Remembering Mary Thom
Mary Thom. (Used with permission of the family.)
Steadfast. Diligent. Generous. Gifted. These are all words that describe my friend and former colleague, Mary Thom, the editor whose tenure at Ms. magazine and the Women’s Media Center helped shape the the dialogues and debates of modern feminism, who died on April 28 in a motorcycle accident.
But what I remember first about Mary is her laugh—a ready and almost girlish eruption that challenged first impressions of her as a very serious person. Mary liked to laugh, finding a generally good-natured amusement in certain human foibles—in a way that only a keen observer of people and their deeds would.
I was not immediately disposed to like Mary. We met in 1983, not long after I graduated college, when I was hired as an editorial assistant at Ms., and Mary defied my soap-opera notions of what a magazine editor should look like. Mary did not give a shit about fashion, seeming to choose her clothes solely for their comfort, and having no compunction about wearing the same thing—egads—more than once in a given week.
Had I known that she was into motorcycles at that time, I might have given her points for that, but she wasn’t the sort one would peg as a biker, either.
Having yet to begin to address my issues with authority, I found Mary confounding. She wasn’t bossy, but she sure was authoritative. When Mary stated something flatly, you could bet it was absolutely correct. The fact had been duly checked. Essentially, she was never wrong about such things. That kinda pissed me off.
Oh, and her desk. Who could forget that desk, a battered art deco gem stacked impossibly high and deep with source material, books, old memos and who knows what? Some of us joked among ourselves that there could be an old sandwich in there, and no one would ever know.
For the three years I worked next to Mary in my own display of untidiness, marveling at her ability to produce, upon request, a single piece of paper—from deep within a forest’s worth—that contained exactly the tidbit of information one was looking for. In truth, that pile contained the history of our movement, which Mary unassumingly curated, unbeknownst, at the time, to us. If there was an old sandwich in there, it was one that Bella Abzug or Flo Kennedy had taken a bite from during what would later reveal itself as a moment of great import.
It’s sort of amazing that our history didn’t go up in flames, seeing as Mary smoked a steady diet of Merits at her desk. Then one day, she didn’t anymore. She said nothing about it, just slogged through her work in a rage barely contained by her Midwestern politeness. She had turned 40, and had made a promise to herself that she would quit when that day came. That’s how Mary rolled.
In 1987, she published Letters to Ms., a volume whose production seemed an impossible task, given the torrent of missives the magazine received each month from readers; the first issue alone, published in 1971, drew 20,000 pieces of correspondence. Because Ms. gave names to the heretofore hidden experiences of women, women wrote back of their own experiences—sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and often fascinating. (People forget that phrases like sexual harassment and acquaintance rape were terms most people never heard of until Ms. coined them.) Mary loved those letters.
The book marked Mary’s first big foray into chronicling the modern women’s movement in book form, and she went on to publish, in 2006, an oral history of Bella Abzug (co-edited with Suzanne Braun Levine), and, in 1997, a well-received history of the magazine, Inside Ms.: 25 Years of the Magazine and the Feminist Movement—a story that could only have been told in its fullness by an insider with the mind and skills of an historian, the style of a magazine writer and the diplomatic skills of a special envoy.
Mary possessed all of these things, in addition to something even more exotic: for all of her talents, not to mention her ready access to famous and glamorous people, Mary was extraordinarily humble, in the very best sense of the word. She maintained her dignity while never seeking the spotlight. In the world of writers and editors, this made her quite the rarity. Within the broader dimensions of any job she filled, Mary alone determined what her work was, and then she got on with it.
Part of her self-determined work was to educate to those who wished to be taught. When I first came to Ms., I knew nothing of magazine writing or editing. Mary was often tasked with teaching me the rudiments; she was clear and she was thorough, with definite ideas about how things ought to be done. From Suzanne Levine and Martha Nelson, I learned the craft of editing. From Mary, I learned how to research a piece, how to turn over the rocks, how to reach into the forest of information and retrieve a small but critical fact. Years later, I thought of her often when doing investigative projects.
I came to Ms. unschooled in feminist things; I didn’t know the literature or much of the history. Mary was my go-to for the answers to questions about things everybody else at Ms. seemed to know already—not just for her knowledge, but because she never made me feel embarrassed for having had to ask.
I didn’t always behave well, and she let me know when I hadn’t. But it didn’t stop her from teaching me, or from working with me.
She liked people, but also her solitude, a combination of traits that made her a great chronicler of contemporary history. What made her book on Ms. so lively and readable was in how much of the story was told by revealing the dynamics of the personalities involved, presented largely through the arguments and interactions in which the various players engaged.
When, after her long tenure at Ms., Mary became editor-in-chief at the Women’s Media Center, I had the privilege of writing for her. Her interests were broad and deep, publishing articles by the famous and the unknown, on topics ranging from a massacre in Afghanistan to the controversial movie Django Unchained to women cartoonists. When she wanted an article from you, Mary was both patient and insistent. She unfailingly improved my pieces with a light but steady hand.
No longer a novice, I was at last able to appreciate all that Mary had shared with me, coming to the realization that, for all of devotion to family and friends, for all of her quiet fortitude, Mary Thom was a far more radical person than I had allowed myself to see.
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, the 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.
Mary never struck me as the kind of person who lay awake at night wondering what people thought of her. Meet up with her, and you’d be treated with equanimity, good humor and genuine interest in what you were doing, but whatever you thought of her was your business.
Although we first worked together some thirty years ago, I felt as if I was just beginning to get to know her. Her abrupt departure from our lives revealed how important she has been to the US feminist movement. Her stalwart presence and refusal to seek attention renders it the kind of revelation that may come as a bit of a surprise, even to some who knew her. One suspects the fullness of her significance might have come as a surprise to Mary, too. She was, after all, just getting on with the work she chose for herself: a fighter for a great cause, determined that we not forget how the battles were waged.