You can call me Ms. Edelstein, from now on!
Ms. Magazine, that grande dame of feminist publications started by that grande dame of feminists Ms. Gloria Steinem, just did a profile on me. For a long time feminist like myself, it touched me to the core.
For many women of a certain age that storied magazine evokes a time of exciting challenges, disruptions to the norm, and honest to God truth-telling.
It was the tangible mouthpiece of the feminist movement and I may be one of the few folks they have written about who can lay claim to having the entire collection of Ms. magazines from the first July 1972 issue with Wonder Woman as the cover girl through the 1980s.
Stored neatly in my basement, boxes of Ms. and other feminist ephemera from that period sit side by side in my crowded basement next to neatly labeled cardboard cartons of their mainstream magazine nemesis, McCalls, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies Home Journal.
None of these classic women’s periodicals really told the truth about women’s experiences.
These vintage, oversized, ad-drenched glossies were an homage to the Lady Clairol world of carpools, cookouts, cream of mushroom soup casseroles, and catering to contented children and happy-go-lucky husbands. They were more of an escape into an often mythologized world which was what made Ms. so special when it appeared on the scene in 1972. It had the potential to change your life by speaking the truth and talking about issues considered taboo and rarely spoken.
I still marvel at Ms.’s groundbreaking and controversial covers about domestic abuse and sexual harassment which helped bring awareness to those crucial, but previously little-covered issues. While glossy covers normally featured models with Breck-perfect hair and Pepsodent white smiles, displaying a battered woman as the cover story which Ms. did in 1976, was very brave.
Most articles at the time were “How To’s” on pleasing a husband or boyfriend, yet Ms. offered “How To’s” on getting jobs, and raising gender-neutral kids while raising your consciousness too.
A Proud Feminist
It was an exhilarating time to call yourself a feminist.
Today most young women have an uncomfortable relationship with calling themselves the f word. They likely embody what it means to be one, but just don’t like the word.
For me at that age the word feminist was more than a fresh lens to view the world, it also made me part of a community even if I was alone in my suburban teenage bedroom. Maybe especially because of that.
A Mid Century Free To Be Me Childhood
Even as a child in the early 1960s part of me had already been questioning the norm, living a feminist life without knowing the words to support it. Despite the fact that the word feminist had appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary by 1895, it would not be a word I ever heard uttered in my classrooms or my home.
The portrayal of women as wives and mothers -that love, marriage, and children were “The” career for women -held little appeal to me. Despite the fact that the 1960s was a time of infinite challenges, the women I saw on TV, in ads, and in schoolbooks were hermetically sealed housewives cheerfully chained to their Electrolux vacuum cleaners, debating the well-worn topic of ring around the collar and exchanging the latest busy day Jell-O recipes while men were out and about saving the world. Traditional roles, let alone marriage was of no interest to me.
It is no surprise then that as a little girl, I never played house in the traditional sense.
Though I had the requisite Betsy Wetsy, Thumbelina, Chatty Cathy, and Peter Playpal dolls their care was overseen by a kind, middle-aged, make-believe housekeeper with a strong Irish brogue named Maggie.
In 1962, pre-dating Murphy Brown by several decades, I was a pretend single working Mom. Playing at running my own Advertising Agency, I was the Account Executive, Head copywriter, and Art Director rolled into one. After a long day at the office creating ad campaigns I returned home to my family of dolls asking Maggie how the children were.
Despite being exhausted from my tedious day of meeting with difficult clients, I was never too tired to listen to Chatty Cathy’s ramblings or take time to change poor Betsy’s seemingly always wet diaper. At the height of the MAD Men era, I was my own Don Draper without the martinis. But of course, I also had my own Betty, my dear mother the ideal housewife, who likely looked in on her “grandkids” while I was at work.
Even then I knew it takes a village.
However, a few years later, playing house was not optional. When I entered Jr High in 1968 I was required to take Home Economics, a class I ended up hating nearly as much as gym. Despite the beginnings of the second-wave women’s movement slowly making rumbles, this antiquated class was nothing short of basic training for being a successful wife, and homemaker.
While the teenage boys got sent off to Shop Class to work with wood, girls like me were learning how to bake the flakiest, most perfect biscuit sure to win a man’s heart. Having grown up in a household with a mother who ascribed to the ethos of new and improved -take a can and take it easy school of cooking, my only reference to biscuit making was banging open a can of frozen pre-sliced biscuits courtesy of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Slice and bake and call it a day.
