“Peace on earth good will to people”: Holiday reflections on Ms. Magazine

VIDA Managing Editor Ana Stevenson reflects on how Ms. Magazine disrupted the masculinist language associated with the Christmas season in 1972.

Bea Feitler, December 1972. Reprinted by permission of Ms. Magazine, © 1972.

Following a highly successful first year of publication, Ms. Magazine circulated its first holiday edition in December 1972. A second-wave feminist magazine with remarkable longevity, Ms. was co-founded by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. In seeking to maintain its secular feminist perspective while cultivating a religiously respectful tone, the December 1972 cover by Brazilian designer Bea Feitler boldly proclaimed: “PEACE ON EARTH GOOD WILL TO PEOPLE.”

The message itself was controversial. Taking the deep red and forest green associated with Christmas and tweaking these colours to hot pink and fluorescent green, it simultaneously reframed a phrase with foundations in Christianity and emotive resonance surrounding the holiday season.

The phrase Ms. sought to redefine is derived from the King James Bible. Luke 2:14 relates the annunciation to the shepherds, an episode in the Nativity of Jesus. After an angel tells of the coming of the Messiah, more angels appear, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

This biblical passage has been interpreted and celebrated by artists such as Dutchman Rembrandt van Rijn, in The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634). Many Christmas carols also describe this passage, from the traditional English carol “The First Nowell” to the traditional French carol “Les Anges dans nos campagnes,” or “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Others include “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (1739), by prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley, whose brother John Wesley founded the Methodist movement in England, and Scotsman James Montgomery‘s “Angels from the Realms of Glory” (1816).

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634), by Rembrandt van Rijn. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634), by Rembrandt van Rijn. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A few more recent biblical translations have reframed Luke 2:14 to elide its gender-specific origins. For example, the New International Version – UK (NIVUK) writes: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” Published in 2011, the NIVUK specifically adopted an inclusive language translation policy, as have other editions such as the New Revised Standard Version. However, the New American Standard Bible and various other translations continue to relate a version much more comparable to the original: “Glory to God in the highest, / And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Some hymn books have undertaken similar processes. Originally, the angels in Irishman Nahum Tate’sWhile Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” (1700) sing: “All glory be to God on high / And on the earth be peace. / Goodwill henceforth from heav’n to men / Begin and never cease.” When the editors of the Australian hymn book Together in Song (1999) undertook “minor changes … in the interests of inclusive language,” they revitalised these lyrics: “All glory be to God on high / And to the world be peace. / Goodwill henceforth from heav’n to earth / Begin and never cease.”

Yet such modernised lyrics did not exist in 1972, nor are they always embraced in the popular renditions of these carols today. From greeting cards to stained glass windows, the original phrase from the King James Bible has retained cultural dominance.

Other Christmas carols, originally based on poems, reflected upon Luke 2:14 in a pacifist sense. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (1849), by American Unitarian minister Edmund Sears, became widely known. “Christmas Bells” (1863), by American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was adapted as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (1872, 1956). Country icon Johnny Cash popularised the latter in 1963.

“And in despair I bowed my heard; / ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,” Longfellow wrote during the American Civil War (1861-1865):


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The men who penned these lyrics routinely maintained the original phraseology of the King James Bible. Many choirs have sung these lyrics beautifully ever since. For example, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge performs such advent music in the iconic annual television spectacular, “Carols from Kings.” Founded during the fifteenth century, this choir and its ilk pursue a choral tradition of solely training treble-voiced boy choristers – a tradition which has only very recently begun to admit girls.

"A Pledge and a Prayer" (1943), by Charles Henry Alston. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Henry Alston (1943). Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet pacifist feminists in the early twentieth century also reiterated these very words. Following the Great War (1914-1918), in her 1919 presidential address to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, American social reformer Anna Gordon said: “On that holy morn, November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed, we could think only of that wondrous Holy Night when the angels gave to the world the heavenly message, ‘Peace on Earth, good will to men.'”

