Her Story: 'We Girls Are Angry As Turnips’ – 50 years Of A Revolution Called Ms.

Her Story: 'We Girls Are Angry As Turnips’ – 50 years Of A Revolution Called Ms.

Ms. was willing to fight, buck existing social norms, make and break trends, get laws enacted or changed; it was a magazine of intellect as much as activism

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, October 20, 2023, 12:24 AM IST
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50 Years Of MS | Amazon

There is a precious collection of essays out, titled 50 Years Of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited A Revolution. It is what it says it is, a collection of some of the best writing that appeared in the pages of Ms. Magazine, the publication which was indeed a crucible for many revolutions big and small.

At a time when women had little choice but to become housewives, and never got a chance to reach their true potential, magazines for women were about cookery, fashion, beauty, home decor — which many still are — and the mainstream media did not think it fit to publish stories about issues that affected women, Ms. threw a match into the haystack of a journalistic world blinkered by patriarchy.

Since women's magazines were so limited in their content, and would not even recognize that women had other roles besides the traditional, advertisers were also confined to those areas.

Gloria Steinem, one of the co-founders of the magazine, writes in the introduction to the selection of essays edited by Katherine Spillar and with commentary by the editors of Ms., “Though women actually buy more books than men do — and also buy wine, cars, and insurance — the full range of women’s interests is still not supported by advertisers of the products we actually buy. Indeed, Ms. would not have been able to prove that women would buy even one issue of such a magazine if Clay Felker at New York magazine, where I was an editor, had not agreed to publish a sample of Ms. in its pages, and then an entire preview issue that was placed on newsstands nationwide. That gave women themselves a chance to show the breadth of their interests.”

That insert proved to be a massive success and “The response,” writes Steinem, “was shocking. Though that first issue was released in January 1972 and dated ‘Spring 1972’ so it could stay on the newsstand for months, it sold out in eight days. Soon, bags of mail began arriving in our offices, so many that there was room for little else. The letters were irresistible to read, personal notes or small novels, as if Ms. were a friend who had entered readers’ homes. One common theme was ‘At last, I know I’m not alone.’ A movement is a contagion of truth-telling: at last, we know we are not alone. The mail came from writers of all different ages. One was written in crayon and concluded, ‘We girls are angry as turnips.’ The very young writer explained that the boys got the best part of the playground and the girls had only a little corner to play jacks. I answered her letter. I bet she became a leader in expanding playgrounds to include us all.”

Ms. covered stories that the male-dominated media may not even have thought of — domestic abuse, sexual harassment, need for child care, and also hitherto forbidden subjects like abortion, lesbianism and race. At a time when abortion was illegal in the US, hundreds of women agreed to sign a petition stating “We Have Had an Abortion” to demand legal and safe terminations of pregnancy.

Ms. was willing to fight, buck existing social norms, make and break trends, get laws enacted or changed; it was a magazine of intellect as much as activism. The book gives an idea of what Ms. meant to women of the time, and continues to be meaningful today, because wars for gender justice continue to be fought somewhere or the other.

Not surprisingly, funding was a hurdle for a magazine that sought to upend the existing gender status quo. Finally, a non-profit, the Feminist Majority Foundation, supported Ms. It required a picket for The New York Times to even start using Ms. as an honorific for women who did not wish to be defined by their marital status, as late as 1986.

Along with pieces by Alice Walker, Susan Brownmiller, Nancy Pelosi, Billie Jean King, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Allison Bechdel, and many others, there are photographs, reproductions of iconic covers, including the Goddess Kali-inspired cover of the first issue. The pieces are searingly honest, angry, sad, and also funny. Alan Alda wrote a satirical piece titled Testosterone Poisoning, which makes the reader smile; Gloria Steinem's If Men Could Menstruate is so sharp, caustic and true, it continues to be included in every compendium of feminist writings 45 years after it was first published.

Whether it is the problems of teenagers or grandmothers, domestic workers or prisoners; questions of insecurity, vanity or fear, the toxic beauty culture, eating disorders, fat, body hair, date rape, divorce, household chores, access to political power, the glass ceiling, workplace harassment, sexist media and advertising — everything found itself in the pages of the magazine. Nothing that concerned women was considered too insignificant.

In Letty Cottin's startling piece, Watching You, published in June 1977, comes the revelation that members of the women's movement were watched by the FBI, in the “1377 pages of memos, reports, teletypes, tape transcripts, press clippings, and leaflets released thus far from the material, gathered between 1969 and 1973, in the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the subject heading ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’.”

So, feminists were considered as suspicious as anarchists, political dissidents or subversives. She writes, that “They” kept tabs on “us” with the aid of special agents, informers, observers, infiltrators, other law enforcement agencies, and red alert signals from conscientious citizens. It's a wonder that in the J Edgar Hoover era of Communist witch-hunts, feminists were not officially blacklisted as well.

Each chapter of the book covers one decade of the magazine’s existence, with short introductory pieces about the particular challenges of that period, and how Ms. contributors tackled them. It comes right up to 2022 when, much to the shock of women in the US, the law that allowed women the right to abortion was overturned. The conservative right was rearing its head again. There is no room for complacency in the unending quest for gender justice.

Ms. has made itself relevant to the new generation by adopting current technology. It has a website, a newsletter and a podcast. The book, writes Spillar in her introductory piece, "serves not just as an archive of the past but a reflection of how far we have come and an assurance of the continued need for a feminist future."

The book is an invaluable look into the evolution of society over the last 50 years. Women should read it for sure, but men will find useful insights too. If nothing else, an answer to the question, what women want.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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