'Desperate Housewives' Causes Another Breakup


When the spring 2005 issue of Ms. magazine--the old feminist glossy that you almost forgot still existed--arrives on newsstands this week, readers might notice something a little odd. In the "Letter from the Editor" column, Ms. editor in chief Elaine Lafferty, 47, reveals that she's leaving the magazine after a two-year tenure. "In the last two years, I believe Ms. has been lively, provocative, thoughtful, and a fierce feminist example of advocacy journalism at its best," Ms. Lafferty writes in the letter. "I wish the magazine's owners all the best as they move forward with the kind of publication they envision."

The mildly worded letter only hints at the turmoil that lies beneath the surface. According to sources at the magazine with knowledge of the decision, Ms. Lafferty was asked to tender her resignation after months of tension between herself, and the magazine's owner and publisher, the nonprofit Arlington, Va.-based Feminist Majority Foundation. The official resignation on March 15 put an end to a dissonance between Ms. Lafferty and the foundation that went beyond differing perspectives on the editorial vision of Ms. magazine, and that reflected differing approaches to feminism itself. Many Ms. staffers seem baffled about the falling-out.

Ms. Lafferty declined to discuss her resignation from Ms., other than to say that "the matter has been resolved." Eleanor Smeal, 65, a leader in the women's-rights movement, former head of the National Organization for Women and current president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said simply: "She resigned and that's where it is. Change is constant and we know that, and we thought it had to happen at this stage, and we're now onto another stage."

Several staffers reported that Ms. Lafferty had suggested back in January that things might not work out for her at Ms. The Feminist Majority Foundation was unhappy with her stewardship of the magazine and felt that it was becoming too commercial, according to staffers. An emergency meeting was held in January between Ms. Smeal, founding editor Gloria Steinem, 71, global editor Robin Morgan, 54, Ms. Lafferty and others. According to people with knowledge of the meeting, Ms. Steinem and Ms. Morgan made a last-ditch effort to find a way for Ms. Lafferty to remain at Ms. But their efforts failed, and a legal agreement was signed outlining the terms of Ms. Lafferty's exit. (Ms. Lafferty was represented by the powerhouse feminist discrimination attorney Gloria Allred in the negotiation.)

Ms. Smeal wouldn't confirm that the meeting took place. "We meet a lot," she said, adding, "She gave us two good years, and they were critical years, and we're pleased with where the magazine is at."

When asked about the meeting, Ms. Morgan said: "I'm just not going to go there; I just don't think that's particularly productive. People tried with as much good will as possible on all sides to make this parting as civilized and decent as possible--and I think succeeded--for the good of the magazine and for the good of the women's movement. Particularly these days, with the assault from on high that we're seeing--everybody was in agreement that they wanted to handle things as gracefully as possible."

By many accounts, Ms. had been doing well after a long period of uncertainty. The magazine's recent--some might say startling--nomination for an American Society of Magazine Editors award, for Martha Mendoza's wrenching essay about abortion in the summer 2004 issue, edged Ms. closer to mainstream publications such as Esquire and The New Yorker. In the last few years, the magazine's debt load had "dramatically improved," website traffic was up, circulation had increased (currently estimated by the publishers at 110,000), and letters to the editor had been "smashingly good," according to Ms. Smeal. The magazine hosted a few high-profile events in the past year, including a mobbed reading with Gloria Steinem at the Union Square Barnes and Noble and another starlet-studded party in Los Angeles attended by the likes of Brittany Murphy and Kathy Najimy.

"I thought she was doing very well," said Ms. Steinem of Ms. Lafferty's editorship. "She's done a very good job of publishing important articles."

In a letter printed in Ms. Lafferty's final issue, the three "Editors Emeriti," Ms. Steinem, Ms. Morgan and Suzanne Braun Levine, a well-known feminist author, thanked Ms. Lafferty for producing "a fine feminist magazine over the past two years, with solid, lively journalism that has increased readership and financial stability."

