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.