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January 27, 2012

Four decades - and counting - of feminist journalism

At a Stanford panel discussion, editors, activists and bloggers come together to salute Ms. magazine and consider the future.

By Stanford Report staff

Panel members Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of Ms. and of Essence; and Helen Zia, former executive editor and advisory board member of Ms. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service) 

If Ms. magazine has changed the lives of two generations of readers, it also changed the lives of its editors. They came from feminism, journalism, racial justice movements and left-wing labor organizing, and they left transformed.

Marcia Ann Gillespie, for instance, was editor-in-chief at Essence magazine, aimed at black women, and she and her colleagues were a bit suspicious at first of their new Times Square neighbors.

"But there was always a piece [in Ms.], some piece, somewhere, that spoke to me," she recalled Thursday at a panel discussion. "Alice Walker wrote a lot there, and her pieces always gave me something to chew on.

"But I came to Ms. because of Gloria. I got Gloria. She was real, she was open, she was one of the smartest damn people I knew. She understood we rise as a group, not as individuals."

Gloria, of course, is Gloria Steinem, one of the magazine's founders. Eventually, the magazine's first editor, Suzanne Braun Levine, asked Gillespie to join, "and it's been part of my heartbeat ever since then."

Braun Levine came from journalism, which is always a big help in starting a magazine. Also, she told the audience, she had a well-organized bulletin board for each upcoming issue, which garnered her the only private office.

"I always say Ms. changed my life," she said. "I would have been a more ordinary person" without it.

A third editor, Helen Zia, who arrived later, got to Times Square via Detroit, where she was an autoworker with a revolutionary agenda. She would go to meetings with her male political comrades, who would ask: After the revolution, which do we fix first? Racism or sexism? She got tired of learning the answer was the former, not both (and certainly not the latter), and ended up as a trade journalist in New York City.

It was nearly impossible to get a job at Ms. in those days. She tried again and again, and never heard back.

By the late 1980s, Ms. was in big financial trouble. Everyone said it was dead, that feminism was dead.

Zia got the call. "'We have an opening!' they said. 'That's the good news. The bad news is that the magazine might fold in a month.' People asked me, how could I take a job like that? And I said, 'Even if it's just one issue, that's my dream.'"

The occasion for the reminiscing and debate, which took place at the Stanford Humanities Center, was a panel discussion that was part of a quarter-long symposium titled, "Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism." Past editors joined the current executive editor and two young women whose blogging and activism are pointing feminist journalism in new directions, though everyone agreed the road ahead is not a smooth one, and there might not even be one single road.

Investigative journalism

Katherine Spillar is the current editor, though she confessed at the start she's not a journalist. (She didn't tell the organizers of Thursday's event, she told the packed room, because she wanted to participate in the panel.) Spillar is executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which owns Ms. (more on that below), former four-term president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Los Angeles and a tireless advocate for litigation against extremists who attack abortion providers.

She is most proud, she said, of the magazine's shift toward investigative reporting since she took over in 2005. Its stories have had a palpable effect on policy and have been picked up by larger media outlets, she said, mentioning in particular a New York Times story this month about allegations that anti-affirmative-action champion Ward Connerly had committed financial improprieties. Ms. ran that story three years ago, she said pointedly.

The FBI's recent decision to revise its definition of rape, which dated from the 1920s – a definition that meant rapes were being underreported by a factor of at least 10, Spillar said – was the result of a Ms. article that triggered massive letter-writing and email-blasting to the Department of Justice and the bureau. And law enforcement shifted its tactics against extremists after Ms. reported that the killer of a Kansas doctor who performed abortions was not acting alone.

But, as Spillar said, she never planned on going into the journalism business. On the contrary; as an advocate and activist, she was accustomed to trying to influence the media.

However, as Zia already had found out in the late 1980s, Ms. was always skirting financial disaster. By the late 1990s, things were bad once again, and there were only so many times Gloria Steinem could ride to the rescue with new investors. So instead, Steinem went to the Feminist Majority Foundation and asked if they'd take on the magazine as a nonprofit venture.

"We said no, because we didn't know anything about magazine publishing," Spillar recalled. But then the foundation thought about how media was changing, how newspapers and magazines were going out of business or consolidating, and how no one was properly covering women's issues.

"So then we said, 'well, why not?' We couldn't bear to think that Ms. might fold. We weren't going to let that happen." Past editors came back temporarily to help with the transition, and ever since then, the magazine has been a quarterly, beholden not to advertisers but to the women who run it.

"What a difference it makes to have your own media!" Spillar said. "Owning media is power."

Feminist blogging

The two younger women on the panel come from a generation that may be able to own their media, but they'd sure like to get paid. Blogger Miriam Zoila Pérez explained that she first discovered feminist blogging at her first job after college, when the Favorites list on the computer she inherited had on it, "and I loved the voice!" She probably would have found it eventually anyway – and today she is one of its editors – but sooner was better than later.

She is a frequent speaker on reproductive rights, and her day job is as a doula, someone who provides nonmedical support to women during childbirth and also, in Pérez's case, abortions.

Her fellow representative of the under-30s at the panel was Shelby Knox who, like Spillar before her, confessed to being neither a journalist nor a blogger. Rather, she's an organizer.

Her story is well known, thanks to the award-winning independent film The Education of Shelby Knox. As a Southern Baptist teenager in Lubbock, Texas, she discovered that the land of abstinence suffered from some of the nation's highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. With brave common sense, she surmised that it might be because there was no sex education, and the film chronicles her devastating and frustrating attempts to right the wrong, or at least hold a mirror up to hypocrisy.

Today based in New York, Knox is a full-time agitator and speaker on women's and girls' rights and sex education.

"When I met Gloria Steinem," Knox told the audience, "she told me that being an itinerant feminist organizer was a job. It's our legacy, she said," referring to today's agitation as a new form of the old consciousness-raising. Describing herself as an "amateur feminist historian," Knox added that she takes seriously the obligation to write down the inspiring and terrible and funny stories women tell her, so people 20 years from now will know them.

But, she pointed out, "it is imperative to make feminist journalism sustainable. We have to get paid," whether by creating starter funds or fundraising or monetizing the blogs.

Challenges and dilemmas

This was one of the issues that had the two generations of feminists wondering out loud what the future will look like. The blogs are fantastic, but they're free and there's no fact-checking, as a distressed Braun Levine pointed out. (From Ms. she went to Columbia Journalism Review, one of the most prestigious publications in the field.)

She also pointed out that the old magazine had "brought many worlds to our readers," reflecting the belief that all women had a stake in the movement, and "I don't think blogs can do that as well."

"I worry about how to pull the niches together," she said.

Yet she herself, who said she was "haunted" by the dilemma, admitted that when she complained to a younger feminist activist that there weren't enough marches anymore, she was told that tens of thousands of emails or tweets could have the same effect. And, as Spillar's story of feminist pressure on the FBI showed, there is something to that argument.

Looking ahead, the panelists identified challenges that still must be addressed, both by the feminist movement in general and by feminist journalism in all its modalities.

Spillar, the veteran of so many tough battles, was direct and succinct:

"I want to see us in equal numbers at all the decision-making tables, she said. "Real power; that's the next great challenge."

Stanford's quarter-long series of events is the first to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of Ms. magazine. A celebration also is scheduled in Los Angeles in May and at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in October. The events at Stanford are sponsored by the American Studies Program, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Feminist Studies Program and some 35 other university units.



Elaine Ray, University Communications: (650) 723-7162 (office), (650) 387-0636 (cell);

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