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Radhika Jones on Art and Advocacy in Troubled Times

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When the Dobbs decision came down in June, I felt the urge to speak to people who had fought so hard for abortion rights before 1973—those who first envisioned an America in which abortion access was a federal protection. As it happens, I had recently met Gloria Steinem at an event for CARE, the humanitarian organization where I serve as co–vice chair of the board, and we had talked among other things about the art and fun of magazine making. At various points in her storied career, Gloria has been an activist, organizer, writer, leader, and a founding editor of Ms. magazine, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. So I was thrilled to invite her to be a special contributing editor to this issue, in which we highlight artists and advocates across generations who fight on the new front lines of reproductive justice, who advance feminist causes through their work, and who by their own sheer excellence carve out indelible space for women’s voices in American culture, including, of course, Gloria herself.

Because COVID was still a ubiquitous presence during our planning, we weren’t able to reconstruct an in-person version of the editorial meeting you’ll see in our Ms. retrospective. But Zoom sufficed. Gloria provided historical context, sometimes dire—for example, that assaults on reproductive rights characterized the Nazis’ rise to power—but she was also calm, action-oriented, and optimistic, all of which proved prescient when Kansans turned out in August to vote overwhelmingly to secure abortion access in their state. Ahead of the November elections, we hope that our focus helps put into relief the stakes not only of congressional and gubernatorial power and pipelines to the presidency (see Gabe Sherman’s reporting on Ron DeSantis), but also of the influence and impact of local lawmakers and advocates on the ground.

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I believe that art is formed in a crucible, and in times of political and cultural stress it’s wise to look to our visionaries, those with the capacity to imagine the world differently, to recast its characters or change its palette. It’s not about chasing escape but about opening the mind to what’s possible. Annie Leibovitz’s portfolio of women artists from legends Faith Ringgold and Cindy Sherman to new guard Mickalene Thomas and Amy Sherald reminds us that as much as our identities may be circumscribed politically, they are also fluid, shaped by the images toward which we gravitate (one thinks of Sherald’s mesmerizing portrait of Michelle Obama), or in Sherman’s case, by the range of people we may find ourselves liberated to play. Lisa Robinson’s interview with our enthralling cover subject, Lizzo, underscores the role popular art can play in navigating troubled times. If her music is joyful, Lizzo tells us—if it is optimistic—it’s not because things are easy, but because they are difficult. That’s why we love her, and why her songs strike such a chord.

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