a new lease on life.The 26-year-old periodical is finally liberated with an-all new group of wealthy female owners, including Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems and Urban Decay nail polish. The magazine now faces the challenge of finding a new generation of readers while also keeping their loyal subscribers, who remember the magazine as a defining voice for a generation of women.This fresh start ends a nightmarish phase for Ms., which included years of neglect by a series of corporate owners resulting in unpaid writers, general disorganization, and editorial malaise. The most recent owner, MacDonald Communications Corp., which also owns Working Woman and Working Mother, suspended publication of Ms. in September 1998.Despite the revamping and infusion of cash, there are some big questions for the new Ms.: Will the readers return? Can the magazine bridge the gap between second- and third-wave feminists and motivate younger women who may see feminism as a retro thing from the '70s? Is there an important political role for Ms. in the sexually polarized politics and rapid high-tech communications of 1999? Or will the magazine continue to operate on the margins of small circulation and lost influence?While the owners are new, the overall editorial leadership remains essentially the same. Gloria Steinem, perhaps the world's most well-recognized feminist, is chairwoman and consulting editor of the reincarnated book, and Marcia Anne Gillespie, one of the few African American women editors of a national magazine, is president and editor-in-chief. Steinem, possessing the stamina of a long-distance runner, has been with the magazine from its very first day, while Gillespie has been a contributing editor since 1980, and executive editor and editor-in-chief since 1993.Why did Steinem and Gillespie fight to keep Ms. alive? Gillespie frankly admits that when Ms. ceased publishing many commented that the magazine had outlived it's usefulness. "Among them were ex-readers who claimed they'd outgrown it long ago, young women who thought the magazine didn't speak to their generation, and the professional feminist-bashers who dismissed it," she says.Steinem explains that she went out and bought every women's magazine she could find on the newsstand:"There were good articles on women's health and sports -- though none citing additives in food, running shoes made in sweatshops, or other problems uncomfortable for advertisers -- but I found almost no fiction or poetry, investigative reporting, diverse or realistic images of women, guides to political issues, news of the international women's movement, or articles suggesting that women could act together, not just improve themselves as individuals. In other words, there was little recognition that the world could change to fit women, not the other way around."Gillespie feels strongly that Ms. has to fulfill a special role to: " ... address a society that places too much emphasis on individual shortcomings, on generational, racial, cultural and class divides and on women's differences in opinion..." Gillespie promises a different magazine. She told the LA Times "The major change is that we're lightening up. There's a real change in tone; we want to be more conversational like talking around the kitchen table."But Ms. will have a tough row to hoe to build its readership base. One recent report put the current circulation at 65,000, and finding new readers will be an expensive proposition with the brutal costs of magazine publishing, including subscriber acquisition, printing and postage -- all without an advertising base, as Ms. remains advertising free. At the same time, new media technologies have attracted heavy traffic to women's Web sites, which is very much where the action is today. Clearly Ms. has a well-recognized brand, but one that could actually act as a liability because of associations with its past.One tricky task for the magazine's leadership is on which audience -- younger or older -- to focus its attention. To reestablish itself, Ms. may have no choice but to appeal to the millions of aging baby boomers who have been Ms. readers through the decades. Many, including men like myself, associate the magazine with an important coming-of-age experience. My personal version dates back to the early days of the magazine, when I and thousands of other men read an article in Ms. about how men could participate in the women's consciousness-raising group phenomenon by having our own groups address sexism and attitudes toward women. My group lasted for more than three years and sparked several long-lasting friendships. These groups made it clear that while sexism was an enduring problem, the more pressing problem was men's difficulty creating an intimacy with one another that extended beyond locker room talk.The world has changed dramatically since those days. The '60s have been effectively demonized, feminism stigmatized for younger women, and particularly for men. Male attitudes toward women and relationships often seem headed back to the stone age and most male efforts at organizing on relationship issues -- such as the hugely publicized Promise Keepers movement -- are considered reactionary by most women.Ophira Edut, at 26 the magazine's youngest editor (born the year Ms. launched), is fully aware that younger women have felt excluded by Ms. "We don't want to scare off loyal readers," she says, "but we want to reflect feminism today, which is more casual, joyful, diverse. For Edut, "the main difference is that second wavers didn't grow up with feminism as a reality, and third wavers were born into a world where feminism already existed. As a result, feminism is more of a "lifestyle" for third wavers, something we expect will always be there. This alarms some second wavers, who know firsthand how rights can be taken away if women don't keep fighting to protect them.If for second wavers the personal is political, then for third wavers, the political is personal. In the past, women's unfulfilling lives were their springboard into feminism. Now, feminism can be women's springboard into fulfilling lives -- into travel, sports, careers, education, politics, and an unprecedented expression of our potential. I don't mean that we should stop fighting for our rights. But we need to have some fun along the way."Ms. has never been one to shrink from problems and tackling global concerns continues to be a centerpiece of its mission. In its relaunch issue the magazine addresses the ramifications of violence on abortion clinics, the proliferation of human rights abuses around the world -- police brutality, harsh prison conditions, the impact of the death penalty -- as well women's efforts to break through patriarchal hierarchy and become priests and much more.However, one article in the new issue, "Hearts and Minds," by Mary Thom, is no doubt particularly