Friend, Feminist, Unsung Hero: In Praise of Mary Thom

Mary Thom is many things. A founder of., long-time. executive editor, editor-in-chief of features for the Women's Media Center, lively author, devoted sister, aunt and great aunt, loyal friend. But she was also a committed, skillful, some might say incorrigible motorcycle driver.
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It's Friday night and I'm on my way home to Westchester, going north on the Saw Mill River Parkway, when the WINS broadcaster tells me I'm in the absolute wrong place at the wrong time. "Motorcycle accident in Yonkers," he says, urging anyone who can to bail out. "Saw Mill Parkway closed in both directions at Executive Boulevard." It is, he says, a total mess.

I'm amazed that this closure has apparently been going on for hours. The Saw Mill is a main thoroughfare. Gruesome images appear in my mind. A car accident is one thing. A motorcycle accident, something else. I have a visceral sense of the sound, the crash. I call my husband and tell him what's happening. As I'm talking I realize I heard that someone has actually died. It gives me pause. It's a fatal motorcycle accident. The thought crosses my mind: Who? I couldn't think of anyone. Which is odd. Because I've long known one person who rides a motorcycle.

I get home. The next day, I'm sitting at my computer and a notice comes in my email from Women's Media Center founders Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda. "Journalism and the feminist movement suffered a huge loss with the passing of Mary Thom, " it reads. I lose my breath. Mary? I know Mary. I just saw Mary. Mary is a friend, a colleague, a woman who had a huge impact on my life. "Mary was killed," continues the announcement, "in a motorcycle accident, in Yonkers, on Friday." I shudder. While I was sitting in that traffic, waiting, wondering, on the road lay the body of Mary Thom, dead at the scene of her accident.

Just over a month before, I had the joy of sitting with Mary and two other former Ms. editors for our annual dinner at Sapphire restaurant on the Upper West Side. All of us go way back, and are now between the ages of 65 and 70. The subject of age comes up, but while we all find it shocking how many years have ticked past, we're all very much in life, so we turn the whole damn thing into a joke. We determine that we should meet more often, but not too often, just often enough so that we'll be able to notice if any one of us is, shall we say, losing it. So far, so good. The subject of all our aches, pains and ailments also came up, along with some talk about how to reduce risks. We talk about hiking and biking and our various mishaps. Mary is quiet. "What about you Mary?" I say, "You ride a motorcycle!"

Indeed, Mary Thom is many things. A founder of Ms., long-time Ms. executive editor, editor-in-chief of features for the Women's Media Center, lively author, devoted sister, aunt and great aunt, loyal friend. But she was also a committed, skillful, some might say incorrigible motorcycle driver. Mary delighted in going on motorcycle trips with her sister Susan Loubet, Susan's son Thom, of being on the open road. She also loved riding around Manhattan, especially because a motorcycle is so much easier than a car to park.

"Have you ever gotten hurt?" I ask. Mary shrugs, offering no examples. To which her very dear friend Joanne Edgar says: "Mary, remember your thumb?" A slight flash of recognition crosses Mary's face. "Yeah," Mary says, nonplussed. "And what about your ankle?" Joanne asks. "Yeah," Mary says, then vociferously reminds us that that was when an inattentive driver pulled out of a parking spot and knocked Mary's bike over onto her foot. "But did you ever fall off?" I want to know. Well once, she allows, when the bike skidded on gravel on a rainy day. "Oy!" I say. She shrugs again. That's when she broke her thumb, took her motorcycle handgrip to the orthopedic surgeon asking that he make the cast in that shape so she could fit it over the handgrip, and went off on the motorcycle trip with her sister and nephew as planned, cast and all.

That was Mary. She just sped ahead into the light, the air and the world that changed so dramatically during her lifetime. Mary thought about it all, about women and health and sex and love and work and God and Congress and power. She understood it all, how women's lives were changing, unfolding, how the world would have to change too. She knew how the world would fight back, try to turn back time, and how important it was for writers to argue lucidly, passionately, painstakingly, for not letting that happen, for moving forward, always forward, not losing the crucial momentum it took 40 years to build.

As for me personally, Mary pulled me out of obscurity. It was 1980, and she found me in the slush pile at Ms., the indecorous way of referring to the mountains of unsolicited manuscripts that used to pour through magazine portholes from the unpublished and unheard of. I'd submitted a long, rambling piece about violence against women in film, mentioning in the rubble Brian DePalma's controversial thriller Dressed to Kill. The phone rang, and when I answered, a soft, slightly nasal voice said: "Hi. This is Mary Thom from Ms." I was thrilled. "I like what you wrote," she said, thrilling me some more, "but I have no idea what to do with it."

With Mary, I was able to produce a sharp, focused review, my first Ms. published piece. Years passed, and Mary became my editor on all manner of articles and essays, at Ms. and at the Women's Media Center. When Gloria Steinem and Random House wanted someone to write a book about abortion and Mary couldn't do it, she passed the baton on to me, resulting in the first book I published, The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion, featuring my interviews with famous people about their experiences with abortion from the 1920s through the 1980s, a milestone in my life. Through it all, we became friends as well as colleagues, and made sure to have those regular, at least annual, Ms. dinners.

My story isn't unique. There are many, many writers around the world who worked like that with Mary. Hundreds of them turned out for the memorial service celebrating her life that was held on Monday night, May 6, at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center. We are all of us devastated by her passing. But as one young woman speaking at the memorial service said, echoing the thoughts of many of us as we pondered the headline "68-year-old woman dies in motorcycle crash," that was indeed "a bad-ass way to go."

Mary Thom took risks, calculated risks. She lived her life on her terms, until the very end. She defined freedom for herself, and then she lived that freedom. Mary wanted all women to be able to do that, to find the thing worth risking for, to claim it, and not just to run with it, but to fly.

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