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At the Frontlines of the Women’s Movement

Suzanne Braun Levine
Next Avenue

The first editor of Ms. magazine shares her war stories, timed to PBS’ important new documentary on feminism, ‘Makers’

Life was a lot different when I was a young woman in the early ’60s. If I was looking for a job, it was in the “Help Wanted/Female” pages. If I needed a bank loan, I had to get my husband’s signature. “MS” stood for multiple sclerosis. And women wearing pants were routinely turned away from restaurants and clubs.

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.) 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.

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.

Read More…. Gaining Momentum

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