Ms. magazine 10 years later: readership continues to build

Both women's rights and Ms. magazine have come a long way since five female editors bent over orange-crate desks in a cramped Manhattan apartment 10 years ago. And while not all feminists today consider Ms. the final word on women's issues, when the publication celebrates a decade of existence in January, it's likely to hoist both women's achievements and current issues into the limelight.

Gloria Steinem, the prominent lecturer who founded Ms. as a January 1972 outtake of New York magazine, did not expect the magazine to be more than a one-shot deal: ''The first issue said 'spring' rather than 'January' so that it could remain on the newsstands for quite some time without embarrassing the rest of the women's movement,'' she says.

When all 300,000 copies sold out in eight days, the volunteer editors - many of whom are still with the magazine - quickly put typewriter to orange crate again to produce Ms.'s first official issue: July 1972. Today, with a circulation of 450,000 (a figure Ms. claims has spurted since President Reagan's election), the publication remains the only national, high-circulation, feminist magazine. (Boston's Sojourner claims 20,000 readers.)

Ms.'s latest survey reveals a 20 percent male readership, a median age slightly higher than in its founding year, and a steadily increasing number of black and Hispanic readers. These mark its only changes in audience, according to Ms. Steinem, who believes that ''the state of mind of our readers transcends statistics about age, economics, and race.''

Asked how a feminist magazine often tagged ''radical'' can grow in an era in which radical feminism seems to be on the ebb, Gloria Steinem responds, ''I don't think it's declining. There's a reason why people stayed home in unprecedented numbers (presidential election day). There's a reason why the 25 percent of voters that did elect Reagan were the oldest, whitest, most male, and richest electorate in history. He does not have a majority mandate.''

Acknowledging that Ms.'s editorial thrust has changed little over the past decade, Ms. Steinem says the currency of her formula is demonstrated by the fact that the magazine continues to build readership and receives a staggering 200 to 300 letters from readers every month.

In pointing out Ms.'s accomplishments, Gloria Steinem notes that hers was the first women's magazine to employ women ad salespeople; to solicit ads from makers of cars, stereos, insurance, and other ''male'' products; to refuse to print columns on how to wear makeup; to turn down ads it considered ''sexist.''

Reflecting on changes in the women's movement and Ms. over the past 10 years, she says, ''In the beginning, we had articles proving women were discriminated against. Today, it's more our task to report on how the problem's being addressed.''

Gloria Steinem believes women are ''more radical in a profound kind of way'' today. ''The thought used to be that if you weren't wearing old army boots and throwing or making bombs, you weren't radical,'' she says. Suzanne Levine adds, ''Nobody says 'women's libber' today. People do say 'abortion' and 'ERA' - all the time.''

It was out of lecturing and traveling in the late 1960s that Ms. Steinem, a former People reporter and New York editor, decided to found a feminist magazine. She claims that the failure of many contemporary women's magazines - Viva, New Woman, and Working Woman, the latter recently revived - stems from their attempt to mix the traditional style with feminism: ''They're doing superwoman, saying, 'Yes, you can be a lawyer or an engineer, and provide three perfect children, a perfect marriage, and gourmet meals.' It makes you tired to read it.''

Not all women believe that Ms., despite 10 years of success, responds to the needs of a contemporary audience.

''We don't feel we have to fight the battles women were fighting 10 years ago , that Ms. thinks we're still fighting,'' says Claire Gruppo, managing editor of Savvy, a two-year-old, 225,000-circulation magazine ''for executive women.'' ''We think women should get on with it. How long can you rebel? We're trying to work within the environment to change it.''

Nor do all women believe Ms. is as radical as it used to be. ''The fact that it was established at all was very important at the time, but it has come to represent middle-of-the-road feminism,'' says Martha Thurber, editor of Boston's Sojourner.

Pointing out that Ms., a nonprofit magazine, is unpressured by business and advertising demands facing most publications, Ms. Gruppo claims, ''If they were a for-profit company, they wouldn't have lasted until now (with the same radical bent).''

Other feminists disagree. Janyce Katz, spokeswoman for the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington, D.C., calls Ms. ''extremely important to the feminist movement - the torchbearer.''

Gloria Steinem, currently trying to win sponsorship to start up a nonsexist parents' magazine and women-in-history television documentary series, says her long-range goal is not to build a higher Ms. circulation, but to eliminate society's need for a feminist magazine, through its articles. ''Our goal is to do away with ourselves eventually. But I'm 47, we've had at least 5,000 years of patriarchy and racism, and I expect it will continue in my lifetime,'' she says.

Whether Ms.'s 10-year anniversary in January represents a celebration of feminism or of a magazine's tenacity in a fast-changing decade, Ms.'s staff intends to use the publicity to put women's issues in the news. Says staff editor Mary Thom, ''Our anniversary issue will not only talk about the gains women have made the past 10 years, but also assess women's goals and dreams for the next decade.''

Asked how integral a part of the women's movement she considers Ms., Gloria Steinem smiles and says, ''I guess you would only know that if we folded.''

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