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National Editorials & Columns

Mary Thom, thank you for all you did for women

Mary Thom, former editor of Ms. magazine and feminist visionary, died last week in a motorcycle accident.

I met her back in the mid-1970s. She wouldn’t have remembered me, but I remember her. At the time, she seemed much older than me. In truth, she was less than a decade older, but in terms of experience, so much more.

At the time, I was a law student. I’d been raped and had gone through hell, with the police asking me whether I was sure I wanted to file a complaint, my mother warning me not to tell anyone, and my classmates and professors pontificating about the problems of women lying about rape. At the time, I’d already gotten my first post-college job — as a clerk for a vending company, because the employment agency insisted that I could only apply for jobs on the “secretarial, clerical” desk and not the “management, sales” side. At the time, I’d already been fired from two jobs: the clerical job, because the married boss wanted to replace me with his girlfriend, and a waitressing job, because I complained about overstaffing girls (including me) to dance in white halter tops for 99 cents an hour.

My friend Suzanne introduced me to her friend Mary.

She heard my stories. Her response was not surprise and not despair. Her response was full of humor and determination.

We can deal with that, she told me. We’re going to deal with all those problems.


Talk about it, she said. Write about it, she said. Do your politics, work with other women, make change happen.

I remember when the first woman was selected as a Rhodes scholar, after decades (centuries) of discrimination, and she told reporters that she was not a feminist, that she had never been a victim of discrimination. Not a word of thanks. As if she would have been selected without the courage and determination of other women.

Not me.

I have stood on the shoulders of Mary Thom and the women she worked with, of a generation of feminists — in retrospect, barely older than me — who cracked the door open for me so I could crack it open a little bit more so that the next generation might keep pushing.

I became chair of the NOW Task Force on Employment Agency Discrimination. Don’t get mad; get even. I talked and I wrote and I did politics. Suzanne and I and our other women friends founded a women’s support group in law school, and that group supported me as I cracked the glass ceiling at the Harvard Law Review. In later years, I wrote and I wrote — and I still do. I called myself Ms. I talked back to those who put me down.

I learned my tactics.

But just as important, I learned to do it all with humor, with determination and also with delight, to see other women as my colleagues and my friends, to realize that together, we had power.

I pored over the pictures of Mary Thom that accompanied her obituary. And this is what struck me most. In every one that I saw, she is smiling. Fighting and smiling. Radiating joy.

I don’t know how many lives she touched, but mine was one. I never got to say thank you. This is the best I can do.

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