At the Front Lines of the Women's Movement
The first editor of Ms. magazine shares her war stories, timed to PBS' important new documentary on feminism, 'Makers'
Suzanne Braun Levine was the first editor of Ms. magazine. She is the author of several books about women in Second Adulthood, including Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, Fifty Is the New Fifty and, most recently How We Love Now.
I was dimly aware of the women’s movement. I had read The Feminine Mystique because my mother gave it to me, but I had not yet experienced the homemaker’s “problem that has no name,” which Betty Friedan identified in it. I had taken note of the Miss America protest in 1968, never dreaming that the radical genius behind it — Robin Morgan — would become a trusted friend and colleague a few years later.
Nor did I imagine then that Lindsy Van Gelder, the New York Post reporter who coined the unfortunate phrase “bra-burners,” would become one of the most thoughtful and resourceful staff writers for Ms. (To give Ms. a little historical context, when it launched in the early 1970s, every one of the “seven sisters” major women's magazines was edited by a man.)
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Early Days of Feminism
I had already worked at several of those popular women’s titles when I first heard about “Gloria Steinem’s magazine,” and it was with great curiosity that I read the preview issue when it came out in the winter of 1971 (as an insert in New York magazine). One feature that especially caught my attention included a petition signed by 53 well-known women and was headlined “We Have Had Illegal Abortions.”
Readers were invited to add their names by filling out a coupon and sending it to the magazine, and with trepidation and defiance I did. By the time the hundreds of envelopes, including mine, were opened, I had become the editor of Ms., where I had a front-row seat to the history that is so vividly evoked in the PBS/AOL documentary that airs on PBS on Feb. 26, Makers: Women Who Make America. The film is just one piece of an ongoing initiative to recognize the women who changed our modern world and are still changing it.
Watching Makers brought back many memories. Ms. was barely up and running (the first monthly issue came out in July 1972) when two huge breakthroughs hit: The Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in January 1973, and a few months later Title IX went into effect, mandating equal opportunities for girls in federally financed colleges and universities. It had its most revolutionary impact on sports programs and opened the floodgates of strong and competitive young women. I loved hearing Maker Meg Whitman attribute her drive and risk-tasking to the team sports she played as a girl and young woman.
Another break for tomboys like Meg and me was the Little League ruling in 1974 that admitted girls to the kind of “big-time” softball I had dreamed of playing as the opportunities got fewer and fewer throughout my school years.
As it happened, my softball days weren’t over: I wound up pitching for the Ms. All-Stars, as we called ourselves when we joined a league of New York City magazine staffers that played in Central Park. For obvious reasons, we insisted that any teams that wanted to play us have at least one woman in the line-up, but we were not prepared for the New Yorker to add, along with one woman, the entire (male) mail room. The best-natured match-up was with Cosmopolitan, with its longtime editor in chief Helen Gurley Brown — a great supporter of Ms., by the way — cheering her team on.
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As Ms. covers flashed across the screen in the Makers documentary, I was swept back to the intense decision-making process that went into two of them in particular: the ones featuring “sexual harassment” and “battered women” — terms that had to be invented because the subjects were not spoken about until then.
The editors and art department came up with the idea to use puffy hand puppets to suggest innocence and menace without literally depicting a woman being humiliated. The same reasoning went into the choice of a clearly made-up model to represent the thousands of victims of domestic violence.
One image we did run in all its stark horror was the photograph of a woman crumpled on the floor, dead from an illegal abortion. It was a harsh black-and-white police photo, and we published it a few months after Roe v. Wade, with the headline "NEVER AGAIN."
The editorial discussion this time was whether to run the photo as a full page or not. The smaller image we decided on became monumental in the public consciousness. I still meet women who claim they can see it as clearly in their minds as when it appeared. I know what they mean; every time I go into child’s pose in yoga class, I flash on that desperate and tragic woman in the same position.
The milestones kept coming in those early years. The Ms. staff watched the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match at the home of Ronnie Eldridge, who was consulting at the magazine at the time. Bella Abzug, a great friend of hers and Gloria’s, was there — cheering louder than anyone. That was my first encounter with that bigger-than-life and braver-than-anyone activist and politician.
Later, when I was working on an oral history of Bella’s life, I discovered that, like me, she was an unreconstructed tomboy who loved softball; her staff played in the congressional league, and she pitched. They called themselves the Mad Hatters in honor of her trademark chapeau.
Other awesome women — many of them Makers — came through the doors of the magazine, among them Alice Walker, whose early work we published; Crystal Lee Jordan, the real Norma Rae; Congresswomen Pat Schroeder and Maxine Waters; organizer Dolores Huerta; and astronaut Sally Ride.
Robert Redford, whose publicist sublet space from us, occasionally dropped by. He even agreed to appear on the October 1975 cover of an issue about men, which included a humorous piece by Alan Alda (“What Every Woman Should Know About Men”) and a challenging question from Lindsy Van Gelder and Carrie Carmichael called “But What About Our Sons? Ambivalence Toward a Man Child.” But since we wanted to evoke a generic male persona, not a specific celebrity, we photographed Redford from the back. (That angle was nice, too.)
For all our successes, the hostility to feminism was intense. Our ad sales people were spit on, Gloria was regularly humiliated on sales calls and belittled in the media, and any mention of working at Ms. was a red flag even in the most demure social situations. I was always on my guard for the snide fellow who just wanted to make the feminist cry.
If we shed any tears, they were of outrage, as during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment — the word had taken on currency by then — but was discredited by the committee. The whole country was riveted to their televisions, and I was invited to be a commentator in ABC’s coverage with Peter Jennings. All I remember from those long hours of banter was observing archly, “Well, at least there is probably a lot less sexual harassment going on today.”
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Where We Stand Today
In 1981 I produced She’s Nobody’s Baby: American Women in the 20th Century, a Ms. documentary (which won a Peabody Award, I am proud to say). It chronicled a wave of courage and determination that started at the turn of the century and seemed to pick up speed as it went along. By the time we were putting the documentary together, many of the historic restrictions it recounted had been cast off, and women were breaking stereotypes and rules left and right, even if the venerable New York Times insisted on using “Miss” or “Mrs.” until 1986.
The high point of that surge was the first national women’s conference in 1977. Dubbed “the Spirit of Houston,” it was a glorious demonstration of womanpower. The image of 15,000 women, including all three living first ladies (Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson) gathered together in solidarity, was so frightening to some that it contributed to a backlash against the changes we had wrought that is with us still.
Even given the setbacks then and now (the constant challenges to Roe v. Wade, for example), I am confident that there is no turning back. The defeat of the ERA was disheartening, but the main arguments against it — that it would mandate unisex bathrooms and force women in the military to serve active duty — are now moot.
My daughter was a toddler when I moved on from Ms. in 1988, and I have watched her grow up empowered by the accomplishments of the past 50 years. If her generation is not as activist as mine, or not in the same ways, I have no doubt that they have the courage of their convictions and the self-assurance to break new ground and, when necessary, meet any challenges to women’s continued — to resurrect that venerable ’60s word — liberation.