Some readers were responding as well. "I am going to be a subscriber until I'm six feet under, because it's so important, but there were a number of years where I subscribed but didn't read it, because I didn't feel that it reflected me," said Valerie Salembier, the publisher of Harper's Bazaar. "But in the past couple of years, I have loved it again."

Decades after its founding in 1971 by Ms. Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and four other editors as the voice of the women's movement and the first national feminist publication, the magazine's readership began to seep away, especially in the '90s, when core feminist values such as abortion rights seemed secure under President Clinton and Ms. lost some of its urgency. Ms. Steinem, Marcia Gillespie, a former Ms. editor in chief, and a collection of other feminist activists kept the magazine alive, watching it juggled between publishers like a precious paperweight.

By the time the Feminist Majority Foundation bought the magazine in 2001, it was a tremendous relief--placing the magazine in friendly, not-for-profit hands represented its salvation. Ms. had a debt of over $2 million and a dwindling newsstand presence--and everyone involved knew that the death of Ms. would be a tremendous symbolic loss.

It was the first venture into publishing for the Feminist Majority Foundation, which had been focused on doing battle over issues such as Title IX, Afghan women and reproductive rights. They moved the Ms. editorial offices from New York to available office space in Los Angeles, installed an associate publisher and hired Tracy Wood, an investigative reporter from the Orange County Register, to edit the magazine. Ms. Wood lasted less than six months--and never produced an issue--before stepping down. Ms. Lafferty was recruited in 2003 after spending most of her career working as a reporter, at Time for 10 years and later as an Irish Times correspondent covering Kosovo, the Middle East and Afghanistan. When the Ms. gig came up, Ms. Lafferty was completing a book with Greta Van Susteren called My Turn at the Bully Pulpit: Straight Talk About the Things That Drive Me Nuts.

When she started as editor in chief of Ms. in March 2003, "there was no inventory, no staff--it was like a startup, and they needed a summer issue," said Ms. Lafferty. She assembled a masthead, with a handful of employees based in California and a poetry editor, fiction editor and designer scattered along the East Coast.

"My vision of Ms. was that it would be a thinking woman's magazine--a feminist magazine for sure, but my vision of feminism is a big tent," said Ms. Lafferty. "As the original Ms. was; they didn't check membership cards at the door. I don't believe in dogma, in exclusion or rhetoric. I thought it could be a magazine that invites women into the conversation about how we live today."

One of her ways of doing that was by drifting into territory that might be seen as sexier--or, to some, fluffier--and possibly beyond the realm of concern for traditional feminists, who remember the days before anti-discrimination laws and Roe v. Wade. One such example was a feature about the television show Desperate Housewives, which is on the cover of the current issue. The cover text: "Desperate Housewives: Do We Hate It or Secretly Love It?" appears in block letters on a pink background, as stark as a Bank of China billboard. Inside is a debate about whether the show objectifies women or empowers them.

According to Ms. Lafferty and other staffers at the magazine, lawyers for the Feminist Majority Foundation objected to the original cover that had been designed for the issue. It featured the apron-clad torso of a buxom woman with the words "Desperate Housewives" across her ample bosom and a triangle of black text between her legs. Just as the issue was going to press, the cover was pulled and exchanged for the plain one.

"In this case, our attorneys felt that it was too close to the ABC trademark," said Ms. Smeal. "The apron--we can't afford lawsuits like that. From the beginning I've said to everyone involved in this magazine, 'I'm willing to take any risk for freedom of speech and furthering the cause of feminism, but I'm willing to take no risk for something that has nothing to do with either.'"

Ms. Lafferty felt that the legal excuse was a front for concerns about the image being too provocative. She said she'd consulted other lawyers who felt there was no problem with trademark infringement, but that Ms. Smeal and Katherine Spillar, the executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, were firm.

