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Posts Tagged ‘media’

16 AUGUST, 2013

The Freedom of the Press: George Orwell on the Media’s Toxic Self-Censorship


“The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

In 1937, George Orwell got the idea for his now-classic dystopian allegory exploring the ferocious dictatorship of Soviet Russia in a satirical tale eviscerating Stalin’s regime. In his 1946 essay Why I Write, Orwell remarked that this was his first conscious effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” But by the time he finished it six years later, in the middle of World War II and shortly before the start of the Cold War, the book’s decidedly anti-Soviet message presented an obvious challenge in politically cautious Britain. The manuscript was rejected by four major houses, including Orwell’s publisher of record, Gollancz, and T. S. Eliot himself at Faber and Faber.

Perhaps even more interesting than the story of the book, however, is the prescient essay titled “The Freedom of the Press,” which Orwell intended as a preface to the book. Included in Penguin’s 2000 edition of Animal Farm (public library) as “Orwell’s Proposed Preface to Animal Farm,” the essay — penned more than seven decades after Mark Twain bewailed that “there are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press” — tackles issues all the more timely today in the midst of global media scandals, vicious censorship, and near-ubiquitous government-level political surveillance.

Orwell begins by excerpting a letter from a publisher who had originally agreed to publish the book but later, under the Ministry of Information’s admonition, recanted:

I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think … I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

Noting the general menace of such governmental meddling in the private sector of publishing and the resulting censorship, Orwell bemoans the broader peril at play:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

(Exactly thirty years later, E. B. White would come to redirect this critique at commercial rather than governmental pressures.)

The picture he paints of the press and its relationship with dissent and public opinion is ominously similar to what Galileo faced with the Catholic church nearly half a millennium earlier:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines — being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Orwell critiques the groupthink of the intelligentsia and the odd flip-flopping of moral absolutism and moral relativism they employ when confronted with the question of whether Animal Farm should be published:

The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: “It oughtn’t to have been published.” Naturally, those reviewers who understand the art of denigration will not attack it on political grounds but on literary ones. They will say that it is a dull, silly book and a disgraceful waste of paper. This may well be true, but it is obviously not the whole of the story. One does not say that a book “ought not to have been published” merely because it is a bad book. After all, acres of rubbish are printed daily and no one bothers. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did the opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are.

At the heart of the question is an ethical dilemma manifest all the more viscerally today, when opinions can be — and are, prolifically — expressed on more platforms than Orwell could have possibly imagined:

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?” and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.

But his most prescient point is his concluding one:

To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

On August 17, 1945, Animal Farm was at last published. It went on to sell millions of copies and has been translated into more than seventy languages.

Complement Orwell’s essay with E. B. White on the free press, cultural icons on censorship and Rudyard Kipling’s satirical poem poking fun at the press.

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18 JULY, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Modern Media: Hunter S. Thompson on Journalism, Politics, and the Subjective


“There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

An iconoclastic hero of the written word, Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) endures as the godfather of “gonzo journalism” — that once-radical, now-ubiquitous style of New Journalism that does away with claims of capital-O objectivity and instead inserts the author into the story as an active first-person narrator. Thompson, in fact, was characteristically unafraid of vocalizing his opinions as a keen observer of and lively, if not hedonistic, participant in culture. But his opinions of journalism in particular he held and proselytized with especial zest — what it is and what it ought to be, what pretensions it could use to divest and what moral obligations it should at all costs uphold. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (public library), the fourth volume of his Gonzo Papers originally published in 1994, Thompson admonishes:

There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong. This is a dangerous notion, and very few professional journalists will endorse it — calling it “vengeful” and “primitive” and “perverse” regardless of how often they might do the same thing themselves. “That kind of stuff is opinion,” they say, “and the reader is cheated if it’s not labelled as opinion.” Well, maybe so. Maybe Tom Paine cheated his readers and Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends. And maybe H. L. Mencken should have been locked up for trying to pass off his opinions on gullible readers and normal “objective journalism.” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called “advocacy journalism,” I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.

Page from 'Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson.' Click image for details.

