Thirty Years, Nine Lives

Like the feminist movement itself, Ms. magazine has spent the past 30 years struggling to survive in an often hostile environment. Next week, the magazine will face yet another test of its endurance. On Monday, its owner, Liberty Media for Women, is expected to announce that the non-profit Feminist Majority Foundation will take ownership of the magazine.

Ms., which has already laid off almost all of its approximately 18-member New York-based editorial staff, will close and relocate to Los Angeles. The magazine, which reports a circulation of 100,000, will release its final issue in early December. Devoted, in part, to the events of Sept. 11, it will be Ms.'s 30th anniversary edition.

The Feminist Majority plans a relaunch for next spring, though it hasn't settled on an editorial strategy nor a new editor. Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal acknowledges that her organization has little publishing experience and faces a tough publishing climate. "Obviously it's quite different [than what we normally do] but we will retain a lot of the Ms. network so the transition will be very smooth," Smeal says. "What do they say? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Faced with mounting subscription costs and dwindling investor resources and revenues, Ms. began negotiating with Smeal's organization three months ago. Smeal says acquiring Ms. will provide a boost to its own cause. "It's a way for us to extend our political, cultural, and activist arms."

First published in 1972, Ms.'s initial issue set off a firestorm of controversy and became a bible of the middle-class women who kicked off the organized feminist movement. During the next three decades, it matured and expanded its coverage to include more women of color and many international stories, including faithful attention to the Taliban's treatment of Afghan women.

In its early years, the magazine operated as a tax-exempt foundation. But in 1987, the magazine was bought by Sassy-owner Fairfax Communications, which turned it into a for-profit venture. Losing money, Fairfax stopped publishing the magazine in 1989 for about eight months, until Lang Communications Corp., which owned Working Woman and Working Mother magazines, bought it in 1990. Ms. was sold again in 1996 to MacDonald Communications. Two years later, it suspended publication for the second time. Founder Gloria Steinem came to the rescue in December, 1998 with Liberty Media for Women, a group of 14 investors that included Sandy Lerner, a founder of Cisco Systems Inc., the computer-networking company, and Abby Disney, a philanthropist and grandniece of Walt Disney.

While many staffers at the New York-based Ms. were upset by the layoffs, at least one says she cared more that the magazine would persevere. "It's true the New York staff will not be working on it, but the message continues, that's the important thing." Steinem, who will continue to write for the magazine is optimistic about its future. "The amazing thing is that we didn't do it before," she says. "It's just so natural to have information and activism connected."