Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ms.magazine: This is what 35 years looks like

President Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex, but even he would be horrified by the Faustian bargain we see in today's neoliberal model of globalization. Not to be confused with the political liberalism of John Stuart Mill, neoliberalism is characterized by investigative reporter Naomi Klein as a "holy trinity" -- privatization, deregulation and cuts to social spending -- in which governments dismantle trade barriers, abandon public ownership, reduce taxes, eliminate the minimum wage, cut health and welfare spending, and privatize education. She calls the means of achieving this goal "disaster capitalism" and describes how it has resulted in a worldwide redistribution of income and wealth to the already rich at the expense of economic solvency for the middle and lower classes.

Vanderbilt University's Ronnie Steinberg opens her book review ("Catastrophe Complex") of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism with the above in the latest issue of Ms. magazine. The fall 2007 issue isn't just any issue, it's the 35th anniversary issue. Thirty-five years proper.

Thirty-six is approaching as well. That's due to the fact that Ms. had a trial run as a thirty-page supplement in the December 20, 1971 issue of New York magazine with a preview issue released nationally (and with New York magazine keeping all the advertising revenues for both the supplement and the preview issue and half the revenues from sales of the magazine). Among those producing this trial run were Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Nina Finkelstein, Joanne Edgar, Bina Bernard and Mary Peacock. The magazine proper would publish it's first official issue in July of 1972 which is the 35th anniversary it's now celebrating.

Though the magazine had some early supporters from outside the movement (including New York's Clay Felker and David Frost), it also many attackers such as Harry Reasoner who pompously predicted the magazine would die after six months -- at which point, he argued, it would have "ran out of things to say."

Those types were dismissive of feminism as well (The New York Times infamously dubbed the movement "a passing fad"). The need for a magazine like Ms. was noted long before it debuted. Many point to Frieda Kirchwey's 1921 statement about the need for a magazine that would "spread the feminist revolution."

You can also look to what women were covering prior to Ms. In 1962, Gloria Steinem, a freelance writer, was calling out the movie industry's limited (non-existent?) views on female sexuality in Esquire's "The Moral Disarmament of Betty Coed" -- a thought that didn't occur to many in the press then or now. A woman was "Miss" or "Mrs." a division that served notice to women which side of the fence they'd better end up on (married). As many, including Marlo Thomas, have noted, in those days the term such as "spouse abuse" were unknown and violence was considered a "personal problem" or, in the case of rape, something a woman must have invited. Abortion was illegal (the trial issue of Ms. would feature Barbaralee Diamonstein's "Women Tell the Truth about Their Abortions"; the magazine would offer "I have had an abortion" in 1972 signed by Lee Grant, Grace Paley, Anne Sexton, Anais Nin, Nora Ephron, Billie Jean King, Susan Sontag, Barbara Tuchman, Lillian Hellman and others, many other article would follow but it's worth noting that in the fall 2006 issue, Ms. would run "We Had Abortions") and gender-segregation could be found in the home and the work place. On the latter, women had made tremendous strides during both World Wars but the return of service men (gender used intentionally) meant a purging of the work force on government orders.

A magazine like Ms. had long been needed just in terms of addressing issues that the media wasn't addressing. The media wasn't just the mainstream, it also included the pitiful "women's magazines" and the left. Ruth Rosen, in The World Split Open, recounts how she, Susan Griffin and others attempted a late night coup, Radio Free Women, at KPFA in the summer of 1970 due to the fact that the Pacifica station "continued to stonewall requests for programs by and about women" (page 206). Though strides have been made within the country, let's not kid that a lot's changed at most outlets. The Nation magazine felt the need to contact us July 2nd of this year to insist they were aware of the problem the magazine had (printing 3.4 males for every female byline) and that they were working to fix it, why, they were hiring female bloggers! As if that would address the tremendous imbalance in the print magazine (which is what we were tracking) and as if online writing fetches the same prestige or money articles in print do.

Or take the response to Air America Radio. In it's first year, only The Washington Post would profile Randi Rhodes while all the other dailies ran non-stop coverage of Baby Cries A Lot. Rhodes was actually a proven audience getter long before Air America Radio began broadcasting. But the mainstream media was far more interested in a failed (male) TV and movie actor who wrote a few books that lost steam about half-way in. And in our independent media?