To some feminists, Desperate Housewives and its frolicking sexpots might seem downright offensive, but Ms. Steinem, for one, said that the show is accomplishing some important things.

"It's showing that women can be sexual without penalty, as did Sex and the City, and it certainly should stop any flow of women from the paid labor force into the suburbs," said Ms. Steinem. "It's giving work to actresses over 40 who would probably not otherwise be considered sexual beings. Desperate Housewives is not important, [but] you start a conversation with Desperate Housewives because many people have seen it, and then the conversation can go deeper after that. It's a shared reference."

At first glance, the ASME-nominated abortion essay by Martha Mendoza--a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for investigative reporting--seems like classic feminist material, but according to Ms. Lafferty, it was the source of another struggle between herself and the publishers. In "Between a Woman and Her Doctor," Ms. Mendoza recounts the agony she went through to obtain a late-term abortion after she found out, 19 weeks along, that the baby growing inside her had died.

However, according to Ms. Lafferty, Ms. Spillar objected to the language describing the "baby" and its body parts. From Ms. Lafferty's perspective, the piece transcended politics, but concerns about the political use of language in the abortion-rights controversy are a major preoccupation for feminists at the moment; for some feminists, using the word "baby" (instead of "fetus") in a story about abortion violates a cardinal rule. Ms. Spillar said that she "had no recollection of any conversation like that" and added that, in general, "publishers and editors go back and forth all the time."

In an earlier dispute, Jennifer Jackman, who worked with Ms. Smeal, raised objections to an illustration that accompanied a 2003 essay by Bruce Stockler, "The Roles of Attraction," about his experiences raising four kids while his wife went off to work. Ms. Jackman (who has since left the Feminist Majority Foundation and was unavailable for comment) felt that the doodle of the upside-down wife and right-side-up husband might imply domestic abuse, according to Ms. Lafferty. Ms. Smeal said she didn't recall the incident and that she intervened in the magazine's editorial content only very rarely. In the end, the drawing ran.

Ms. Lafferty said that she often felt confused about what the Feminist Majority Foundation wanted from the magazine.

"They did not suggest any particular demographic or vision, other than very political and very narrow in their definition of a feminist," said Ms. Lafferty. "It felt like it wasn't enough that you believed women needed equality, but that you had to sign on to a lot of causes." She said she was contemplating starting a new publication, a "current-affairs magazine aimed at women," and convened a meeting of potential editors and investors two weeks ago.

Ms. Smeal said that she felt Ms. was moving "in the right direction" and that despite Ms. Lafferty's departure, most of the editorial staff would remain for the time being. She said that they were open to an editor in chief with either journalism or magazine experience, but that they will "think outside the box, too."

"We're in a search [for an editor in chief], and we've decided not to hurry. This is a unique position, and it takes some thinking," said Ms. Smeal. "We feel like we're still in transition; we all feel like we're looking forward to the next thing. It's still a work in progress."

Ms. Smeal outlined goals that included continuing to grow the magazine's online presence, increasing the number of issues from four to six or more annually, launching more pieces of investigative journalism and raising the media visibility of Ms. editors and writers by having them appear on the radio or television. She cited The Weekly Standard and National Review as small publications that had succeeded this way.

Bia Lowe, Ms.'s poetry editor, said she's still waiting to hear if she'll be staying on. "It sort of seems like the publisher is resistant to success and expansion. There's a tone of accommodating loser versus a desire to win," said Ms. Lowe. "There really is a place for the kind of magazine they want and the kind of magazine Elaine wants, but they just don't happen to be the same."

In some corners, at least, Ms.'s role in the world remains obvious.

"What's important is that women have two jobs, one at home and one outside the home," said Ms. Steinem. "And we have to make sure that in the future, this is not the only country in the world with no child care, no health care, you know? That's important. There should be a women's satellite radio station, there should be a complete revolution in the media we see. We're in deep shit here."

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