Letters to Ms.: How Mary Thom Built “Social Media” for Women’s Rights in the 1970s
Celebrating the invisible art of making a movement visible.
By Maria Popova
I recently attended the memorial for reconstructionist Mary Thom, whom we lost in a tragic motorcycle crash last month and who changed the voice of women’s rights as founding editor of groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. In the early 1970s, just as women were emerging from the stifling grip of the Mad Men era and beginning to raise their voices against injustice at the workplace, Ms. came in as a beacon of what many of us have since come to take for granted, a brave promise of what life would be like in a gender-blind world.
Named after the form of address recommended in secretarial handbooks for when a woman’s marital status was unknown, subsequently subverted by women who wished to be recognized as individuals rather than defined by their relationship to a man, the magazine proclaimed in its inaugural half-column announcement that “Ms.” was meant “only to signify a female human being. It’s symbolic, and important. There’s a lot in a name.” Indeed, there was: From the outset, Ms. made no apologies for calling things by their true, hegemonically defiant names — in the Preview Issue, which appeared as an insert in New York magazine in the spring of 1972, Ms. launched “a campaign for honesty and freedom,” in which fifty-three women signed a statement declaring that they had had an abortion, which at the time was illegal in most states.
Three decades before the age of social media and instant communities, Ms. presented an unprecedented avenue for women to connect with one another around the issues that impacted their lives daily, which remained taboo and thus cautiously avoided by mainstream media. It was in the letters to the magazine, collected in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) and edited by Thom herself, that these voices come together into a chorus line for the era’s central political and social concerns — equal pay, reproductive rights, the everyday language of bias and discrimination.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem writes in the introduction to the anthology:
Whatever Ms. readers are doing at any given moment, a third to a half of American women are doing three to five years later. You can track change through these letters, and even predict the future.
The country couldn’t have better leaders and teachers than these thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent letter writers. . . .
Long before the heyday of smartphones and email and text-messaging, Thom herself laments the lost art of letter-writing in the foreword, reminding us of just how monumental and paradigm-shifting a “social network” this epistolary sisterhood was:
Letter writing is nearly a lost art in this age of telephones and easy travel — and the receipt of written correspondence that is detailed and witty is a lost pleasure. As a result, when Ms. magazine began publishing in 1972, few of us who were on the staff were prepared for the experience of reading the rich variety of the letters that were addressed to the editors. They allowed us to get to know thousands of our readers on a level of intimacy that one shares with only a few real-life friends.
Ms. was founded to give voice to the concerns of a movement, and the letters help us fulfill that purpose.
And the letters were indeed exceptional — diverse yet uniformly courageous, from the confessional letters seeking a sense that others share in the same struggles and concerns to the classic “click” letters, a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from a woman’s anecdote that just “clicks.”
Many tackled the workplace revolution — at the time of the inaugural issue, some 33.5 million women were working outside their homes, but most were earning 59 cents to the dollar of an equally qualified man doing the same job. Meanwhile, the work of keeping a household running and raising children was unaccounted for in the gross national product although it essentially fueled the economy by raising the next generations. One woman had a clever solution, but was met with institutional rigidity:
Rather than hire a housekeeper and baby sitter for our three preschool children, my husband and I decided to “hire” me — to pay me a salary and contribute social security. The Internal Revenue Service said nay; this can only be done for someone not a family member. We tried to contract for disability insurance for me — in the event of my not being able to perform my housekeeping and child-care duties — but we have not yet found a carrier. I am not adding to the family income — and he cannot be compensated for a loss that does not exist.
The implication is clear — the establishment is making it more attractive to leave the home and let others raise their families. So I went job hunting. Results: very few jobs open in my field; higher salaries for men of the same background; hesitation to hire a woman with three “little ones” because I might not be dependable (miss work). Let’s find out why men with families are considered good, stable, desirable employees and women are not.