The Progressive and The Nation would serve up cover stories on Baby Cries A Lot -- ignoring Randi Rhodes and the other women involved. Mother Jones would run a non-cover story interview with Lizz Winstead. The late and lamented Clamor would run a strong interview with Laura Flanders. Janeane Garofalo? Ms. could and did put her on the cover in 2003 (pre-AAR) but the left publications weren't interested in her unless it was time to play 'balanced' and offer criticism of AAR at which point -- most infamously in The Nation -- it was time to have a meltdown and insist she was crude and not-funny. It was time for males to insist that, of course. Unlike Baby Cries A Lot, Garofalo was actually against the illegal war and, unlike Baby Cries A Lot, she actually was a successful stand up comic. But the problem was with her and not a sexist pig (yes, "Son of Women's Lib" can turn out to be very sexist), The Nation wanted to tell you -- the same magazine that began 2007 with a book review sliming two women journalists, a book review by a pig who decided to open his review by remembering a visit to a whorehouse in Afghanistan. Those examples (there are many, many more that can be offered) only to serve to demonstrate how timely Robin Morgan's "Goodbye to All That" (The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968-1992) still (sadly) is.

Ms. was needed then and is needed now.

The magazine hasn't been without its problems. It's been non-profit, for-profit, no advertising, advertising, monthly and quarterly. Those and other problems resulted from the demands of advertisers as Gloria Steinem documented in her 1990 essay "Sex, Lies and Advertising" now most easily available in Steinem's Moving Beyond Words. Ms. was too political, it didn't feature articles that would go well along side cosmetic ads (meaning 'how to' articles because applying lipstick is so damn difficult that we really do need instructions -- or maybe it's that they think we're too stupid to figure application out on our own?), bruised egos of the (male) heads of companies, etc. The 1990 decision to go ad free follows the most criticized period of the magazine, Anne Summers' era, which Susan Faludi documents in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women:

When Summers took over from Steinem in 1987, she decided much like Good Housekeeping's editors, that Ms.'s image needed "updating." What it seemed to add up to, though, was upscaling -- a strategy that the magazine's previous management had already begun to embrace in the mid-80s. Now that Ms. was a profit-making concern, the magazine was primarily interested in claiming women readers with high incomes.

This move (which we are not justifying) is due to advertising. Large circulation isn't important to advertisers, what is important is 'desirable' demographics. They would rather purchase ads in a magazine reaching 70,000 'big spenders' than in a magazine with a circulation of a million if the demographics of that million included many low income readers. Back to Faludi (all excerpts from page 109 - 110):

To further the upscale marketing of Ms., Summers hired a market research firm to conduct consumer focus groups around the country. Only women in households making more than $30,000 a year were invited. . . . "one of the things that emerged from the groups was that -- especially in the young age groups -- there was this incredible resistance to the word 'feminist,'" Summers says. One might have thought Ms.'s whole mission was to tackle that resistance, to show women that "feminist" was a word they might embrace instead of fear, to explain how American culture had demonized that word precisely because it offered such potential power for women. The magazine could, in fact, have helped fight the backlash by exposing it, and driving home the point that feminism simply meant supporting women's rights and choices. This was, after all, an agenda that the women in the focus group uniformly supported; every woman interviewed said she believed she shouldn't have to choose between family and career.
But instead of revitalizing the word, Summers came close to redlining it. "I think we have to be very careful in the ways we use it," Summers said in 1998. "Often you can say 'woman' and it means the same thing." But as subsequent issues of Ms. would make abundantly clear, "woman" and "feminist" are not interchangeable.

Two things to note there. First, Margaret Cho, Ashley Judd, and others would appear this decade in the Ms. sponsored "This is what feminism looks like" ads. And Yoko Ono is quoted in the 35th anniversary issue explaining, "I don't think we should be intimidated by the people who started to smear the name 'feminism.' Feminism is celebrating the feminine quality in all of us, embracing men who wish to cherish their feminine side as well. Change the name and they will intimidate us again." Second, Ms. can be criticized.

The latter hasn't always been the case -- except from outside the movement. Ellen Willis and others did criticize it early on. Willis was with Ms. at its inception and it's sad that her passing didn't receive significant attention from the magazine. One could argue old wounds die hard but that wouldn't explain the outpouring for The Ego Of Us All who regularly (and publicly) trashed Ms., trashed Gloria Steinem, trashed everyone. When Jim, Ava and C.I. spoke with friends of Ava and C.I.'s who had been with and/or are now with the magazine, that was the one issue repeatedly cited as needing to be addressed: The Ego Of Us All.

