The first time I met the writer, feminist and modern-day matriarch E.M. Broner—better known to her friends as Esther—she was wielding a wand. It had been a sad occasion, the first anniversary of the death of the late, great book critic and, for a time, Nation literary editor John Leonard, and a few of us were gathered at the house John had shared with his wife Sue, a brilliant teacher, radical spirit, and one of the first women to teach me about feminism.
We were just digging into a mound of oversized, drown-your-sorrows desserts when Broner walked in—or floated, more accurately—an 81-year-old fairy with leaping eyes, a delighted cackle, and unapologetically frizzy brown hair. She seemed ancient and ageless all at once, and she was waving one of those glittery star-shaped wands that are so popular with the under-eight set. There aren’t many people who can pull off a wand, with or without glitter, but Broner wore it like a particularly graceful limb. When she waved it over us, the lights—I am certain of this—buzzed 50 watts brighter.
On June 21st, this exquisite woman died, just a few weeks shy of her 83rd birthday and long, long before she or the world she inhabited was ready. While I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Broner well, she was the kind of person I adored instantly, enjoyed tremendously, and admired endlessly. She wrote books—lilting, sensuous, form-bending books like A Weave of Women and The Red Squad; she taught writing, literature, and life; she invented rituals; she organized and protested; she helped midwife the movement for Jewish feminism—once, perhaps, thought to be an oxymoron—and helped refashion a religion in the process.
Mostly, though, she cast spells.
You see, Broner was one of the women who came before, part of that group and generation of lady warriors who made my world possible. She slew the dragons so my friends and I didn’t have to, but she slew them with such charm and wit and eloquent determination that it might be more accurate to say that she didn’t kill them so much as de-fang them, ensorcell them with her incantations and imagination.
“She gives such a twinkle to the phrase earth mother, because that’s what she was. Every single cell of her being was feminist, and that radiated outward in any circumstance, in any situation,” our shared friend Sue Leonard said. “And other people might have a different interpretation, but I think it was her feminism that made her such a humanist about anybody anywhere who was being in any way downtrodden.”
It was this feminist humanism, or humanist feminism, that inspired Broner to hold high the banner of so many righteous struggles: antiwar, labor, civil rights, Palestinian rights, and, of course, women’s struggles both near and far. She held vigil with Women in Black, she protested police brutality—indeed, she got arrested when she was past 70 for protesting the brutal 41-bullet execution of Amadou Diallo.