The First Cover of Ms. Magazine

Why the feminist magazine's inaugural issue remains its strongest

Maggie Doherty

Welcome to A Closer Look, a new column at The Yale Review, in which we invite a writer to annotate a piece of art or an archival object. Mouse over the image and click on the blue circles to learn about the object’s history, provenance, and cultural relevance today.

In our first installment, Maggie Doherty annotates the first cover of Ms. magazine. Read her essay on fifty years of feminist media in our fall issue here.

In December 1971, an unusual issue of New York appeared on newsstands nationwide. Readers flipping through its pages would have stumbled upon a forty-page insert, a preview of a forthcoming women’s magazine called Ms. Its tagline was “The New Magazine for Women,” and it was indeed new. Ms. was edited and staffed by women, unlike traditional women’s magazines such as McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, which were helmed by men. The journalists behind Ms. understood “women’s issues” to include more than beauty lessons and homemaking tips. Gloria Steinem, Nancy Newhouse, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and their collaborators hoped the magazine would win readers over to women’s liberation.

According to an oral history of the magazine compiled by Abigail Pogrebin, daughter of Letty, putting together the preview issue was chaotic. New York provided financial and administrative support, and in return its editor, Clay Felker, expected input on Ms., fighting viciously with Steinem over the cover design. (Felker once claimed he gave Steinem her first assignment because she had nice legs.) Advisers balked at a mockup offering a year’s subscription to Ms. for $6 and insisted the staff raise the price to $9 (roughly $66 today). There was no budget to advertise the preview issue, and much of the press attention that it elicited was negative; one columnist compared the tone of Ms. to “nervous fingernails screeching across a blackboard.” The magazine’s own editors planned for slow sales: When an expanded, stand-alone edition of the preview issue appeared in January, it was labeled “Spring 1972” so that it could stay on newsstands for months. As it turned out, there was no need for such hedging. The issue sold out in eight days.

The preview issue of Ms. remains one of the strongest of its fifty-plus-year run. (In an essay for the fall issue of The Yale Review, I chart the longer history of Ms.—which is still publishing today—and its successor outlets Sassy, Bitch, and Jezebel.) Ms.’s debut included pieces on welfare, lesbianism, abortion, and how children learn gender roles. It also demonstrated how seriously Steinem and her collaborators took the politics of representation. The founding editors wanted all women to see themselves in this first issue. Paradoxically, it was an unreal woman—the Hindu goddess Kali—who provided Steinem with a cover image with which all women might identify.

Image Content Callouts

  • In 1971, the editorial team behind what became Ms. brainstormed other possible names for the publication, including “Sisters,” “Everywoman,” and “Bimbo” (meant ironically). They landed on “Ms.” because it announced the magazine’s feminist principles: socially and professionally independent women needed a title that did not disclose their marital status, as did the more common “Miss” and “Mrs.” The New York Times did not incorporate “Ms.” into its house style until 1986—fifteen years after Ms. first went to press.
  • This cover was hotly debated. New York’s editor suggested a man and a woman tied together back-to-back, a visual representation of “the battle of the sexes.” Aspiring to address women across sexuality and race, the Ms. staff also considered a face composed of different shades of skin—but according to Steinem, it “didn’t feel real.” Steinem, who had traveled to India, was inspired by the many-armed goddess Kali, a mythic and thus universal figure, and she became the issue’s Everywoman.
  • Published one year before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide, the preview issue included a petition, “We Have Had Abortions,” signed by fifty-three prominent women. (A similar statement, “Un Appel des 343 Femmes,” had appeared in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur a few months prior.) The signatories included Billie Jean King, Grace Paley, Judy Collins, and Steinem. Some of the women who signed had not in fact undergone abortions but added their names as a show of solidarity.
  • Hoping to reach a socioeconomically diverse audience, Ms. editors sought ad revenue to keep subscriptions cheap. But attracting advertisers proved difficult. Electronics companies would not place ads; one rep claimed, “Women don’t understand technology.” A toy train company also refused (trains were for boys). Ads for traditionally feminine products were no easier to procure: Pillsbury, Carnation, and Estée Lauder were scared off by Ms.’s feminist mission. In 1990, Ms. finally went ad-free—and raised its subscription price.
  • “In the end we are all housewives, the natural people to turn to when there is something unpleasant, inconvenient, or inconclusive to be done,” wrote Jane O’Reilly in the issue’s cover story, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.” Those tasks included making lunch, picking up toys, doing the laundry, and chauffeuring the children. O’Reilly encouraged readers to cut their list of chores in half and “think revolutionary thoughts”: “we know we want things some other way.” We still do.

Spring 1972 cover of Ms., illustrated by Miriam Wosk. Image used by permission of Ms. magazine © 1972 and Granger

Originally published:
September 27, 2023


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