Those talks occurred immediately after Pacifica's From The Vault did a laughable and shameful 'report' on The Ego Of Us All that sidestepped the vileness of the woman. That episode allowed TEOUA to repeat the false smear against Steinem (which we don't repeat because they were so damaging at the time -- we don't even repeat them to refute them but in an attempts* in the past, we've noted the Redstockings had a legitimate concern and they raised it, TEOUA had no legitimate concern, she merely wanted to destroy Steinem and took to repeating those charges over and over). They provided only a small sample of TEOUA's racism (Wakeupcall Radio broadcast much more self-damning statements from the same 70s conference back when the media was having a love-fest over the passing of TEOUA). The episode refused to raise the issue that TEOUA insisted abortion not be part of the feminist movement, insisted lesbians not be part of the feminist movement, sidelined women of color (that's putting it mildly) and on every issue under the sun ran to the right (which is how she ended up serving on a panel for Ronald Reagan during the 80s). TEOUA knew how to grab from the work of the others which came in handy with her insta-'classic' that ripped off Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. And she knew how to market herself (just a 'housewife' prior to researching the book).

We were told the online tribute received much criticism -- including the fact that Coretta Scott King was being overlooked. (To Ms.' credit, they then began taking responses from online readers about Coretta Scott King.) And that criticism flared up again when Grace Paley passed away and no tribute page was created for her. As one feminist wondered, "Why the hell are we honoring that woman who was so determined to destroy us?" A very good question. When lefty-ish writers at non-feminist publications noted her, we could pin it on the fact that they shared The Ego Of Us All's closeted politics. (And are just as closeted about that as was TEOUA.) But at Ms., the general consensus was, TEOUA got the glowing and undeserved tribute due to Steinem who will bend over backwards to be kind.

We're not slamming her for that (nor would we ever slam Steinem) but that is at the root of it and at the root of the magazine for most of its life -- a desire to be fair and stress the positive when it comes to other women. That attitude is ingrained in the magazine even today. Which is why you get uncritical praise for "firsts" far too often. That's how The New York Times' Gail Collins can win praise for being a "first" and, right before the issue hits the stand, pen a heavily circulated e-mail announcing that she's not concerned with women being represented on the op-ed pages of the paper, just in hiring the best writer. (The circulation of that e-mail is the only reason Collins began having women fill in for vacationing columnists. The e-mail Collins wrote was defending the fact that she had utilized a male guest columnist to fill in for the paper's sole female columnist who was off working on a book.) That "first" was a worst, for those who forgot, and more women (not that many, agreed) appear on the op-ed pages now that Collins is no longer editor of the pages. (Collins herself now appears on those pages). Collins had to replace two columnists during her reign -- Bill Keller and William Safire. She selected two men. Those who read that much forwarded e-mail weren't really at all surprised by the fact that, despite two openings during her reign, she came into the job with one female columnist already writing for the op-ed pages (Maureen Dowd) and left it the same way.

Readers have always held Ms. accountable (most notably when, this decade, the magazine offered a feature article on Mad Maddie Albright) but one of the most positive changes has been the openess of criticism. That includes Ani DiFranco objecting that an article on her career focused on the monetary, that includes Naomi Wolf noting her disagreement over a comic or what she sees as treating the readers like children on the issue of pornography (see pages 189 and 90 of Wolf's Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century) and many, many more. Credit for that, from feminists we spoke to, was usually given to Alice Walker who has repeatedly found a way to publicly offer negative criticism or corrections in a calm voice.

Walker deserves that credit (and far more) but the thing is, criticism from those supportive of the magazine was never something that needed to be feared. Steinem was always open to criticism, always eager to hear it and always willing to consider it (that also includes criticism from those not supportive of the magazine). But in terms of what made it into the magazine, she was generally the first to express a concern about how it might be hurtful to another feminist. (Again, we are not slamming her for that. And C.I. and Ava still raise that issue on features we do here.) Due to the collective writing nature of the early issues, this attitude was reflected not only in early issues but has been carried through today and, for years, was carried out by all but readers as well.

The same attitude has led to many topics being covered that wouldn't have been otherwise. Things that could have been dismissed as "unimportant" got a hearing (far ahead of any mainstream coverage) and expanded understanding.

Which is what Ms. has been doing now for 35 years as a regular magazine (36 if you count the preview): Expanding our understanding. Originally thought of as a magazine that would reach out to those discovering feminism, it's now a magazine far more challenging that many involved in the early days would have guessed. First principles was going to be the hallmark and, though they still matter today, it's also evolved into much more. That's partly due to the fact that readers once expected to move on to other periodicals tend to stay or return because there is not a great deal out there. (That is not an insult to Off Our Backs, which we consider a must read. It is noting that two or a few magazines do not a publishing revolution make.) It's also due to the fact that even with so much that the feminist movement has accomplished, there is still so much more to be done.

