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SISTERHOOD used to mean sororities, their secrets and women who were the chosen elite. Yet times gradually change and, thank God, so does social consciousness; sisterhood is expanding to embrace over half of mankind. A new magazine for women, "Ms.", has just made its debut. These days the fact that it is written, published and edited by women, and headed by no less of a cult heroine than Gloria Steinem, imbues the whole thing with a bit of chic. Men as well as women have been paying $1.50 for the privilege of glancing through the shiny red spring preview issue emblazoned with an eight-armed blue woman. And discussions of it have begun to float around the dining halls.
At times, "Ms." smacks of slickness. One gets the obvious message that this is the production of professionals, but the too-clever drawings can be cloying. Though advertisements for vaginal deodorants are conspicuously absent (the latest "Consumer Reports" declared that they are irritants), the ads are not completely consistent with a "liberated" ideology. One page asks: "Could a woman become a Merrill Lynch Account Executive?... How financially motivated are you?" Other ads play on the wish for prestige, or the need to be desirable.
The articles in "Ms." occasionally lapse into polemic. A piece on "Men's Cycles" is more concerned with exploding the myth of male biological stability than with mitigating the effects of human cycles. The thesis that violence is a 'masculine' way of solving conflict is self-righteously assumed by a writer who has apparently forgotten about Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir. In "How to Writes Your Own Marriage Contract", achievement in male terms, i.e., production of marketable goods, is substituted for housework. The danger here lies in women identifying too closely with men and their desires. If worst came to logical worst, we could all turn into Norman Mailers, merely switching sexes within the context of The Prisoner of Sex: "He could love a woman...but he would not be happy to help her if his work should suffer, no, not unless her work were as valuable as his own."
Yet bursts of shaky rhetoric can be excused. "Ms." should in no sense be construed as just a gaggle of paranoid women sounding off. If the writing seems overly forceful in places, it arises from the conviction that shouting works better than subtlety. Women must pass beyond the limitations of polemic, packaging, and advertising in "Ms." and more seriously consider exactly what these people are trying to say, what they see in our culture that they are striving to change.
"Ms.", for the uninitiated, is pronounced "miz" and is a form of address which recognizes a woman as an individual, rather than by her relationship with a man. "Ms." magazine is dedicated to helping women realize that they, too, are whole people, that women share many things and that the growth of understanding between them can be tremendously exciting.
As a first step toward repair, "Ms." sets out to expose the damage done to female egos by Freud and society. "Why Women Fear Success," an interview with Harvard's Martina Horner, assistant professor of Clinical Psychology, explores women's desire to avoid success:
Unusual excellence in women was clearly associated for them with the loss of femininity, social rejection, personal or societal destruction or some combination of the above...The contradictory message that the girl gets, from society as well as from her parents, it that is she is too smart, too independent, and above all, too serious about her work, she is unfeminine and will therefore never get married... Once the thin crust of encouragement is broken, a deep well of social conditioning is discovered underneath. She goes into a tailspin of anxiety as she struggles to reverse her appetite for human fulfillment, an appetite she now learns is in direct contradiction to her feminine fulfillment...Our culture has made a deep split in the souls of its women...Behind the "passive" exterior of many women there lies a growing anger over lost energies and confused lives.
Reading about the artificial dichotomy between achievement and femininity, finding that someone else sees in that split the absurdity which you sensed long ago is as exhiliarating as it is reassuring. One may then read on to an article that says. "I have never met a woman who did not feel guilty," and instead of kneejerk denial (which is how I first reacted), one reflects on the many small ways in which that sentence is true. How many women are there who do not feel a bit guilty if a man does all the cooking or all the dishes, or if their husbands and children leave the house with missing buttons?
Just as good as the exploration of female psyches is the practical advice. "Ms." contains explicit instructions for setting up neighborhood child care centers. Johnnie Tillmon, organizer of the nation's first welfare rights group in Watts, closes a piece about A.F.D.C. (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) with recommendations on how to help women on welfare. An explanation of women's civil rights, a compilation or children's books free of sex-role stereotypes, and listings of "Where To Get Help" add up to make the first issue of "Ms." a truly useful magazine for women.
"Ms." encourages women to think about what they do and don't demand of themselves, and in the process makes a fair assumption: the male ago is going to be the last to change, so we must first aim at getting women to affirm themselves. Women must find and channel those "lost energies and confused lives."
When I was quite young, sisterhood meant living with three other girls who were magically joined to me because we somehow had the same parents. Our alliance grew deeper as we grew; when sharing tiny bedrooms we discovered that you either cooperate or you find yourself tied to the bed on Saturday mornings, and, well, bringing up parents requires concerted hard work. My sisters and I soon learned, however, that female solidarity was not common outside the home. By high school girls had few reasons to work together; in fact, cooperation was actively discouraged. When a group of girls fought for gymnastics and swimming teams in my high school, the School Board could not understand why well-brad young ladies wanted to compete; they finally granted permission largely because gymnastics and swimming were not "contact" sports. In other words, these girls would not need to touch each other.
The contributors to "Mr." magazine are of many colors, ages and sizes. Hopefully, their efforts will help women create an atmosphere in which they can touch each other in many different ways
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