In the spirit of the many feminist criticisms that have since denaturalised the conceptual and linguistic link between “men” and “human,” such as Genevieve Lloyd’s The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy (1984), Ms. subverted this phrase in its December 1972 edition. Nor did Ms. sanitise its content for the holiday season. The magazine’s cover still alerted readers to the magazine’s feminist content, some of which was explicit: “Marriage: His and Hers”; “Salaries: Hers and His”; “What Toys Can Do To Kids”; and “In the Mind of a Rapist.”

outrageous-actsMs. editorials often sought to emphasise the “bonds of sexual oppression that transcend differences of race, economics, religion, and all other social categories,” historian Amy Erdman Farrell writes in Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism (1998). In its desire to be both secular and religiously inclusive, Ms. also engaged with Jewish feminists in the United States. Gloria Steinem was herself of Jewish origins. So was founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin, famous feminists and Ms. affiliates Betty Friedan and Betty Abzug, and regular Ms. contributors such as Andrea Dworkin. In June 1982, Pogrebin even profiled “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement” for Ms., a controversial topic which gained much discussion in letters to the editor in coming editions.

Interestingly, however, the Ms. advertisements for Steinem’s collection of essays Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) emphatically read “Gloria! Hallelujah!” This drew on the Christian imagery of American social reformer Julia Ward Howe‘s Civil War poem and hymn “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord” (1863). Its chorus rings: “Glory, glory, hallelujah! / His truth is marching on.”

Bea Feitler, December 1973. Reprinted by permission of Ms. Magazine, © 1973.

Ms. again used its reinscribed holiday message, but in a different visual iteration, in December 1973. Wendy R. Blair, in her research about social protest art, observes how an “explosion of graphic design that included and supported type[face] as the design of the message” occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For this form of social protest art, the words “became the design” and the typeface was itself the “design as well as the message.”

Ms. employed the same message from the previous year but in a different, arguably more festive, glowing typeface. This time Bea Feitler, according to Blair, used the “red neon type to draw attention to the piece as the message is relayed.” Such a simple but revolutionary message needed no further explanation. Neither did the cover for this edition shy away from controversial topics: “Give Yourself Your Own Name for Christmas”; “Toys for Free Children”; “What about the POW Wives?”; and “The Truth about Holidays.”

When I came across these Ms. cover designs in the Special Collections of the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library in early 2015, it was a breath of fresh air. Much of Ms. Magazine during the 1970s and 1980s remains a product of its time, but this particular message is transcendent.

Ms. continued to pursue this holiday message in the coming years. As Gloria Steinem said, in her December 1980 salutations, we at VIDA say to you this holiday season:

We wish you what we wish for ourselves – a holiday of thoughtfulness and rest, of assessment and compassion. A time to look back on the year just passed and sort out wastefulness from growth. A time to plan a new year of work informed by respect for each person’s worth and by love for one another. A time of realising that time is all there is – and it is not too late to change our lives.

We wish for all of us the courage to hold on to a vision of a world in which children are born wanted and loved, with enough food and care and shelter to grow up whole. The vision of all people as perfectable and transcendent – free of social prisons of sex and race – and remarkable for the hopes and dreams and capabilities that exist in unique, unrepeatable combination in each of us.

It is too late to justify suffering with the promise of rewards in some other world. Too late for nationalism, for racism, for violence or for the belief that one can win only if another has truly lost. Too late even for the brotherhood of man because it has excluded the sisterhood of woman – and therefore the humanness of us all.

At last we begin. We look into the god in each of us, and say yes. We celebrate the world outside us.

We say peace on earth, good will to people.


To find out more about Ms. Magazine today, in the United States and beyond, visit its website: Ms. More Than A Magazine, A Movement.


AnaStevensonAna Stevenson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa in the field of women’s history and transnational social movements. Ana has sung in church choirs under the direction of Dr Graeme Morton, Rev Dr Howard Munro, Dr Edgar Chan, and Lance Phillip. In the past she has written for The Conversation, the Queensland Historical Atlas, and the British Association for American Studies’ award-winning blog, U.S. Studies Online. Ana is one of the Managing Editors of VIDA blog.

Follow Ana on Twitter @DrAnaStevenson.

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