NORTHAMPTON — “How do you archive a feeling?” asks Maureen Cresci Callahan, an archivist for the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College. We’re sitting in a reading room named for Gloria Steinem (class of ′56) on the third floor of the Neilson Library designed by “starchitect” Maya Lin, a sacred space of sisterhood if there ever was one.
These archives house 372 boxes of records from Ms., the feminist magazine that Steinem, 89, co-founded, and that turned 50 last year. I’ve come here searching for a sense of what it felt like to be a part of Ms., and the women’s movement it galvanized, in the 1970s.
The impetus for my exploration is a new book, “50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited a Revolution,” edited by Ms. editors, including Katherine Spillar. Collected in its pages are classics like “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” and “If Men Could Menstruate,” as well as more recent highlights like “Beyoncé's Fierce Feminism” and a special section on abortion published right before Roe v. Wade was overturned.
But missing from the book is a compelling case for why Ms. magazine — now active online, published in print four times a year, and owned by the Feminist Majority Foundation — matters today, not just to the women who were there at the beginning, or those involved in the making of this book, but to those of us who weren’t.
Spillar and Ms. publisher Eleanor Smeal tell us in the introduction that this book “serves not as an archive of the past but as a reflection of how far we have come and an assurance of the continued need of a feminist future.” And yet, if looking through 50 years of Ms. magazines proves anything, it’s how far behind we’ve fallen.
“Everything Ms. stood for we’ve lost or are in danger of losing: abortion, child care, equal pay,” Susan Faludi, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of the 1991 landmark book “Backlash,” recently observed in a phone call. “We’re at a moment that’s not only distressing but calls for introspection within the movement as well as without. It’s OK to have a crisis of confidence.”
That sense of introspection, I think, is largely missing from “50 Years of Ms.” Didn’t the magazine ever misstep? What about all the fractures in the feminist movement? Neatly divided into chapters by decade, this anthology includes magazine covers, excerpts, and rich archival material, such as snapshots and reader letters. But with its standardized hard cover, linear presentation, and dry commentary, at times it feels more like a textbook: required reading, not inspired reading.
I found a more immersive experience in the Sophia Smith Collection, where anyone can dive into more than 800 distinct collections of notable women including Margaret Sanger, Jane Fonda, and reproductive rights pioneer Loretta J. Ross. I first got to know the Ms. files while researching my biography on the late Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, whose papers are housed here, as are Steinem’s.
Back then, the Ms. records were still being processed, and a certain amount of disarray intensified the thrill of discovery — like unearthing treasure. The Sophia Smith Collection is a refuge for women’s stories, some celebrated but many overlooked or forgotten, and there’s a joy in being able to literally hold history in your hands, whether that’s Clara Barton’s Civil War diary, a heap of ′90s feminist zines, or a suffragist’s book of hair.
Part of what I unearthed in the process of writing my book was a better understanding of how Ms. helped pave the way for me as a woman journalist interested in covering women’s issues. In 1970, more than 100 feminists stormed the offices of Ladies’ Home Journal demanding change: the replacement of the magazine’s editor by a woman, for one, but also an end to demeaning articles and exploitative advertising.
The next year, Steinem and other feminists circulated a confidential memo: “Some notes on a new magazine . . . ‚” imagining a women-led publication that covered women’s real problems and told the truth about their lives.
“Everybody had something very serious and important, from rape to abortion to income to equity,” O’Reilly, who lives in East Boston, said via Zoom. “Then somebody said, ‘Well, listen, shouldn’t we do something about housework?’ I’d already been divorced twice at that point, and I raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll do it!’”
Her article became a consciousness-raising classic — enumerating the “clicks” women experienced as they suddenly perceived the domestic inequities and double standards all around them. Fifty years later, “That article still resonates with people,” O’Reilly said. “If that’s to be my legacy, I accept it . . . I have the satisfaction at least twice a year of someone saying, ‘You’re Jane O’Reilly — you wrote “Click?” And sometimes it’s young ones — I don’t even know where they find it — or they say, ‘click!’”