This decade's Ms. has offered a number of contributions and chief among them is Martha Burk's column. That was the most cited advancement. Why? Because as a society, we're not really taught to think about money in great detail. Women especially, but true over all. You can think about it in terms of the immediate bills but in terms of planning the future, most Americans aren't taught about that -- especially those from the lower classes. In terms of women, it's why interviewers love to ask women what salary they're looking for -- while most men will shoot for the sky, women -- as conditioned by society -- are far more likely to devalue their own worth. In the 35th anniversary issue, Burk addresses the issue of political contributions and notes, "In today's political scene, a new challenge confronts women voters: getting candidates elected who will make a difference on the issues women most care about. And that means getting those candidates funded. . . . With women still earning nearly 25 percent less than men, there's no question that women overall have less to give. But even that's not the real problem: Political giving in this country, even by individuals, is still driven by the good-ol'-boy networks such as big-time law firms (the highest giving sector) and corporations."

For us, the standout articles were by L.S. Kim and Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Tone. The latter two offer an excerpt from their new book Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet and Shook Up Politics Along the Way. L.S. Kim offers "Air Time" which explores the realities of women in the news media today. Carole Simpson notes, "When Viagra became available, we had stories about the 'wonder drug' night after night on the evening news. But when the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen showed promise for women suffering the disease, newswomen had to fight to get that story on the air, and stories about hormone replacement therapy, the lack of women in government medical studies, the abortion debate and in vitro fertilization." On the heels of the attacks on Katie Couric (and they are attacks when no one bothers to offer critiques of the two male news anchors and they are attacks when they start before Couric even begins her job -- see "Katie Was A Cheerleader" for more on that), it's a story worth telling and a topic worth examining.

What bothered us about the issue? We continue to be bothered by the reduction of "letters." What Ms. might miss covering in the articles, reviews and features, readers could always be counted on to address in the "letters" section. With Ms. informed readership, four pages of letters just doesn't seem adequate to us.

"then & now" offers a look at accomplishments on key issues since 1972. For those who have any doubts about the importance of Ms. (then or now), check out pages twelve and thirteen of the 35th anniversary issue. And, lastly, a former editor of the magazine suggested to us that "then & now" would be a great format for a regular feature where an activist today and one of yesterday were spotlighted -- it would provide historical education while also providing coverage for today's emerging feminist activists.

*Added by Jim 10/22: A number of e-mails from regular readers and drive-bys asking if they'd missed the "attempts"? Attempts refers to about six different tries to address that topic. That was in features, mailbags and roundtables. C.I. has always been up for trying to address it but C.I., Elaine, Rebecca and Ava have always killed the attempt -- either killing the feature or killing that section. The first three lived through that period while Ava heard about her through her aunt and mother repeatedly over the years. All four note it was very damaging. About a year ago, Ruth explained that period while helping us out with a feature. Though we never questioned their right to kill those attempts, we grasped how damaging the period was after Ruth detailed it at length. One thing that was stressed in all attempts was that no one's blaming the Redstockings who were honestly concerned. The movement should address concerns. The damage came from The Ego Of Us All repeating the charges out of her own desire to destroy any woman who she thought was replacing her. From The Vault allowed TEOUS to make the charges again -- from the grave. Our most recent attempt to address it came early this summer or late this spring when a Bob -- I forget his last name -- e-mailed an interview he'd conducted with Laura Flanders. We enjoyed the interview. We looked at the site and saw TEOUA's charges repeated there. Our initial reaction -- our being Dona, Ty, Jess and myself -- was to say, "Forget it, no link." When C.I. learned of it, it was wondered if we could note, "We don't agree with the rumor on ____ but we're not gatekeepers and the site has strong writing and is run with passion." So we all considered it but kept coming back to the issue. The same charges are made at that site about other people who are also friends of Ava and C.I. and they couldn't care less in regards to that. They don't believe the charges, but have the attitude people are entitled to their view points. With regards to the attack on Steinem, however, that was so damaging (to the movement and to Steinem) and so intense that after again attempting it with no success, we said "No more tries." But, to be clear, the Redstockings are not a group we have a beef with or a group we don't support. Our beef is with The now dead Ego Of Us All who wasn't interested in hearing any response, just in repeating false charges to try to tear down another woman.
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