I recently spent about a week reading through an archive of letters written in the nineteen-eighties by readers of Ms. magazine. The letters are held at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s Schlesinger Library, at Harvard, and they are stored in gray flip-top document cases. I was conducting research for a book that investigates a number of national conflicts surrounding sex that took place in the nineteen-eighties. Since Ms. was the most widely read feminist magazine in the country at that time, I wanted to see how its writers and readers had thought and talked these issues through. These were the original letters—not the ones published in the magazine; some were typed, some elegantly handwritten, some scribbled out in a rush. As I began thumbing through them, I found my research interests receding into the background: the letters are remarkable, and collectively they show the best kind of relationship between a magazine and its readers.
One topic elicited an especially thoughtful and enthusiastic correspondence. At the time, many American feminists had become involved in fierce debates about pornography. On one side of these debates, anti-pornography activists argued that porn shored up sexist attitudes toward women and also encouraged men to commit acts of sexual violence. Groups like Women Against Pornography led tours of New York’s Times Square, which was full of sex shops and X-rated movie theatres, to educate people about the contents and environment of porn. Outside New York, the lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and the writer Andrea Dworkin drafted city ordinances that would have allowed women to file suit against pornographers for civil-rights violations. These people argued that a free society had to rid itself of porn, which made women un-free.
Opposing the anti-pornography camp was a different group of writers, academics, and activists, sometimes identified as “pro-sex” feminists. Members of this group, which included Carole S. Vance and Ellen Willis, acknowledged that pornography was often extremely misogynistic, but they argued that groups like Women Against Pornography were wrong to identify porn as the source of women’s oppression. It would be more accurate, they said, to think of pornography—and not all pornography, but only that which expressed sexist beliefs—as a symptom of attitudes that had their true foundations elsewhere. They worried that anti-pornography ordinances could only play into the hands of right-wing, “family values” politicians, who hated sexually explicit media in general.
In 1985, Ms. ran a cover story on this debate, “Is One Woman’s Sexuality Another Woman’s Pornography?” The editors received letters from all over the country in response. As I read them, I kept imagining what the online comment replies to a long story on pornography would have been like, and this made me admire the letters. Online comments usually appear in the same browser window as the article to which they reply. You often get the impression that commenters know this, and that they see themselves in competition with whoever wrote the original article. Letters, in contrast, appear a whole month after the fact, in a different issue of the magazine. They are written in private, and their authors understand that the likelihood of their being published is slim. But they are written anyway, addressed to whomever the reader imagines being included in the term “the Editors,” in the hopes that an answer to a difficult political problem can be pieced together.
“I find much pornography totally repulsive,” one woman wrote, “much as I am disgusted by Charles Bronson movies, anything directed by Brian de Palma, or Hustler magazine.” This repulsion, however, was ultimately outweighed by her worry that anti-pornography legislation might be used against sexually adventurous feminist writing as well:
Only one area frightens me more, & that is a world Ray Bradbury & George Orwell have shown us in literature. In ridding society of one evil how can any of us say that the delicate balance of feminism, self righteous fundamentalism, & local moral standards may not rid us of Rita Mae Brown, Erica Jong, or Betty Dodson as well?
…Is a dictatorship any more admirable for being politically liberal & “benevolent” than for being traditionally moralistic & “autocratic”? This is, after all, a problem largely present only in an open society. Both the Afrikanners & the Communists probably genuinely believe that what they are deciding is best for everyone. I, for one, would rather live here, imperfect as it is, & assume the frightening risks democracy imposes on me.”
Another reader, arguing the other side, compared pornography to nuclear arms. Acceptance of both, the reader said, provided evidence “of a culture which has no clear perception of violence as a negative thing.” The overheated comparisons cannot conceal the seriousness with which the letter writers approached their tasks. One was concerned that American culture was too eager to excuse or embrace violence. The other believed that this concern with violent pornography should not be generalized into a suspicion of sex itself. In an online comments section, the people writing in would have soon forgotten the subject at hand and begun to fight with one another. It seems important to the over-all effect of these letters that they were written in isolation from one another, as though this is what made it possible for the letters to speak to each other so clearly.
