Friday, November 21, 2014
July 1972 inaugural issue of Ms. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryJuly 1972 inaugural issue of Ms. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

"You've saved my life!"

"I can barely wait until the next issue arrives."

"I find your magazine well-written and very stimulating."

"Your work in allowing for better communication within the feminist community is invaluable."

"Thank you for your wonderful publication."

"Keep up the great job, I am educating myself on the feminist issues through your coverage."

How do "ordinary women" describe their lives, construct identity, experience, and participate in mass media and culture? How can historians learn about the lived experience of most women, whose lives are outside of the public eye? One approach is to examine letters written to trusted magazines.

The Schlesinger Library holds the records of several small magazines, as well as partial records of several more. The records of Outrageous Women, a lesbian S/M magazine published in Somerville, Massachusetts, in the 1980s, were donated and processed in 2014. They join the records of Sojourner, a feminist newspaper based in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Quest: A Feminist Quarterly published in Washington, DC, in the 1970s; Dyke, a lesbian separatist periodical published in New York in the 1970s; and the Creative Woman, published in Illinois from 1977 to 1993. Letters written to Ms. magazine comprise another collection.

Many women wrote heart-wrenchingly intimate letters to these magazines. During the 1970s, Ms. was the only mainstream feminist publication. While women in urban areas could find magazines and newspapers with smaller print runs, women in most of the United States were lucky to find Ms. at their local bookstore. Women from across the country wrote to the magazine with questions, comments, and details of their lives. Especially in the early years of the publication, Ms. editors tried to respond to these letters, opening an intimate dialogue and creating a sense of community.

Women readers sought like-minded communities through these magazines and journals; their intense letters show the depth of their involvement. "As a middle aged woman I remember the void before Sojourner and therefore appreciate its existence all the more," wrote a reader in 1983. Some Quest readers offered suggestions about the focus of the magazine that went to the heart of its purpose—how would it define and describe the purest way to enact a feminist lifestyle? "What I object to [in the magazine] is the assumption that lesbian feminist separatism is the most courageous, and the only really authentically feminist, stance. We all live our lives in the way we do and can, and I certainly hope the women’s movement has room for all of us who are struggling," wrote a reader in 1976.

Readers of Outrageous Women stressed how its existence validated their own sexual interests and made them feel less marginalized and alone. "OW is a life-saver. Just knowing there are others who share my passion for S/M really helps. Up until now my sexual orientation has always been a 'secret,'" wrote a subscriber from California in 1986.

Magazine and newspaper-related records appear in other personal and organizational collections at the Library. Betty Friedan's 1963 book the Feminine Mystique was excerpted in several magazines shortly before its publication; letters that readers wrote to those magazines in response were forwarded to Friedan and can be found among her papers. Letters from readers form the bulk of the collections of newspaper columnists Elizabeth Winship and Ellen Goodman.

Researchers have used letters sent to magazines in the Library's collections in diverse ways. The size and geographical variety of the Letters to Ms. collection has attracted historians, journalists, and filmmakers interested in topics that include non-sexist parenting, accusations of Satanic abuse in day cares, use of the birth control pill, conceptions of motherhood, and feminists' relationships with food. Historian Jessica Weiss has written about the range of attitudes toward domesticity shown in the letters women sent to McCall's about the Feminine Mystique excerpt. Future researchers will find rich historical documentation among the diverse letters written by "ordinary women" and sent to the magazines whose records are part of the Schlesinger Library's archival collections.

Jenny Gotwals