But it took Thompson decades to develop his stance, the germ of which can even be felt a 1958 letter to Jerome H. Walker — long before the term “gonzo” was even coined in reference to a 1970 article of Thompson’s — found in the anthology The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume I (public library). In the letter, he addresses the subject more obliquely but with the same unequivocal intimation:

Sacrificing good men to journalism is like sending William Faulkner to work for TIME magazine.

In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (public library), published in 1973, he returns to the subject:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button form the 'Gonzo fist,' which originated in Hunter S. Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and went on to become an iconic symbol of Thompson and gonzo journalism as a whole.

In a 1997 interview for The Atlantic, Thompson reiterates his conviction, but adds a necessary distinction:

If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.

Flat-out lying, in fact, is something Thompson attributes to politicians whose profession he likens to a deadly addiction. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, the very title of which speaks to the analogy, he writes:

Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal — like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics — especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts.

Later, he resurrects the junkie analogy in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and ties it back to journalism:

Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol… but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time span has the same effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running, its only a matter of time before he gets smashed — and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.

Complement with this fantastic animation of Thompson on the burden of the living and his graphic biography, which was among the best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction of 2012.

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20 JUNE, 2013

If the Web Preceded Print: The New Golden Age of Book Design and Creativity on Paper


“This is an important and wonderful time to be a writer, a storyteller, a designer, a reader.”

“The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book,” Nabokov wrote in his treatise on what makes a good reader. And yet, as the future of storytelling hangs in anxiety-inducing uncertainty and the question of how to read a book continues to evolve its answers, analog books are challenged to reinvent themselves in marvelous ways and the value of exceptional book design is celebrated with rising reverence. There is something increasingly reassuring today about the physicality of print books, about using one’s hands and fingers as well as one’s mind and brain as the instruments of reading.

That’s precisely what the fine folks of Gestalten — who have a knack for pictorial magic, visual storytelling, and art as sensemaking — explore in Fully Booked — Ink on Paper: Design and Concepts for New Publications (public library). Lavishly produced and beautifully art-directed, this gorgeous large-format tome — though regrettably too Western-centric to include such gems as the stunning handmade books of Indian indie powerhouse Tara Books — is as much a showcase of exceptional and innovative books by designers from around the world as it is a living manifesto for the very subject of its celebration.

In the introduction, which begins on the book’s very cover, Andrew Losowsky presents an irreverent and brilliant in its perspective-shifting quality reversal of media history:

Let me state this for the record: The internet is not dead. Digital will not disappear. Print will not kill the web. It’s easy to forget that when physical books were invented, news websites ignored them, and then laughed at them as a niche pursuit for geeks. Now here we are and the same journalists are declaring the death of Internet, as the hype and excitement surrounding print and paper travels inexorably around the world. News companies have even rushed into creating news-papers, long before any clear business model has emerged to pay for them. We are in a print world now.

It has changed so many things in our lives that it can be hard to remember a time before print, when everything was digital. Yet doing so is the only way to understand exactly why and how print became so important, so quickly.

Of course, when the first companies started to print books, they were pale imitations of the on-screen experience, near-perfect reproductions of the visual language of digital without any of its functions or its essence. People who grew up with digital laughed at these early iterations, dismissing the idea that print could ever have a value beyond being a pale echo of the digital reading experience. They would never, they swore, read a book printed on paper. It simply wasn’t the same experience as that with which they’d grown up.

However, print began to take off among the elderly and the young, the former embracing the simplicity and highly limited demands of interactivity offered by print, while the latter came quickly to understand the near-limitless freedoms granted by physical ownership.

He concludes by peeling away at the essence of what this irreverent satire — like all great truth-telling satire — bespeaks:

Everything in this book is a physical expression of print storytelling, gloriously non-digital and proud of the fact. Indeed, stories told in these ways would not work on a screen — even though most, if not all of them could not have been created without computers.


The very best in print books teach us what it is like to reach out and touch a story, to hold it in our hand, to interact with it in a personal, physical, uninhibited way.

This is an important and wonderful time to be a writer, a storyteller, a designer, a reader.

Long live print.

Among the projects and creators profiled in this magnificent tome of nearly 300 pages, including such favorites as Tree of Codes and The Story of Eames Furniture, is British book cover designer Coralie-Bickford Smith, of whose singular Penguin covers I’ve been a longtime fan. In this lovely short documentary, Bickford-Smith pulls the curtain on her creative process and inspiration:

Books have to work harder to justify their physical presence.

