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Steinem's unflagging vision. As Ms. magazine turns 15, its founder reviews her agenda

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1987


Three years ago, when Gloria Steinem turned 50, some 750 well-wishers gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York for a glittering party honoring the famous founder of Ms. magazine. Now Ms. Steinem and her colleagues are blowing out birthday candles again, this time for Ms. magazine itself.

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The feminist publication turns 15 in July, and supporters are celebrating the occasion with high spirits and high-visibility events.

A special anniversary issue went on sale a week ago. Steinem has begun a six week, 12-city promotional tour, including gala fund-raisers in at least six cities to benefit the nonprofit Ms. Foundation.

The magazine has also just published ``Letters to Ms.: 1972-1987'' (Henry Holt, $18.95), a sampling of readers' problems and opinions during a period of turbulent social change.

These sophisticated celebrations stand in marked contrast to the no-nonsense, all-work-and-no-play image the women's movement has long projected. But then, Steinem herself has always been a different sort of feminist, refusing to abandon a certain glamour and chic in order to prove her credentials.

Dressed for her interview in a black blouse, black pants, and lizard belt, she wears only two pieces of jewelry: a huge round wristwatch and a gold serpent ring from Greece coiled up to her knuckle. Her hair is still long and blond, although she has traded the famous aviator glasses for contact lenses. There is something changeless about her physically, and in her outlook.

At a time when the women's movement appears to others to be at a point of transition, if not crisis, Steinem remains the last of the cheerleaders. She and she alone seems able to speak simply and confidently, as if it were 15 years ago and everybody was still in the first buoyant stage.

The first issue of Ms. drew an astonishing 20,000 letters.

``Their dominant theme was, `At last I know I'm not alone,''' Steinem says. That continues to be the primary message in the Ms. mailbag, she adds. Only the topics - not the theme - change.

As an example, she notes that the first issue included a petition about abortion, which was then illegal.

``It was quite daring for those women to sign their names,'' she says. The current issue contains a similar petition about incest and child sexual abuse - a subject she believes is just beginning to be discussed openly.

Has feminism become more ambivalent as pure theory hit the real world? Not as Steinem sees it.

``Feminism is a revolution,'' she says. ``It isn't just this little thing that's going to integrate and nobody's going to notice it. It transforms every institution.''

Ms. readers - 10 percent of whom are men - continue to be ``predictors of change,'' Steinem claims. ``Whatever they are doing and thinking now, the rest of the country will be doing in five years.''

As neatly as she presents her persona, she divides her agenda into three ``umbrellas of reform.''

The first is reproductive freedom, which includes legal abortion, contraceptives, safe childbirth conditions, and ``the freedom to have or not to have children. It really is very basic,'' she says.

Her second cluster of ideas involves redefining and revaluing work.

``We have to start with redefining work, because right now homemakers are still called women who don't work. Actually, they work harder than any other class of workers in the United States, by Department of Labor statistics, for less money and less security.