Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2002 / 16 Kislev, 5763

Catherine Seipp

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Ms. mag and other henhouses | (UPI) It took just one word -- "hairspray" -- from one of the other 22 rejected women on ABC's "The Bachelor" last week for Heather from Texas to dissolve into tears.

Who knows why "hairspray" undammed the waterworks? Perhaps it was the implication that Heather used too much of it. Perhaps it was because it came just after the evidently sensitive subject of Heather's home-cooking.

Heather had been saying, sort of jokingly, that she'd cooked all those big Texas-sized meals for the other girls in the villa to try to make them fat. When everyone seemed to agree that, yes indeedy, Heather sure was pretty competitive, it didn't take much to bring on the big boo-hoos.

So much for sisterhood. Which is why I wasn't surprised to see another henhouse debacle this fall, the collapse of the relaunch of Ms. magazine. Last month, the new editor-in-chief Tracy Wood quit after just a few months, and the planned fall issue was scrapped.

A year ago, Ms. was sold to the Feminist Majority Foundation, which announced plans to hire a new editor and move the faded publication from New York to the foundation's Los Angeles home base.

But by spring the group's Web site was still advertising for an editor-in-chief, even as the 30th-anniversary spring issue was hitting the stands in late March. (The bimonthly schedule had been reduced to quarterly.) Wood, who was hired in May, began work in July and quit three months later.

You might have expected that landmark 30th-anniversary issue, featuring founder Gloria Steinem on the cover, to get some buzz. But media coverage was practically nil, aside from a few brief reports and a Nation feature that had this to say about the aging crowd at the magazine's 30th-birthday celebration in New York, "The contents of the giveaway goody bags were largely restricted to estrogen replacement."

Ms. hadn't been technically dead before the Feminist Majority took over, although you could be forgiven for not realizing it was still around -- which says something about the state of feminism.

The magazine's owner, the Feminist Majority Foundation, has been stuck in a bog of moral equivalency over the war on terrorism. Just a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, its Web site touted an online chat with founder and President Eleanor Smeal, "connecting U.S. and international terrorism."

The connection Smeal was talking about, though, concerned not extremist American mullahs indoctrinating terrorists intent on killing thousands, but (and she wasn't kidding) anti-abortion protesters.

And speaking of those estrogen-replacement goodie bags at Ms. magazine's 30th-anniversary party, I often wonder why abortion continues to be such an obsession with women who are now far past the age of ever needing one.

Anyway, Ms. has occasionally shown signs of life. In January 2000, the magazine was actually feeling expansive enough to hire the disgraced columnist Patricia Smith, who was forced to resign from the Boston Globe after she admitted making up sources and quotes.

So earlier this year, I was interested enough in the planned revival of Ms. to call repeatedly asking to interview someone from the Feminist Majority, but got nowhere.

The spokeswoman waffled for weeks and then finally declined, evidently because she wasn't sure I'd be entirely sympathetic.

Such Big Nurse-control freakism isn't really surprising, considering that feminist leadership has developed a habit of lashing out at anyone who even questions the party line. The outspoken Tammy Bruce, former president of the National Organization for Women's Los Angeles chapter and author of the book "The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds," is now considered persona non grata by traditional feminists.

Conventional wisdom has it that feminists began losing credibility during the Clinton scandals. But I first noticed the slide into absurdity in 1995, during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Bruce, who besides being head of NOW's Los Angeles chapter was a local talk radio host, had criticized Simpson on the air as a wife-beater for months. After the not-guilty verdict, she organized a protest rally that attracted 5,000 people.

Surely using the Simpson case to focus on domestic abuse was exactly what an L.A. feminist should have been doing. But NOW's national leadership -- furious at Bruce for damaging alliances with black leaders -- called her "racially insensitive" and "insidious" in multiple media releases.

Again, so much for sisterhood.

This whole phenomenon about female nastiness to other females crystallized for me when I came across a half-century-old Esquire essay, still absolutely on-target, written by Elaine Greene and called "Tears in the Ladies Room."

After a particularly unnerving job interview with a fashion editor, Greene came up with "a self-steeling phrase to be chanted to oneself before stepping into a strange woman's lair. It goes, 'Here's a bitch who will try to torture me.'"

Now before you dismiss me as like the insufferable Celeste Holm character in "Letter to Three Wives" ("Women are so SILLY!"), let my explain that over the years I have periodically visited that inner circle of journalism hell known as women's magazines, so I know what life in a henhouse is like.

And what is -- or was -- Ms., really, but just a women's magazine that took itself very, very seriously?

Like "The Bachelor," women's magazines are a fascinating microcosm of female competitiveness, sort of like "Lord of the Flies" with an all-girl cast.

A few years ago I began turning down women's magazine assignments because I'd learned they're almost never worth the fallout. As Huck Finn put it, I been there before.

Still, I have to admire the way the editors pitch their hideous assignments in delirious whitewashing-a-fence terms as fun, fun, fun: "ALL we want is quotes from a dozen or so people -- our dream list would include Madonna and Carol Burnett and Colin Powell, but you be creative- - about: happy Thanksgiving memories/worst date/best treat-to-myself ever, and ALL you have to do is spend a few days on the phone calling and calling and calling ... it's EASY!"

Should you suggest that this actually does not sound quite so easy and ask for more money, the disapproving response is then passed on for your enlightenment, just like in a sorority slam book: "And FYI, they said to me, 'Why does she think SHE should get that much?'"

The last such piece thrown my way came from one of the Seven Sisters, for an article titled "I Can't Believe I'm Getting Paid For This!" and conceived around interviews with people like a woman who bakes brownies for a living.

Since no matter what you do, I can believe you're getting paid for it, I turned it down.

Meanwhile, on the finale of "The Bachelor," who will hunka-hunka Aaron choose? Inanely talkative school psychologist Helene, who pleased Aaron by wearing the pants outfit he liked on their first date?

Or "my Daddy's in prison" Brooke, a sweet young college student with a truly horrific family?

I'm betting on Brooke. Just a gut feeling. But even more than that, I'm betting on tears.

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JWR contributor Catherine Seipp, who writes the weekly "Cathy's World" column for UPI, is a columnist for Pages, the books magazine and has also written features, commentary and media criticism for Mediaweek, American Journalism Review, Penthouse, Forbes, the Weekly Standard, TV Guide and Reason. Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, UPI