Fully Booked is wonderful in its entirety, as enchanting to the eye and touch as it is heartening to the booklover’s soul.

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07 MAY, 2013

Letters to Ms.: How Mary Thom Built “Social Media” for Women’s Rights in the 1970s


Celebrating the invisible art of making a movement visible.

I recently attended the memorial for reconstructionist Mary Thom, whom we lost in a tragic motorcycle crash last month and who changed the voice of women’s rights as founding editor of groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. In the early 1970s, just as women were emerging from the stifling grip of the Mad Men era and beginning to raise their voices against injustice at the workplace, Ms. came in as a beacon of what many of us have since come to take for granted, a brave promise of what life would be like in a gender-blind world.

Named after the form of address recommended in secretarial handbooks for when a woman’s marital status was unknown, subsequently subverted by women who wished to be recognized as individuals rather than defined by their relationship to a man, the magazine proclaimed in its inaugural half-column announcement that “Ms.” was meant “only to signify a female human being. It’s symbolic, and important. There’s a lot in a name.” Indeed, there was: From the outset, Ms. made no apologies for calling things by their true, hegemonically defiant names — in the Preview Issue, which appeared as an insert in New York magazine in the spring of 1972, Ms. launched “a campaign for honesty and freedom,” in which fifty-three women signed a statement declaring that they had had an abortion, which at the time was illegal in most states.

Mary Thom by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists

Three decades before the age of social media and instant communities, Ms. presented an unprecedented avenue for women to connect with one another around the issues that impacted their lives daily, which remained taboo and thus cautiously avoided by mainstream media. It was in the letters to the magazine, collected in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) and edited by Thom herself, that these voices come together into a chorus line for the era’s central political and social concerns — equal pay, reproductive rights, the everyday language of bias and discrimination.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem writes in the introduction to the anthology:

Whatever Ms. readers are doing at any given moment, a third to a half of American women are doing three to five years later. You can track change through these letters, and even predict the future.

The country couldn’t have better leaders and teachers than these thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent letter writers. . . .

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem at Mary Thom memorial: 'Mary chose to be backstage and without her there would BE no stage.'

Long before the heyday of smartphones and email and text-messaging, Thom herself laments the lost art of letter-writing in the foreword, reminding us of just how monumental and paradigm-shifting a “social network” this epistolary sisterhood was:

Letter writing is nearly a lost art in this age of telephones and easy travel — and the receipt of written correspondence that is detailed and witty is a lost pleasure. As a result, when Ms. magazine began publishing in 1972, few of us who were on the staff were prepared for the experience of reading the rich variety of the letters that were addressed to the editors. They allowed us to get to know thousands of our readers on a level of intimacy that one shares with only a few real-life friends.


Ms. was founded to give voice to the concerns of a movement, and the letters help us fulfill that purpose.

And the letters were indeed exceptional — diverse yet uniformly courageous, from the confessional letters seeking a sense that others share in the same struggles and concerns to the classic “click” letters, a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from a woman’s anecdote that just “clicks.”

Many tackled the workplace revolution — at the time of the inaugural issue, some 33.5 million women were working outside their homes, but most were earning 59 cents to the dollar of an equally qualified man doing the same job. Meanwhile, the work of keeping a household running and raising children was unaccounted for in the gross national product although it essentially fueled the economy by raising the next generations. One woman had a clever solution, but was met with institutional rigidity:

Rather than hire a housekeeper and baby sitter for our three preschool children, my husband and I decided to “hire” me — to pay me a salary and contribute social security. The Internal Revenue Service said nay; this can only be done for someone not a family member. We tried to contract for disability insurance for me — in the event of my not being able to perform my housekeeping and child-care duties — but we have not yet found a carrier. I am not adding to the family income — and he cannot be compensated for a loss that does not exist.

The implication is clear — the establishment is making it more attractive to leave the home and let others raise their families. So I went job hunting. Results: very few jobs open in my field; higher salaries for men of the same background; hesitation to hire a woman with three “little ones” because I might not be dependable (miss work). Let’s find out why men with families are considered good, stable, desirable employees and women are not.

