Feminist media’s journey to popularize the movement without losing political edge

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Feminist media’s journey to popularize the movement without losing political edge

Dr. Leandra Zarnow examines Ms., Bust and Bitch magazines and the popular feminist tradition

by Kate Weisshaar on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - 8:13am

A group of women did the unthinkable in the early 1970s: they founded a feminist publication. After the first issue of Ms. magazine was released, newscaster Harry Reasoner quipped, “I’ll give it six months before they run out of things to say.”

Ms. magazine editors: Suzanne Braun Levine (first editor), and Marcia GillespieMore than 40 years later, Ms. still has a lot to say. In fact, the publication has forged the way for other feminist media. However, new feminists producing knowledge and striving to find their place in the media world face a conundrum. Mainstream media companies are finding it harder than ever to maintain advertising dollars. Progressive — and sometimes subversive — feminist media face an even greater challenge: keeping their financial books in order while maintaining independent editorial authority. As long-lived feminist publications face marginalization from mainstream media, where do new feminist voices fit in?

Leandra Zarnow, an historian and resident ACLS fellow at Stanford University, studies the historical formations of such feminist publications. By examining contemporary feminist magazines, and comparing them to older feminist publications, Zarnow researches how feminist voices relate to the larger media landscape.

The start of the journey: Ms. magazine

Ms. magazine began in the early 1970s. The founding editors sought to give a national media voice to the feminist movement. Their goal was an ambitious one: feminism was largely ignored in the media at the time, or was disparaged and mocked by news sources.

It turned out that the founders of Ms. had correctly discovered American women’s desire for a magazine representing their personal and political interests – interests that did not align with popular women’s magazines emphasizing makeup, fashion, and the proper way to keep home. Ms. boldly addressed topics such as abortion, domestic violence, women in leadership, and sexist advertising. Within eight days of the release of their first issue, the 300,000 pilot copies of Ms. sold out.

Current Ms. editor, Katherine SpillarMs.’s initial success has grown over the past forty years, bringing a feminist presence to the national media arena. The magazine’s history has not been without setbacks, as Zarnow details in her scholarly work. Holding a high bar for advertisement standards, Ms. has experienced financial duress.

From 1978 to 1987, it published as a non-profit magazine. For the following 14 years, it developed an innovative no-advertisement publication process, relying mainly on subscriptions and donations to stay afloat. In 2001, Ms. merged with the Feminist Majority Foundation, to allow for more financial flexibility. Despite these financial troubles, for 40 years Ms. has produced full issues of the magazine to an audience of more than 110,000 subscribers.

Room for new feminist media?

While Ms. gave a new outlet for feminist viewpoints, Zarnow contends that one magazine cannot capture all voices in the movement. Bitch and Bust magazines, both formed in the mid-1990s, sought to create a niche in the feminist media for young feminist readers and activists. Bitch, providing a “feminist response to pop culture,” walks the thin line between critiquing and producing media products. Bust has garnered attention for its feminist appropriation of girlie culture, and sells products in its “boobtique” as a supplement to the written articles. 

Through studying the archives and current issues of these feminist magazines, Zarnow explored what these new feminist media organizations can reveal about the tensions between achieving an independent voice, garnering a sizeable audience, and surviving financially.

The founders of Ms., Bust, and Bitch all grappled with a central dilemma facing creators of popular magazines – how far feminism can be mainstreamed before selling out.

“The founders of Ms., Bust, and Bitch all grappled with a central dilemma facing creators of popular magazines – how far feminism can be mainstreamed before selling out,” Zarnow wrote in a 2010 article “From Sisterhood to Girlie Culture: Closing the Great Divide between Second and Third Wave Cultural Agendas,” published in Nancy Hewitt's book, No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism.

Zarnow shows how Bitch and Bust publishers stepped away from traditional media strategies. In its early years, Ms. leapt into a full-scale production – glossy magazine cover and all. By contrast, Bitch and Bust both began as ‘zines: both publications were created via desktop publishing and reproduced at local copy shops. This alternative publication approach meant that Bitch and Bust founders were immersed in technologically innovative media distribution processes from the beginning.

Photo via bitchmedia.org, Kristin Rogers Brown (photo by Jeff Walls).After several small batch issues were produced, funded out-of-pocket by Bust founders Debbie Stoller and Marcelle Karp, Bust garnered national attention after a provocative fourth cover photo. In a 1994 review, Star Tribune reporter Kristin Tillotson described Bust as catering to “the female urban hipster aged 25-35, who likes thinking, laughing, sex, and men (often in that order).”

After drawing a loyal following in its initial years, Bust hit financial troubles during the dot.com industry’s downturn. Struggling to stay afloat, they used readership campaigns to raise money.

Meanwhile, Bitch founders Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler created Bitch magazine to provide a forum to critique popular culture. In 1996, Bitch was produced in a similar format as Bust – a copy-and-paste ‘zine. The first issue, funded with a $150 donation from Jervis’ grandfather, quickly drew substantial reader support, from feminists who were similarly fed up with the free pass given to the media.

Lessons from Feminist Histories

Through her research, Zarnow uncovers the “fundamental tension endemic to popular feminist enterprises: how to popularize feminism without losing one’s political edge.” Each magazine faces this problem, which is endemic to any social movement. With a myriad of perspectives and voices to represent, Bitch and Bust must attempt to integrate a diverse range of feminist opinions without foregoing a cohesive message. Both magazines pitch their directive as modern, provocative, and cutting edge.

Young journalistThe histories demonstrate that these magazines are not simply newer versions of Ms. Instead, Zarnow argues, they have branched out into their own media spaces and serve as a complement to existing feminist media sources. While Ms. features a fact-based reporting style, aiming to support activism through coverage of events and relevant news, Bust and Bitch cover user-generated content, featuring opinion columns, modes of self-expression, and women’s personal experiences. These magazines provide a forum for women’s issues – from relationships to music consumption to queer and diverse media.

Placing themselves in the sex-positive camp (regarding the 1980s sex wars), Bitch and Bust have devoted a space to their visions for the third-wave agenda. Both magazines are at the forefront of feminist activism. Their online blogs and discussion forums and integration with social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed them to create a diverse activist community that supplements the magazines.

Delving into the rich histories of these magazines, it becomes apparent that the narratives are not just stories. Rather, the work of Zarnow uncovers the challenge to have a mainstream presence for voices considered to be on the margin. Despite their nuanced approaches to advertising, technology, and their different niche markets, these magazines have experienced significant financial hardships. Furthermore, the different approaches of feminist media sources mirror their different strategies for impacting change. In the strenuous world of advertising and fundraising, the inevitable question arises: is there room for everyone?


Dr. Leandra ZarnowDr. Leandra Zarnow's talk, "Trans-Ms.ions: Bust and Bitch Magazines and The Popular Feminist Tradition" was organized by the Stanford History Department as part of the campus-wide celebration of Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism.

Leandra Zarnow is an historian and resident ACLS fellow at Stanford University. Her research focuses foremost on United States women's and gender history, political and legal development, and the post-World War II period.  She is currently completing, “Bella Abzug and the Unmaking of the American Left,” to be published by Harvard University Press.

 Kate Weisshaar is a PhD student in the Sociology department at Stanford and a member of the Student Writing Team at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.