A sample insert of Ms. ran inside New York magazine in December 1971, before the standalone Spring 1972 preview issue arrived. Among the articles: Johnnie Tillmon’s “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue” and a signed petition titled “We have had abortions.”
“The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” landed on the cover with a blue-skinned, eight-armed goddess juggling the many tasks of womanhood as tears streamed down her face.
The spring issue sold out and drew more than 20,000 letters. Women who’d felt isolated and unheard would come to see Ms. as a lifeline — proof that they weren’t crazy or alone, said Faludi: “That, in turn, not only fortified them but radicalized them.”
“Connective tissue” is how Ross, the reproductive justice advocate, described Ms. in a recent phone interview, noting that “they had projects to get Ms. into women’s prisons . . . I’ve never gotten a plea from Vanity Fair — help us send Vanity Fair to women in prison, you know?”
Throughout the ′70s, Ms. took risks with cover stories like “Chisholm/Farenthold: The Ticket That Might Have Been” and “Battered Wives: Help for the Secret Victim Next Door,” which put a woman’s bruised face on newsstands.
But by the ′80s, the magazine was struggling to stay financially afloat — and relevant. How else to explain a “Ms. Gallery of Sexy Balding Men” in the September 1986 Special Issue on Men, featuring dad on the cover, juggling the many tasks of fatherhood, and the question: “Can Men Have It All?”
What the WHAT?
Some readers had a similar reaction to the cover story (written by Pete Hamill), as evidenced by a very lively, subsequent letters section. “What do you mean, ‘Can Men Have It All?’” wrote one reader. “Men have had it all for at least all of recorded history!”
Ms. and I were born in the same decade, though I don’t remember ever reading it before I walked into the Smith archives in my 30s. I was researching Cosmo, but Ms. prompted me to give myself the feminist education I never got in college. I still feel some shame in admitting I had such huge gaps in my knowledge.
Faludi helped put that into perspective for me, too. Women’s history has just been erased for so long, she said. “The second wave had no idea about the first wave, because it had all been scrubbed.” She reminded me that the late firebrand feminist Shulamith Firestone pointed this out in the 1968 periodical “Notes from the First Year.”
“Why are little girls familiar with Louisa May Alcott rather than Margaret Fuller,” Firestone asked, listing other names, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Alice Paul, that little girls had “never heard of.”
“Something smells fishy,” she said, when not even 50 years after women won the vote the movement was “remembered only by a few eccentric old ladies.” There’s a reason why women’s history, like Black history, had been “hushed up” in America, she added: “And that is that a real women’s movement is dangerous.”
I scoured “50 Years of Ms.” for Firestone’s name; it’s not here. #MeToo gets only a passing mention.
So maybe “50 Years of Ms.” is best viewed as a starting point, an invitation to learn more. There’s something to be said for investigating history on one’s own, and feeling the jolt of the unexpected.
Back at the archives, a box of promotional materials and “ephemera” unlocks a vintage Ms. T-shirt, a March for Women’s Lives sash, a shoebox of political buttons.
A box of “FBI files” yields surveillance reports about women’s lib demonstrations, including an advisory about a “splinter group,” The Witches, that planned to picket a bridal show to protest women’s role of submissiveness in marriage.
It was fascinating to then return to “50 Years of Ms.” to find Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 1977 article, “Have You Ever Supported Equal Pay, Child Care, or Women’s Groups? The FBI Was Watching You.” I’d never read it before.
But my favorite discovery: a folder of office snapshots from 1974. I didn’t recognize most of these women — talking on rotary phones; descending a staircase near what appears to be a wall of page proofs; crouching under a cluttered desk; lying on top of a desk and playing dead while holding a very dead-looking office plant; and, wait, was that someone smoking?
What I can tell you is that the sense of camaraderie among them — the thrill of starting something new — is palpable.
It’s a feeling. And it’s in the archives.