Ms. magazine editor clicks off society's dangers


In the current issue of Ms., which focuses on domestic violence, a short item accuses "The Lion King" of "flat-out racism and sexism, some of it so bad you don't know what to make of it."

Isn't this feminism on the verge of self-parody? If a cigar is just a cigar, can't a movie be just a movie? Isn't Ms. being, well, a little shrill? Not at all, replies an unruffled Marcia Ann Gillespie, the editor-at-chief of Ms., speaking by telephone from her New York office.

"We don't really talk about all the things we could," she says. "If we were already there, of course, we certainly could ease up. But we're not already there. One thing we know, and studies prove, is the impact of what we make to be small things. They go toward building and retaining self-esteem."

Through 22 years and three incarnations, Ms. has been holding out to readers its vision of "there" -- a theoretically reachable utopia, if society takes a sharp left. Off and on for most of those years, Ms. Gillespie has been one of the tour guides -- as a contributing editor, executive editor and, for the last year, as editor-in-chief. (Ms. founder Gloria Steinem gave up running the magazine years ago, though she is still a consulting editor.)

Tomorrow, Ms. Gillespie, 50, will speak at Notre Dame College in Baltimore on "Achieving a Better and Safer Society," one of six lectures organized as a prelude to the school's 1996 centennial. Tickets for the 2 p.m. lecture at Le Clerc Hall are $25.

Sister Virgina Geiger, the Notre Dame professor of philosophy who organized the series, said she sought out Ms. Gillespie because "She is a trailblazer. She represents not only social reform, but the way to become a better person."

Ms. Gillespie will focus on the dangers of isolation in modern society. The very things that offer the illusion of safety, Ms. Gillespie says -- buildings with doormen, gated communities -- -- mark a loss of community, which is what truly threatens our safety.

She quickly warms to the subject, chosen for her by the college. "I live in one of these big apartment buildings, where everyone gets on the elevator in the morning, and I say 'Good morning' and no one says good morning back. That's when the door to violence opens, because we're isolated."

As 200,000 Ms. subscribers and buyers know, the personal and the political are intertwined for Ms. Gillespie. In the bimonthly magazine's signed editorials, she has contrasted the pornography debate with her expulsion from Sunday school, and recalled how she once walked past a homeless woman and her son, then tried futilely to find them again in midtown Manhattan.

"Like you, I want to think that I am a good person, a caring person, a feminist dedicated to justice in more than a 'me and mine' sense," she confessed in writing about the homeless woman. "[But] I am sometimes brutally reminded that I'm not always living the life I sing about."

Her life as a feminist began in a Long Island church -- not that she would have used that word in 1956. "They talk about 'clicks.' Well, the first click for me was in adolescence in my local Baptist Church. I was sitting there in shock when the minister called up a young [unmarried] woman who was pregnant and demanded that she apologize to the church. I remember the unfairness of it, the horror of it. There was no discussion of the fact that clearly she did not get pregnant by herself."

The clicks kept coming. She graduated from Lake Forest College in Illinois and went to Time-Life as a researcher. From 1971 to 1980, she was editor-in-chief of Essence, where she helped to increase circulation 40-fold, from 50,000 to 2 million. She left that magazine to do other projects, ended up at Ms. in the late 1980s, left to work on a United Nations report on the global impact of HIV, then returned to Ms. in 1992.

Her appointment as editor-in-chief last year was especially noteworthy, for it made Ms. Gillespie the only black woman running a magazine not geared exclusively to black readers. It also gives her a unique perspective on the balancing act required when weighing the sometimes conflicting agendas of minorities and women.

The criticism of "The Lion King," for example, doesn't worry only about the plug for patriarchy in Disney's animated feature. It also questions the propriety of "fascist, goose-stepping hyenas who speak so-called black English."

Ms. Gillespie says: "When I was at Essence, and the discussion turned toward women, there would be men who would say, 'What about men?' Perhaps there are people who think the same thing at Ms., but that's part of the way they keep people divided. I just laugh. I'm talking about people."

In fact, Ms. Gillespie prides herself on the level of dissent one can find within the pages of Ms. Whether the issue is pornography or welfare, the magazine's editorial stance may be somewhat predictable, but the response from its readers is passionately diverse. Readers took great exception, for example, the magazine's recent anti-gun articles.

"We got a lot of mail from readers who say, 'I don't care what you say, I think owning a gun is empowering,' " Ms. Gillespie says. "Editorially, we still stand where we are on guns, but I was very pleased. It reinforces that we are not a monolith here."

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