disturbing for the magazine's leadership. It details the trend of women becoming more conservative on social issues and includes results of a poll revealing that 53 percent of women favor severely restricting or banning abortion outright, an eight percent jump in just two years."We were stunned by the erosion of support for abortion rights," says Faye Wattelton, founder of the think tank Center for Gender Equality, which released the findings.While Ms has gotten older, new ground has been broken by younger feminists, particularly by Bust magazine, a popular zine considered the bible of "girl culture," which has made a point of reappropriating feminine things in the name of feminism. Also attracting attention is ChickClick.com a feisty Web portal for young women."Girl Culture girls have transformed what it means to be female in the 90s," writes Ann Powers of the Bust phenomenon in Spin Magazine. "Unlike conventional feminism, which focused on women's socially imposed weaknesses, Girl Culture assumes that women are free agents in the world, that they start out strong and that the odds are in their favor."Attitude is certainly one of the fault lines between the generations. Many younger women enthusiastically embrace style and attractiveness and don't see it as detracting from their abilities or their success. These younger women seem comfortable with being subject as well as object while more veteran feminists have a hard time thinking that reappropriating things feminine is anything but a trap. Older feminists had to make the long, hard fight to be taking seriously for their smarts, ideas and competence, so being a sex object was clearly to be avoided.The new Ms. appears to be aware that it needs to lighten up by publishing personal voice articles that dare to confront PC taboos and are more relevant to the challenges and paradoxes of everyday life. In Saving Face, Laurie Stone writes, somewhat triumphantly, about having a $12,000 face lift and shows the photographs that clearly demonstrate the miracles of modern cosmetic medicine.An article about adultery illustrates the wide range of opinion among feminists on this issue. On the one hand, Marcelle Clements writes: "We live in an era where infidelity is like red meat; the positives rarely get brought up. I'm really in favor of adultery. I think there is a big difference between having an affair to hurt your spouse and having an erotic vitality that is fulfilled in having sex with a person you don't live with. How about adultery with scruples?"Compare that with Letty Pogrebin, who offers: "For me adultery is an absolutely out-of-the question option. I am so strongly committed to monogamy in my marriage... If either of us were sleeping with somebody else, it would compromise the intimacy in a way I could never recover from."Transcending the generational chasm may be daunting, but the biggest challenge to Ms. may be how much the communications technology has changed the media world. Ms.' main competition for audience interest will likely come from the Web. Finding relevance will be difficult while publishing a non-advertising, bi-monthly magazine at a time when the news cycle has been reduced to a matter of hours .Women-oriented Web sites, like I Village, and other Web locations, such as Salon's popular Mother's Who Think and Table Talk section, are attracting millions of visitors, far more than any circulation Ms. could dream of. I Village recently raised $292 million according to Denise Caruso in the New York Times, " giving the company a market valuation of $2.2 billion, an astonishing figure considering its widely publicized financial problems and underwhelming popularity ratings."The new Ms. is not oblivious to technology, but it does seem an afterthought. The magazine has announced there will be a Web site The April/May issue on the newsstand includes a section called Techno Fem, with a smart piece written by Debbie Stoler, a co-editor of the aforementioned Bust magazine, about going online for emergency contraception.To succeed, Ms. will have to address the fact that their credibility has taken a beating throughout the past few years. Some feminists see the magazine as having been less than honest about itself and the world in its pursuit of a political agenda. In a recent Bust article entitled "Ms.ery," a former Ms. editor using the pseudonym "Gloria Stymied" accuses the magazine of losing its soul, "suffering from a psyche that invaded the magazine that may have been more damaging than the neglectful owners... The problem is what some have called Battered Women's Movement Syndrome, which occurs when feminists have grown so exhausted and defensive from years of dyke-baiting, internalized homophobia, Pat Robertson, and reading that they are dead in Time magazine, that they stop telling the truth in order to 'protect feminism.'"Ms. magazine's best bet for regaining credibility may be in its willingness to publish previously heretical opinions and making the personal the political. Ophira Edut, editor of the recently published "Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Images and Identity," advocates that "the magazine is strong on news and politics -- but it needs more flavor and attitude. My vision is that the magazine should feel like a women's bathroom; a place where women gather, guards down, to talk about anything -- and no topic is taboo." Editor Gillespie wants a kitchen table, Edut, the bathroom. Still a generational difference, but the "conversation" sounds much more eye-to-eye.The new Ms is promising, with good-quality writing and more diversity of topics and voices. The editors couldn't resist including Andrea Dworken, but then Candida Royalle, creator of erotica also makes an appearance. On the minus side, the magazine still needs a lot of work on its image and marketing. The front-cover tagline, "Wake Up and Smell the Estrogen," while humorous for a second, ends up seeming a bit bizarre, especially in terms of appealing to young readers. The cover design -- a gaping mouth filled with pearls (need wisdom?... get it ) is off-putting as well. To insiders, the changes no doubt seem huge, but with a two-color format and rather earnest look the magazine may continue to seem dowdy to new readers.Overall, if the depth of current social problems are the measure, then the magazine is clearly needed and has taking some good first steps. Young Edut sums it all up nicely: "This first issue is the beginning of a process. It's not perfect, and it's not quite where we want to be. Change is hard when you have a 26-year legacy to maintain. How can we let Ms. evolve in step with feminism, to make it fun without succumbing to the shallow, trivial fluff that passes for content in so many women's magazines today? It ain't easy. But we sure do have some interesting conversations along the way."


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