SLANT FROM THE PAST: Founding Editor of Ms. Magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, on How Her Iconic Magazine Forever Changed News Coverage on Women
Accepting an award from the Jewish Women’s Archive earlier this year, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a longtime activist, pointed to the Statue of Liberty, just visible in the foggy distance, and quipped, “I love her, even though she’s not Jewish.” Over murmurs of laughter, she spoke of her love for Lady Liberty’s “grace and beauty,” and defined what the monument represents to her: “welcome, freedom, hope.” The same could be said of Pogrebin herself.
With an unflappable belief in the possibility of a freer, fairer world, Pogrebin has spent the last 42 years of her life combating anti-Semitism, promoting peace in the Middle East and tirelessly fighting for women’s rights in the U.S. and abroad.
To date, she’s written ten books, including her forthcoming How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick, which arrives in bookstores next April. She’s also penned numerous think pieces for The New York Times, The Nation, The Huffington Post and many others.
But mostly she’s known for founding Ms. magazine, alongside Gloria Steinem and four other brave feminists, in the early ‘70s — a time when mainstream magazines roundly ignored women’s issues. It’s often forgotten, but during the tumult of Vietnam, Watergate and free love, readers were hard-pressed to find stories about “rape, domestic violence, the economic value of housework, and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace,” Pogrebin remembers. Not only did the shared struggles that women faced go unreported, they lacked the basic nomenclature to define them.
To commemorate Pogrebin’s crowning achievement — the establishment of Ms. 40 years ago this year — The Slant reached out to the 73-year-old social justice seeker about the iconic pub’s anniversary and legacy, and how it has influenced contemporary coverage of women’s issues. She also gave us her slant on D.C.’s female brain-trust: Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
There’s been lot of coverage of Ms.’s 40th anniversary this year. Much of it has been celebratory, especially when compared to the coverage from the 70s, when the magazine first launched. What kind of progress does that shift represent? What was left out? Has there been any coverage of the anniversary that you didn’t quite like?
Media attention to the 40th anniversary has been celebratory indeed — respectful, occasionally adoring, with an undertone of retrospective incredulousness, in a “Gee, I remember when they said it wouldn’t last” or “Wow, how amazing that you’re still around” sort of way. I haven’t seen anything negative about the anniversary. There’s a huge shift between then and now. In 1972, the women’s movement was young and rebellion was in the air. When Ms. first appeared on the scene there were so few national magazines that the advent of a new one, especially one that aimed to revolutionize the coverage of women’s reality, was Very Big News. There were only three networks then, no cable stations, and a limited number of radio stations and therefore whatever was on the air was more likely to be noticed and to become part of the conversation. Several of us founders appeared all over the media to discuss why we felt it was time for a woman-owned magazine and what we felt was lacking in conventional women’s publications. Pundits felt they had to take a position and a few ridiculed us. But women all over the country loved the magazine. Our first issue was supposed to stay on the newsstands for eight weeks; it sold out in eight days.
What lasting legacy did your work (and the collective work at Ms.) leave on how women learned to look at and talk about themselves?
Ms. was the first mass circulation magazine to report the truth about what was happening in women’s lives. We covered issues that other magazines ignored — rape, domestic violence, incest, the economic value of housework, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, sexism in schools, inequality of funding for women’s sports, anorexia and bulimia. At the same time as we revealed and reported on women’s reality we helped change women’s reality by connecting feminist activists with one another, publicizing the work of advocacy groups, monitoring litigation that affected women, and reporting on legislative initiatives that advanced women’s status. Ms. articles and cover images helped to define issues and give problems a name. We helped establish feminists “uppity women” as admirable change-makers, and gave millions of non-movement women permission to make demands on their husbands, partners, bosses, teachers, and all the institutions affecting their daily lives.
Though Ms. has never been widely read by the American public, its impact was always far beyond its circulation and it left a journalistic blueprint for how to seriously report, analyze, and discuss the myriad non-parity issues that women face today. Open any of the big glossies (i.e. Elle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Cosmo), and, at the very least, readers will find modest coverage on issues such as income inequity, unequal distribution of household chores, domestic violence, etc. But in the absence of a “Ms.,” or as The New York Times described it in 1974, a ” journalistic clearing-house in the current phase of the feminist revolt,” how good of a job are women’s glossies doing in covering those issues?