Many people wrote letters because they believed they knew something that the cover story’s author, Mary Kay Blakely, didn’t. They wanted to help her get up to speed. “I am sixteen years old and I have never written into a magazine before,” one girl wrote before passing along a story she had heard about pornography and organized crime in New York City. Another woman sent a newsletter with a note attached. The note read, in part,
Please read the attached propaganda that was sent to my church address. We are not mainstream Christian & are rarely on any major mail list—so if they sent it to us—you can bet they sent it to the world at large.
This is a perfect example of why you don’t want to join forces with these types. Note: pg 13 they are not too keen on being allied with feminists, or anyone who doesn’t buy their narrow view-point 100%.
The newsletter was a copy of Midnight Alarm: America’s Judeo-Christian Traditional Values Advocate, and the particular issue enclosed was headlined “Homosexuality Special Edition.” It contained an item titled “Lesbian pornography in the classrooms.” While the author seemed glad to report that “recently, Christians and feminists have joined in an unlikely alliance to attack pornography,” he also made it clear that the feminist definition of pornography was inadequate because it did not include lesbian sexuality. “I’m sending you this for your info,” the Ms. reader wrote at the end of her letter. “Please pass it along to whoever needs to know about it.” You wouldn’t write a letter like this if you didn’t think it would be thoughtfully considered, that its recipients would understand your contributions as valuable. Given that Ms. saved the letter for more than two decades and then handed it over to a university archive, it seems the letter writer was right.
Even misguided and wacky people come off well in a letter. “I am a sailor in our United States Navy and spend a great deal of my free time reading,” one man wrote.
While perusing the local base utility store magazine rack, I came upon the cover story of Ms. April 85. I never at any time [had] attempted purchasing the magazine: like most men I figured the publication would be full of feminist rhetoric and sexist. At this time I would like to tell you how intellectually stimulating and thought provoking Ms really is! I have missed out on some obviously great reading for quite some time!
“A very concerned American Male, am I!” is how the author concluded his note, although it is unclear whether his concern was enough for him to take out a subscription. It reminded me of another letter I had come across in the archive, one responding to a 1981 essay about pornography by Andrea Dworkin. The author said that Dworkin’s essay was “thought-provoking,” and that it had reminded him of J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that the production of pornography is often related to other sex crimes. “Clearly, if books can educate, enlighten and inspire,” the man wrote, “they can also corrupt by glamorizing and encouraging pernicious ideas and behavior: Ideas do have consequences.” What I enjoyed most about this letter to the editors of Ms. magazine was the author’s salutation: “Gentlemen.”
I sometimes think that there are two kinds of magazines. One kind is founded on the belief that a certain sort of person, a certain readership, has always been around and always will be, and that this readership’s loyalty to a magazine about their lives and interests will be more or less constant. Time, Newsweek, and Life are examples of this type, and so are Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker—they tend to stick around for a long time. The other kind of magazine is founded because its editors are engaged in some urgent project, because they perceive some set of political or social changes developing and want to intervene. The Partisan Review was this kind of magazine. So is The Baffler. They tend to do the work the times intended them for and then recede into the background. Reading the Ms. letters, it occurred to me that what made Ms. unique and important during its first run of monthly publication, from 1972 to 1987, was that it was both kinds of magazine at once.
Ms. wanted to address the daily lives of its readers as though those lives had political meaning, and the success of this project is documented in the letters. Many letters from rural or more conservative parts of the country seem to be written with special enthusiasm and care, as though their authors understood the letter as their best opportunity to connect with and improve a community they could only admire from a distance. “Thank you for your magazine, as imperfect as it may be, it is a Godsend to those of us at the corners of the earth working for a male-oriented bureaucracy,” one woman wrote. (The bureaucracy in question was the United States Army.)
The pornography debate exposed and then exacerbated deep divisions within the women’s movement. Some of those who participated later said that feminism never truly recovered. As a magazine that represented the most mainstream version of liberal feminism, Ms. was frequently criticized by more radical feminists on both sides of this debate, and in many cases these criticisms were completely deserved. But the letters Ms. received, for all of their passion, anger, and occasional weirdness, reveal a community of readers who saw the magazine and the project it represented as an important symbol of the possibility of social progress.
Richard Beck is an associate editor at n+1.