February 1973 issue
But the bias didn’t only come from “the establishment” — one anonymous woman notes its most devastating manifestation:
I work part time at a gas station in Oakland. I pump gas, wash windows, put air in tires, check and charge batteries, check transmissions, change oil, hub jobs, and other basic things. I don’t claim to be a mechanic; I’m not. But I’m getting a little tired of women asking me to get “one of the men” to check their tires, water, and oil. I have been trained on the job to do these things. Men seem to trust and accept my service much more willingly than the women. One woman asked me to check her transmission. I did and found that she was completely empty and suggested she add a quart of transmission fluid. She didn’t believe me and asked that I get “one of the men” to check it out. So I did, and he told her the same thing. This happens every day. I wish there was something that could be done. It is hard enough for women to seek positions in fields that are dominated by men without having to deal with mistrust and lack of support from other women.
A “click” letter poignantly considers just how deeply rooted and systemic the unequal pay problem is:
It occurred to me the other day to wonder at the discrepancy in wages that I pay to those high-school students who baby sit and those who do lawn cutting and gardening for me. Most of the “lawn and garden” people, who happen to be boys ask for a dollar an hour. Most of the baby sitters, who usually happen to be girls, ask seventy-five cents an hour.
Now I ask myself, is caring for my children less important, less valuable, less a responsibility? Or is lawn cutting and gardening considered harder and more taxing physical work? (Two active children under five can be pretty hard, taxing, physical work, too.) Or is it that boys just ask for and receive high wages from the beginning? And is it that child care is, anyway, considered to be “women’s work” and not deserving of pay? Click!
September 1974 issue
One woman shares an amusing anecdote of claiming empowerment by turning back on the establishment its own double standards of sexual objectification:
I finally got up the courage to challenge an old established male tradition in my office. I do telephone sales. Our working area in the office has always been covered with “girlie” pictures and photographs of devastating (and devastated) maidens. This made us few women in the office feel terribly uncomfortable.
When the majority of the male staff was out to lunch, we proceeded to rape the latest issue of Playgirl of its best. Over my desk now hangs one gorgeous specimen of the male species, the centerfold. Everywhere there was a girlie picture there are now beautiful stud photographs.
I think the reactions of the men in the office could best be summarized in terms of shock. Although everyone tried to be good humored about it, jokingly or otherwise, they all compared themselves in some way to the models. It was a marvelous experience to see super-duper macho stud types go all to pieces when confronted with the same thing we have had to face for years — images of ourselves as we could never hope to be, images of ourselves as seen only in the minds of men.
October 13, 1975
Others shared moments of small daily triumphs, the glimmering light of hope for an equal future:
One day last week I pulled up to a four-way stop in my taxi. At one of the other stop signs sat a police officer in a chase cruiser, and at the third, a telephone installer in a Bell Canada van. What made the occasion memorable was the fact that all three of us were women. We celebrated with much joyful laughter and raised thumbs.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
November 1980 issue
But in academia, a field still notorious for its gender discrimination, things were far from joyful:
In 1972, as full professor, I sued the university for discrimination in salary on the basis of sex. They were simply paying the men more than the women, especially me. It took all these years of stonewalling, avoiding, ignoring, before they finally admitted I was right, and settled out of court. Of course, I had to promise not to tell anyone how much they gave me and to be a good girl and not encourage any other woman professor to do the same heinous act of subversion of the rights of administration to set salaries. At age seventy-two (I retired in 1975), my lawyer and I decided to settle.
So how much I got is a deep dark secret, but you will notice this letter is being written on a new word processor. There are other things I have done, too. But the most is to enjoy, heartily, the last laugh.
Good luck to all embattled species.
August 14, 1982
Many of the letters dealt with the politics of women’s bodies and minds. This particular one made me sigh, after having recently been told by my own (female) gynecologist that, at the exact age of this letter-writer, I was wasting my golden hour for procreation, the sublime fulfillment of my womanhood. (Never mind I assured the good doctor I didn’t want kids.)
[The gynecologist] sprang into the examining room waving my medical history and inquired melodramatically why I was so terrified of pregnancy. Without waiting for a response, he informed me that I have one two-year-old child, a fact which had not escaped my notice, and that it was high time I had another, especially in view of the dismal statistics on the incidence of Down’s syndrome and other misfortunes in change-of-life babies. I am all of twenty-eight.