Mary Fortuna
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
February 1973 issue

But the bias didn’t only come from “the establishment” — one anonymous woman notes its most devastating manifestation:

I work part time at a gas station in Oakland. I pump gas, wash windows, put air in tires, check and charge batteries, check transmissions, change oil, hub jobs, and other basic things. I don’t claim to be a mechanic; I’m not. But I’m getting a little tired of women asking me to get “one of the men” to check their tires, water, and oil. I have been trained on the job to do these things. Men seem to trust and accept my service much more willingly than the women. One woman asked me to check her transmission. I did and found that she was completely empty and suggested she add a quart of transmission fluid. She didn’t believe me and asked that I get “one of the men” to check it out. So I did, and he told her the same thing. This happens every day. I wish there was something that could be done. It is hard enough for women to seek positions in fields that are dominated by men without having to deal with mistrust and lack of support from other women.

Name Withheld
September 1973

A “click” letter poignantly considers just how deeply rooted and systemic the unequal pay problem is:

It occurred to me the other day to wonder at the discrepancy in wages that I pay to those high-school students who baby sit and those who do lawn cutting and gardening for me. Most of the “lawn and garden” people, who happen to be boys ask for a dollar an hour. Most of the baby sitters, who usually happen to be girls, ask seventy-five cents an hour.

Now I ask myself, is caring for my children less important, less valuable, less a responsibility? Or is lawn cutting and gardening considered harder and more taxing physical work? (Two active children under five can be pretty hard, taxing, physical work, too.) Or is it that boys just ask for and receive high wages from the beginning? And is it that child care is, anyway, considered to be “women’s work” and not deserving of pay? Click!

Marge Mitchell
Baltimore, Maryland
September 1974 issue

One woman shares an amusing anecdote of claiming empowerment by turning back on the establishment its own double standards of sexual objectification:

I finally got up the courage to challenge an old established male tradition in my office. I do telephone sales. Our working area in the office has always been covered with “girlie” pictures and photographs of devastating (and devastated) maidens. This made us few women in the office feel terribly uncomfortable.

When the majority of the male staff was out to lunch, we proceeded to rape the latest issue of Playgirl of its best. Over my desk now hangs one gorgeous specimen of the male species, the centerfold. Everywhere there was a girlie picture there are now beautiful stud photographs.

I think the reactions of the men in the office could best be summarized in terms of shock. Although everyone tried to be good humored about it, jokingly or otherwise, they all compared themselves in some way to the models. It was a marvelous experience to see super-duper macho stud types go all to pieces when confronted with the same thing we have had to face for years — images of ourselves as we could never hope to be, images of ourselves as seen only in the minds of men.

Name Withheld
October 13, 1975

Others shared moments of small daily triumphs, the glimmering light of hope for an equal future:

One day last week I pulled up to a four-way stop in my taxi. At one of the other stop signs sat a police officer in a chase cruiser, and at the third, a telephone installer in a Bell Canada van. What made the occasion memorable was the fact that all three of us were women. We celebrated with much joyful laughter and raised thumbs.

Jill Wood
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
November 1980 issue

But in academia, a field still notorious for its gender discrimination, things were far from joyful:

In 1972, as full professor, I sued the university for discrimination in salary on the basis of sex. They were simply paying the men more than the women, especially me. It took all these years of stonewalling, avoiding, ignoring, before they finally admitted I was right, and settled out of court. Of course, I had to promise not to tell anyone how much they gave me and to be a good girl and not encourage any other woman professor to do the same heinous act of subversion of the rights of administration to set salaries. At age seventy-two (I retired in 1975), my lawyer and I decided to settle.

So how much I got is a deep dark secret, but you will notice this letter is being written on a new word processor. There are other things I have done, too. But the most is to enjoy, heartily, the last laugh.

Good luck to all embattled species.

Name Withheld
August 14, 1982

Many of the letters dealt with the politics of women’s bodies and minds. This particular one made me sigh, after having recently been told by my own (female) gynecologist that, at the exact age of this letter-writer, I was wasting my golden hour for procreation, the sublime fulfillment of my womanhood. (Never mind I assured the good doctor I didn’t want kids.)