I fared no better in the much-despised sewing part of the class.
Despite the fact that I was an artist with well-developed motor skills, a needle and thread were my downfall. Sewing machines were as foreign to me as a lawnmower and neither held any interest. The final project which required me to sew an A-line skirt, ended in disaster as I ultimately stapled the entire thing together rather than use a sewing machine.
Exasperated, my home ec teacher rolled her watery eyes swathed in green eyeshadow and reprimanded me. Shaking her head in disgust, I will never forget being told in front of the class by this plump woman with a sloppy beehive hairdo and a cardigan with frayed sleeves:
“I hope you can do something else because you certainly can’t sew.”
Red-faced, and humiliated I knew somewhere deep inside I could indeed do a lot more than sew a hem.
Luckily Ms. magazine appeared three years later to help me realize I could.
Reading the Ms article was a true “click” moment for me.
Not unlike many actors who, despite having celebrated careers and winning awards, can’t stand the idea of watching themselves on screen, I often have difficulty reading about myself and seeing my own words in print. A peculiar dilemma for a writer. But tentatively I took a chance and in its own way it was a true Ms moment. Reading it was empowering, offering me a true “ click” moment of recognition of myself and my worth and value, something so often clouded by self-doubt and derision. If that isn’t one of the gifts of Ms I don’t know what else is.
Click for those who may not know the term was the feminist “eureka” moment, an epiphany originally used in the first issue of Ms. in 1972. Click moments are a moment when our perspectives shift and suddenly the world looks different.
It’s a shock of recognition…click…a moment of truth. Thank you, Ms for bringing me there.
Thanks Sally. Your story and perspective are so valuable. Seeing that Ms. cover on “Battered Women” still gives me a visceral reaction. In a charity I volunteered with for working homeless families, about 1/3 of our mothers and families were escaping domestic violence. They were beaten and lost their home. The PTSD was doubly severe.
What amazes me still is how “feminist” is used by some vehement critics as a weaponized word. It goes back to a pet peeve of mine of those who label or name-call, even with words that should not be negative but are to some, do not have a good argument and are looking for shortcuts.
To me, being a feminist is saying I am going to treat all people the same way. We all deserve to be treated with the same opportunities, rights and protections. Is not that the Christian thing to do? Is that not what our constitution stands for, although it took over 130 years to get to that point and we still are not all the way there.
Let ne close with seeing Wonder Woman advertised for president to me does a small disservice. A woman who looks like Wonder Woman should not be discounted in a run for president, but this year we have a real wonder woman retiring from politics who deserves acclaim as the most recent leader of the free world – her name is Angela Merkel. And, there are other wonder women (Jacinda Arden, eg.) who are leading countries and entities around the world. They should be celebrated.
So, the correct answer to being negative labeled a “feminist” is “I am , but why aren’t you?” Keep on keepin’ on. Keith
Thanks for your well-considered comments Keith. Why someone, especially a woman would not consider themselves a “feminist” is beyond me given that it ultimately means equal opportunities for everyone.
And yes I agree wholeheartedly Angela Merkel is the unsung Wonder Woman of our time. I am sorry to see her go. Our world needs her now more than ever.
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I loved MS magazine too! As a side note, I hated Home Ec too, but because I already knew how to cook & sew, my mother taught me how when I was quite young! I still cook & sew! I wanted to take shop because I really wanted to learn woodworking … I wanted to do that cool wood-burning stuff they did. But oh well. I did make myself a nice halter-top that my mother refused to let me wear LOL
Shop always seemed like fun, more like summer camp arts and crafts. I love to cook now, but still hate to sew. But instead of a stapler I take it to my tailor.
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Congratulations Sally! Well deserved honor. I love your collages. Each image brings back memories as they invite us to contemplate the ‘message’ behind them that you so eloquently describe. Never stop informing and enlightening us!
Thank you Dianne for your continual support and encouragement, for all the work I do, in all the forms it takes. It means a lot!
Congratulations! What a nice recognition for you!
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After your year, I think this recognition came as a way (coincidentally) to heal you.
It certainly was nice to have something positive as so some much difficulty continues to swirl around me.
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