Learning from Mary Thom: Editor of Women's Words and Lives

5 years ago

The New York Times obituary headline dubbed Mary Thom, who died April 26 in an accident while riding her beloved 1996 Honda Magna 750: "a chronicler of the feminist movement." But Mary didn’t just chronicle second wave feminism. She lived it, she epitomized it, she shaped how we think about it with her graceful editing and insightful writing.

If being at the right place at the right time is the key to life, then Mary’s life was quintessentially about unlocking doors to reveal a great awakening in women's history. She came of age at the moment women were breaking free from old boundaries that had kept them barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, treated as less than men in law and in practice. It was the moment that feminism's second wave came roaring--I can’t help envisioning Mary on her motorcycle here--out of its girdles and otherwise restricted lives into demanding, and to a large extent getting, freedom to be their authentic selves.

Mary Thom (Photo courtesy of Gloria Feldt)

I know little about Mary’s birth in Cleveland and growing up years in Akron, Ohio, or how she happened to attend Bryn Mawr to study history. But I do know that girls are typically more facile with words than boys. And that despite this, every woman I know has experienced not being “heard” when she offered an idea in a meeting, then ten minutes later a man said the same thing and everyone applauded.

By becoming an editor who shapes ideas and delivers words in ways that insist upon being heard, Mary amplified the voices of so many women. As former executive editor of the iconic feminist publication Ms Magazine, and at the time of her death, as editor-in-chief of the Women’s Media Center, Mary’s career tracked the trajectory of the modern women’s movement. Her contributions to these historic, groundbreaking feminist organizations were enormous.

Among several books, Mary co-edited an oral history of the be-hatted, loud-mouthed feminist foremother, the late Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Co-edited by Ms Magazine’s first editor-in-chief, Suzanne Braun Levine , the book carries perhaps the world’s best title: "Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way." That subtitle pretty much summarizes the second wave feminist movement in one fell Thom-esque swoop. (You can see an interview with her and Braun here: )

Mary was the best editor I ever worked with--and a fine human being. It's why her editing wizardry was so influential. She shaped ideas, made them better than they were when they were handed to her. She was authentic and therefore so was her writing and editing. As her colleague Addie Stan remembered her in The Nation:

The most radical thing a person can be is herself -- without apology or explanation. Those seeming contradictions in Mary -- the biker who looked like a librarian, the highly organized thinker toiling at the most disorganized desk, a team player who moved in self-determined ways -- were only dissonant when viewed through the lens of stereotype and conformity. In Mary, they were fully integrated parts of her personality, and never presented in that coy way those more self-conscious than she might display as evidence of their specialness.

Since her death, many people have spoken of Mary's calm, centered personality and how it shaped her work. I never understood how she could take my writing, trim a quarter of the words, and return a draft that flowed better and said more, yet with the meaning and my voice intact. I often had no idea what she had excised. It seemed miraculous to me, especially when I'd send her a draft at midnight and it came back somewhere around 2:00 a.m.

"Mary was a fine journalist herself, and also an editor who could free the unique voices of others. She never let what she wished to be true obscure what she knew to be true. If we just keep asking ourselves, 'What would Mary do?' we will keep learning from her," Gloria Steinem told me via e-mail.

To keep on learning from Mary and share our memories, this memorial website was created.

To foster more of her elegant brand of editing and honor her memory, the Women's Media Center has created the Mary Thom Art of Editing Award. The first award will be given at the organization’s October 8 gala in New York City.

On May 6, Mary’s friends remembered her at a gathering in New York."For over thirty years,” said Braun Levine, "five women have had dinner every single month. I am one and so was Mary. When we left a restaurant after dinner, we would all gather on the sidewalk to see Mary roar off on her Honda motorcycle. Oh, Mary...."





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