The Feminist Mystique

My moment of truth came in 1972 when I picked up a Ms. magazine and it rocked my world

Ms. immediately clicked for so many women.

Last week, I read that feminist icon Gloria Steinem had celebrated her eightieth birthday. Then I read that certain young female celebrities — notably Shailene Woodley and Lady Gaga — had said in interviews that they were NOT feminists. Woodley said it's "Because I love men!" Lady Gaga went further: "I hail men!"

I found the juxtaposition of these news stories mind-bending. Steinem defines feminism for all those decades and that's the takeaway? I felt the need to fire up my time machine and travel back to 1972, the year Miss Steinem ditched the 'Miss' and published a culture-rocking magazine.

I saw myself, on a warm day in July, standing outside my fifth-floor walkup apartment in Greenwich Village. I was in my uniform of the time — low cut jeans, sandals and peasant blouse — and I was holding the first issue of Ms. magazine. I sat down on the stoop to read it. When I finished, I rolled it up as if preparing to swat somebody.

I was 22 then, and had spent most of my life in Winnetka, a suburb of Chicago, where I rarely met a woman whose job was not as a homemaker (or a teacher). My exceptionally smart and educated mother raised six kids, ironed shirts and freshened her red lipstick in the evenings before Dad came home from his "Mad Men" job in the city.

I was not keen on pursuing the Winnetka marital model. Not to dis my parents' marriage, which was solid for sixty-seven years, but when I imagined my future, I saw nothing that looked like that. Nor did I see any variations of it, as they had not been invented yet. I wasn't sure I saw a wedding at all: Being single seemed better than a setup that, by my lights, heavily favored the dude.

I went east, to an all-female college, where the Sixties caught up with me. I was told to tune in, turn on and drop out, and I happily obliged. I wore out "The White Album," smoked a lot of pot and, eschewing academic study, spent my time visiting nearby colleges that featured men. (Yeah, Shailene and Lady G., I love 'em too.)

The words "feminism" and "women's lib" were bouncing around the campuses then, and we heatedly discussed abortion rights, open marriage, bra usage and the inequality of the sexes, which could not stand. Clearly, it was out with old and in with the new, but what was the new? I was fresh from a community that hadn't shown me any alternatives to the traditional roles for women, and I (like many of my peers) had trouble imagining what I could become. The times they were indeed a-changin', but I wasn't sure where they were a-goin'.

Things started to fall into place when I (somewhat randomly) auditioned for and got into the Broadway cast of "Hair." I thus ended my pursuit of higher education, began a career and set myself up for a life that would never be the Midwestern version of normal.

Not long after that, Ms. appeared, and in it, there was an essay by Jane O'Reilly titled "The Housewife's Moment of Truth." O'Reilly describes a "click" moment (like the modern "Aha"), when a woman becomes a feminist. I had such a moment, sitting on my stoop on West 11th Street, when I read that essay and the others in the seminal magazine.

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There it was, on the pages, in female voices that gave clarity and heft to the issues that had earlier fueled our confusion and anger. Ms. gave the pre-Internet world a place to go for information and a sense of common cause. On my own (sometimes gnarly) feminist journey, subscribing to Ms. felt like joining a massive support group.

I wasn't the only one. The first Ms. test run of 300,000 issues sold out in a week, generating over 26,000 subscriptions. Click, click, click, click ....

I put the time machine in reverse and traveled back to 2014, to where I am now married to a man who is as passionate about equality as I am. We've done our best to impart those values to our two daughters. Re-reading articles from the Ms. of '72, it's gratifying to see how things have changed. Thanks to the feminist movement, spearheaded by Steinem and others, my girls (and those outspoken young celebrities) have much less trouble imagining and becoming the women they want to be.

When asked to define what a feminist is, Ms. Steinem very wisely refers to the dictionary. Per the O.E.D., she or he is "An advocate of feminism, or women's equality or rights." Merriam-Webster's says a feminist espouses "the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes."

Pretty straightforward, right? Nothing negative about men, is there? Whether you are male or female, a star or not, it's hard to say you aren't on board with feminism when it is thus defined, isn't it?

Maybe Shailene and Lady G. need to read more than the dictionary. Maybe they should check out a few pieces from Ms. Magazine, co-founded by one of our most treasured octogenarians. It's high time they had their "click" moment.

Tags: memoirs