Pearls are back, and if you are shocked to hear it first from Ms. Magazine, you have made Anne Summers' day.

"In some ways it's a relaunch," says the editor in chief of the new face she is giving the 16-year-old magazine. "Almost everything about the magazine has changed, except the name and the feminist commitment of its journalism."

Like John Fairfax Ltd., the conglomerate that installed her as the editor when it bought Ms. last fall, Summers, 42, is Australian. She is, in fact, a longtime leader of that country's very active women's movement -- as author (of "Damned Whores and God's Police," a feminist history of Australia), organizer (she helped establish the first women's shelter there) and public servant (head of the Office on the Status of Women). But as the new head of the magazine that has become this country's only mainstream font of feminism, she is as curious as the next native to puzzle out the meaning of the movement for American women today and tomorrow.

Summers wears big serious glasses whose frames are a wild shade of red. A professional journalist with long, enameled nails and a skirt that shows half her kneecaps, she seems a fair embodiment of the new Ms.: editor, like magazine, is dressed for late-'80s success.

"We want it to be a quality magazine for people to read," says Summers. "A lot of magazines today are just images; this is going to be a magazine of ideas and serious writing and good journalism."

On one level, her work is cut out for her: to turn around Ms.' losing record as a commercial enterprise. While it still has a respectable circulation of 480,000, Ms. has long been a hard sell to advertisers; at the time of the sale, it was operating as a nonprofit (and money-losing) foundation. Summers says that Fairfax, with its deep pockets, is prepared to give her time: "They knew when they bought it that it was going to take a couple of years to turn it 'round," and to reach a targeted circulation of 650,000.

On another level, however, Summers faces a far blurrier task: to find an editorial niche that will be -- dreaded word -- relevant to women readers today. As a start, the new Ms. will address politics more directly than the old, with its tax-exempt status, ever could. Within the next few weeks, Summers plans to announce the hiring of a political correspondent here, to be "the visible manifestation of Ms. in Washington." Already, in her first issue, the magazine rated the presidential candidates, "staking out an interest in the area, more than anything." And Summers, formerly a political correspondent and editor for such newspapers as The National Times and the Australian Financial Review, plans to track major pieces of legislation to examine how they will affect her readers.

At the same time, she says firmly that Ms. should embrace the attitude that "we all have our lighter sides, and we like to do something other than sit around feeling oppressed."

Witness the pearls. The March issue, which went on sale yesterday, contains a meditation on them as an entry in what will be a running feature, called "Clobber" (British slang, circa 1879, for apparel). The column is supposed to be an opportunity for Ms. "to comment on clothes, fashions and so on without really getting involved in them" in the way most women's magazines do. March's ode, however, is titled "Pearls at Any Price: What Coco knew, we can too," and could easily seem at home in Vogue, Good Housekeeping or Savvy.

Other articles, though, speak to such nuts-and-bolts issues as money, technology and health with the magazine's decidedly feminist spirit intact. And an adventurous approach to change is apparent in such new features as a Linda Barry-esque comic strip affectionately spoofing "Little Women" and a feature called "Earthly Delights," in which women writers (including Marge Piercy, Susan Brownmiller and -- in the March issue -- Eleanor Pere'nyi) will discuss gardening.

There are changes in the look of Ms., which has grown to a 9-by-11-inch format and boasts frills unavailable to magazines without rich and tolerant parents: four-color art throughout, and a design that strictly forbids "runovers" (the convention of jumping the reader to Page 239 for the end of an article).

Summers says her first major offensive will be to try to recapture some of the former Ms. readers "who feel the magazine stopped growing with them." Her second will be to try for a wider audience in the rich demographic loam of the Washington area. Ms., whose two largest clumps of readers are in the New York region and in California, has in the past had a disappointing reception here. "My hunch is there hasn't been enough material in the magazine that reflects Washington," says Summers.

When Summers held federal office in Australia, she says, there was a slang term for bureaucrats like her, the products of successful political activism: "femocrats."

"One of the questions I've been asked all around the country is, how is the women's movement in Australia different from the women's movement here? I always say, it astonishes me how little women have achieved {in politics here}. Women have so much political leverage," she continues, by virtue of their numbers. "And they don't use it as much here. We used it in Australia; we educated politicians to know they have to go after the women's vote."

Another strange thing Summers has learned about America: Recently she watched a number of focus groups conducted to study women's attitudes, and "one of the things that emerged from the groups was that -- especially in the young age groups -- there was this incredible resistance to the word 'feminist.'

"I've now had a lot of time to think about it, and I think they want -- first of all, this is a less ideological age, and second of all, they don't want a label they associate with their mothers or older sisters ... I call myself a feminist, and will remain so until I die. But they thought 'feminist' was both aggressive and defensive; and they thought it was antimale.

"I was shocked when I heard these women talking," says the new editor of Ms. Magazine, "but obviously I have to listen to them."