[The gynecologist] sprang into the examining room waving my medical history and inquired melodramatically why I was so terrified of pregnancy. Without waiting for a response, he informed me that I have one two-year-old child, a fact which had not escaped my notice, and that it was high time I had another, especially in view of the dismal statistics on the incidence of Down’s syndrome and other misfortunes in change-of-life babies. I am all of twenty-eight.

Since I didn’t then jump off the table and rush home to attempt conception before my time ran out, he coyly reminded me that if I stalled too long, and my one child died, I’d be (choke) barren. He darkly hinted at past patients, too numerous to mention, who had suffered nervous breakdowns after being unable to conceive that precious second child. My observation that a woman whose whose self-fulfillment rests on producing children needs a psychiatrist more urgently than a gynecologist fell on deaf ears.

In a last-ditch effort to summon up a satisfactory haul of guilt on my part, he spoke of women with serious physical problems who risk death to bear a child. “And then,” he said, “there are people like you. . . . .”

Dianne C. Felder
Old Bridge, New Jersey
April 1973 issue

Many of the letters found humor and wisdom in the innocent comments of young children, unburdened by the cultural baggage of gender roles:

The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.

Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”

Alice Fredricks
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978

Another, from one of Ms.’s male readers — a pastor, no less:

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”

“No, Kristin, I don’t.”

Reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”

Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because boys and girls are different.”

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I Hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
Franklin, Indiana
July 1981 Issue

Another section of the anthology is dedicated to letters championing equality in language, a topic particularly apt for a magazine whose very title offers meta-commentary on the subject:

Recently I was “called in” by a secondary-school district where I substitute-teach. I was told that I would be dropped from their list of substitute teachers, unless I stopped using “Ms.” when writing my name on the board at the beginning of a new assignment — “because ‘Ms.’ makes students think of sexuality and liberation.”

When I asked if there weren’t other women on the faculty using “Ms.” with their names, I was told, “No, we don’t have very many young, unmarried women working for us.” Click … crash!

Patricia R. Bristowe
La Honda, California
October 1973 Issue

Others found in the language issue a venue for small but meaningful acts of courage and resistance:

I resigned from my job yesterday as a matter of principle. I was given a letter to type by a senior secretary to the auditing firm that had recently been in our books. A woman headed up the team of accountants at our company for several weeks.

The letter was opened to “Gentlemen.” I changed it to “Greetings.” I was told that the letter must be redone because it was the policy of the company to use the salutation “Gentlemen.” I was told that management determined company policy, not uppity secretaries who didn’t know their place. I decided to resign and didn’t redo the letter.

I’m looking for another job, but I did raise quite a few eyebrows and, hopefully, someone’s consciousness.

Name Withheld
September 12, 1982

Even in Ms., the constant tension between editorial integrity and advertising didn’t fail to rear its head — though it could be argued that, today, similar impossible ideals have permeated the editorial ranks and are being peddled by opinion-packages like Lean In rather than advertisers alone:

Why do advertisers persist in selling the image of the beautiful, shapely woman executive who keeps the same perfectly made-up face and styled hair, even after a hard day of earning a six-figure salary, dining in expensive restaurants, having a brisk game of tennis at the club, and a late night of discotheque hopping? It’s no surprise that real women are tempted to wonder what they’re doing wrong.

Deborah K. Smith
Brookline, Massachusetts
July 1980 Issue

In language, too, the little victories were celebrated as beacons of big change to come:

This may not sound like much, but my boss just asked me a question that made my day and that I am dying to share with someone. He was in a meeting when he called out my name. I thought I was going to have to make copies or do some other chore, but he asked a question: “Dianne, who is the new girl … lady … woman over at Mud Island?” Hooray, he’s thinking! I felt wonderful. I don’t know if he kept correcting himself for my benefit or not, but his awareness is all that matters!

Dee Butler
Memphis, Tennessee
September 1983 Issue

It’s often said that editing is an invisible art, and Thom certainly tried to embody that by deliberately stepping away from the limelight and operating behind the scenes. The irony, of course, is that the snippets of strife and progress captured in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 make plainly visible the enormous gift Thom and Ms. gave those of us who often forget all the indignities we need not suffer because of these women’s righteous, courageous indignation and fight for awareness.

Thank you, Mary, for everything.

Join me in supporting the Women’s Media Center, where Thom was editor-in-chief, in the remarkable work they do to etch Thom’s legacy into the bedrock of society.

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