Since I didn’t then jump off the table and rush home to attempt conception before my time ran out, he coyly reminded me that if I stalled too long, and my one child died, I’d be (choke) barren. He darkly hinted at past patients, too numerous to mention, who had suffered nervous breakdowns after being unable to conceive that precious second child. My observation that a woman whose whose self-fulfillment rests on producing children needs a psychiatrist more urgently than a gynecologist fell on deaf ears.
In a last-ditch effort to summon up a satisfactory haul of guilt on my part, he spoke of women with serious physical problems who risk death to bear a child. “And then,” he said, “there are people like you. . . . .”
Dianne C. Felder
Old Bridge, New Jersey
April 1973 issue
Many of the letters found humor and wisdom in the innocent comments of young children, unburdened by the cultural baggage of gender roles:
The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.
Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978
Another, from one of Ms.’s male readers — a pastor, no less:
I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:
“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”
“No, Kristin, I don’t.”
Reflective pause, then, “Why?”
“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”
Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”
“Because boys and girls are different.”
Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”
My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I Hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.
Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
July 1981 Issue
Another section of the anthology is dedicated to letters championing equality in language, a topic particularly apt for a magazine whose very title offers meta-commentary on the subject:
Recently I was “called in” by a secondary-school district where I substitute-teach. I was told that I would be dropped from their list of substitute teachers, unless I stopped using “Ms.” when writing my name on the board at the beginning of a new assignment — “because ‘Ms.’ makes students think of sexuality and liberation.”
When I asked if there weren’t other women on the faculty using “Ms.” with their names, I was told, “No, we don’t have very many young, unmarried women working for us.” Click … crash!
Patricia R. Bristowe
La Honda, California
October 1973 Issue
Others found in the language issue a venue for small but meaningful acts of courage and resistance:
I resigned from my job yesterday as a matter of principle. I was given a letter to type by a senior secretary to the auditing firm that had recently been in our books. A woman headed up the team of accountants at our company for several weeks.
The letter was opened to “Gentlemen.” I changed it to “Greetings.” I was told that the letter must be redone because it was the policy of the company to use the salutation “Gentlemen.” I was told that management determined company policy, not uppity secretaries who didn’t know their place. I decided to resign and didn’t redo the letter.
I’m looking for another job, but I did raise quite a few eyebrows and, hopefully, someone’s consciousness.
September 12, 1982
Even in Ms., the constant tension between editorial integrity and advertising didn’t fail to rear its head — though it could be argued that, today, similar impossible ideals have permeated the editorial ranks and are being peddled by opinion-packages like Lean In rather than advertisers alone:
Why do advertisers persist in selling the image of the beautiful, shapely woman executive who keeps the same perfectly made-up face and styled hair, even after a hard day of earning a six-figure salary, dining in expensive restaurants, having a brisk game of tennis at the club, and a late night of discotheque hopping? It’s no surprise that real women are tempted to wonder what they’re doing wrong.
Deborah K. Smith
July 1980 Issue
In language, too, the little victories were celebrated as beacons of big change to come:
This may not sound like much, but my boss just asked me a question that made my day and that I am dying to share with someone. He was in a meeting when he called out my name. I thought I was going to have to make copies or do some other chore, but he asked a question: “Dianne, who is the new girl … lady … woman over at Mud Island?” Hooray, he’s thinking! I felt wonderful. I don’t know if he kept correcting himself for my benefit or not, but his awareness is all that matters!
September 1983 Issue
It’s often said that editing is an invisible art, and Thom certainly tried to embody that by deliberately stepping away from the limelight and operating behind the scenes. The irony, of course, is that the snippets of strife and progress captured in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 make plainly visible the enormous gift Thom and Ms. gave those of us who often forget all the indignities we need not suffer because of these women’s righteous, courageous indignation and fight for awareness.
Thank you, Mary, for everything.
Join me in supporting the Women’s Media Center, where Thom was editor-in-chief, in the remarkable work they do to etch Thom’s legacy into the bedrock of society.
Published May 7, 2013