I can’t comment on women’s glossies because I haven’t looked at them in a serious way for years. But based on an occasional glance at issues lying around in my doctor’s office or at the hairdresser’s, my sense is that while they still focus on the traditional areas of fashion, food, and relationships, they also contain at least one article per issue on matters such as you cite in your question. Still this coverage is rarely comparable in depth of analysis or courage in reporting to articles Ms. published from the start, such as pieces on the misogyny of right wing zealots, or carcinogens in hair coloring, or the real American way of childbirth, or what it’s like to be a domestic worker, a prostitute, a woman on welfare. That cutting edge role is now largely filled by thousands, if not millions, of bloggers and online publications. As a result, no single source functions as a “clearinghouse” or authoritative voice in the way that Ms. did in the 70s and 80s. Today’s alternative media have drastically changed the landscape both for good and for ill. For good, because it’s healthy to have many different points of view in the mix. For ill, because most of us are suffering from information overload and the impact of an important story can get lost in the online noise. These days, it’s rare for an event affecting women to enter the collective consciousness and to engage millions in a shared, simultaneous national conversation. But when it does happen, it makes a difference — witness how the rape remarks of two Republican candidates’ comments outraged women all over the country and lost the men their election.
In that same New York Times article referenced above (“Two Faces of the Same Eve” by Stephanie Harrington, August, 11, 1974), Gloria Steinem notes “that there’s still the assumption that a woman is not a complete human being by herself.” Is that assumption still true today?
Depends on ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and culture. In the African-American community, for instance, many strong, independent women function without men and don’t behave or view themselves as if they are amputated or incomplete beings. However in the Jewish-American community, single women have less status, sometimes are made to feel incomplete without a man, and often internalize that inadequacy in a way that diminishes their self-esteem. In social groups of every demographic, it’s still the case that a 40-year-old single woman is viewed less favorably than a 40-year-old single man; and in heterosexual settings, an extra man is still seen as more desirable at the average dinner party than an extra woman.
We’d love to get one or two words from you on the following women:
Michelle Obama: Dazzling. Smart. Hope she will take on more cutting edge issues in the second term. Childhood obesity, healthy eating, and the needs of veterans and their families are worthy causes but they’re not really controversial. I wish Michelle would use the bully pulpit of the White House to champion reproductive choice and get up-close and personal about it. She has nothing to lose, and women have everything to gain.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: The best of the best. I hope she runs for president in 2016. But first I hope she takes some time for herself. Once she steps down from State, she deserves to have some fun.
Elizabeth Warren: She’s the next Hillary Clinton. Actually, it’s a toss-up between Elizabeth and NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Both of them are the real deal. Can’t wait to watch them work together in the Senate!
Any other young woman in politics or media we 0ught to watch?
Now that the U.S. Senate is going to be 20 percent female, you should watch every one of these women and help keep them and their work visible long after the hoopla of the election season dies down. You should also hold their feet to the fire when it comes to tough votes, or when they need to break ranks with the men in their party in order to stay true to their values. Please make them — and every male legislator — accountable to the people who elected them.
Which feminists today do you think are doing the most cutting edge and exciting work?
Too many to name. I would rather name cutting edge issue areas than to single out a few individuals. Great work is being done by feminists all over the country on street harassment, on body image problems, on feminism and faith, on inter-generational dialogue and cooperation, on women in poverty. It’s unfortunate that conventional media pay little heed to such issues unless they’re espoused by a leader or spokesperson with pizzazz, glamour or sex appeal.(i.e. Cecile Richards, who is a fabulous spokesman for Planned Parenthood but also happens to be beautiful and gains media attention for reproductive rights as a result.) I’d like to see journalists dig into a problem area without necessarily personifying it. There are great untold stories about how different advocacy groups function in the struggle to advance women’s equality, or what’s at stake for women vis a vis certain pieces of legislation. The public needs to understand these issues and journalists could help them do it, but unfortunately, many groups have a hard time getting media attention without a “personality” to embody the struggle. (Recent example: The contraception story was there all along but it took Sandra Fluke to put it on the map. That’s understandable but the media owes it to us to do better.)
What women’s magazines (print or online) do you read?
I only read Ms. You knew I would say. I’m a founder and a loyalist! Happy 40th anniversary, Ms.!