There was an anniversary celebration at City Hall on Wednesday for something that happened 40 years ago, in June 1972.
Cake with tasty white frosting was served. People swapped memories. And there was an official proclamation signed by the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who was 5 years old back then, and Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, who was 21.
What was being remembered was not the Watergate break-in. Nor, for that matter, was it any of these other things that happened in June 1972: the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on DDT; Hurricane Agnes, which killed 118 people; or Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman,” which made it onto Billboard’s Top 100.
The celebration was for Ms. magazine, which, one of its founding editors has said, translated the feminist movement into print. Its first issue as a monthly publication, dated July 1972, hit the newsstands in mid-June of that year. (A one-shot sample issue had been distributed as an insert in New York magazine at the end of 1971, and there was a preview issue in spring 1972 that sold out its 300,000 copies in less than two weeks.)
Ms. has had celebrations before. It observed its first birthday with a Hudson River cruise that sailed toward what its passengers referred to as the “Martha Washington Bridge.” This time, founding editors like Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Joanne Edgar, and the first promotion director, Karin Lippert, reminisced. Ms. Brewer said she had the first issue “in the basement somewhere,” and Ms. Steinem smiled about being inside City Hall. “It’s wonderful to be here for a celebration and not testimony,” she said.
Not everyone raved about Ms. when it was brand new. The television anchor Harry Reasoner said, “I’ll give it six months before they run out of things to say.”
Forty years is a good deal longer than six months. Did anyone present at the magazine’s creation think about whether it would last so long?
“No, absolutely not,” Ms. Steinem said. “We imagined it would last a few years. We thought other women’s magazines would change. We didn’t understand the ad structure” that kept that from happening.
The magazine’s name was, if not a stumbling block in those early days, an attention getter, a conversation starter. “We chose it for that reason,” Ms. Edgar said. “Some people thought it was for ‘manuscript.’ Some people thought it was for ‘multiple sclerosis.’ And then newspapers started using it.” (Some did not do so immediately. The New York Times did not adopt “Ms.” as an honorific until 1986.)
“What was true from the beginning, and the only reason we could survive, was that feminism was a big story,” said Mary Thom, who worked at Ms. for 19 years and wrote the book “Inside Ms.: 25 Years of the Magazine and the Feminist Movement” (Henry Holt, 1997). “We were the people people knew to call on to get some reaction from the women’s movement. But we were constantly saying, ‘We’re not women’s movement central, we’re a magazine.’”
And while it soon set up a “tot lot” where staff members could leave their children while they worked, the office was, at first, somewhat improvised. “We were all crammed in this room,” Ms. Pogrebin said. “My desk was a dishwasher delivery box with a hole cut out for my knees.” Mary Peacock, another founding editor, said that real desks arrived after a couple of weeks.
She said there was a public-relations firm that had space in the Ms. suite and represented Hollywood celebrities. “You could run into Raquel Welch in the ladies’ room or Bob Redford walking down the hall,” Ms. Peacock said. “It was a fun contrast to Ms.”
And Ms. was hard work. “Any standalone magazine is a hard sell,” Ms. Peacock said. “This was an extremely hard sell because they would say men make the decision on things like cars or liquor, where demonstrably women make the decisions, but they couldn’t be persuaded. Almost everyone on the original ad sales team became a publisher, because that’s how good they had to be.”
She mentioned the first advertising director, Cathleen P. Black, who was president and later chairwoman of Hearst Magazines before becoming the New York City schools chancellor, and another early business-side staff member, Valerie Salembier, the senior vice president, publisher and chief revenue officer of Town & Country magazine.
On the cover of the first issue was Wonder Woman. Paul Levitz, who grew up to be president and publisher of DC Comics, remembers seeing copies of Ms. at DC Comics when he would go and hang out there after school.
“It’s so fascinating, the transition from it being such a radical statement to a generation that says, ‘Why is that a big deal?’” he said. “When I talked to kids I teach about how recent these changes are, they’re like, ‘We had dinosaurs and the Roman Empires, and then we didn’t let women do stuff.’ That’s as much historical perspective as they have on it.”
Ms. Brewer echoed that idea. “I try not to be preachy and say, ‘You should know who Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug are,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘These are giants who were changing the world. It’s kind of like the founding fathers, only these were the founding mothers.’”