by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

Last month I heard Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem speak at an event celebrating people who support women writers. They — and the others who spoke — are amazing folks. Clear of purpose, distinct in voice, proud of their accomplishments and driven to do more, it is they who inspire me to see that the voices of my contemporaries and those who follow us are heard and attended to.

I met Gloria in 1971 when I volunteered to help edit (for which I’d been well-prepared in my previous jobs) the first edition of Ms. magazine. I was an unknown writer who wanted validation, so my one stipulation was: I would work for free if I could write one of the articles – and get paid for it.

Ms. was a modest operation, one small room and two smaller cubbies in an old office building near Grand Central Station. And I loved going to work. I’d try to get Gloria’s attention. I’d practically lay myself across the threshold of her cubby.

The fact that I was growing more noticeably pregnant didn’t, in those nascent days, seem relevant to the feminists. They were warriors. One even stomped around in motorcycle boots and what I took to be the ammunition belt once owned by Pancho Villa.

No one else was only 24 years old, married and pregnant; no one else was “good”; and no one else was interested in running home to cook dinner. And no one else could understand what I was doing there.

Though it was 1971, I had an Eisenhower mind-set and trusted as fundamental as oxygen my parents’ propaganda. But I’d walk down the dusty hallway and into the office humming with activity and purpose and fluorescent light that gave me a daily migraine. I’d shove my dainty little gloves in my dainty little coat and stuff the whole thing up under my desk.

When I had a desk. Which wasn’t often.

I thought – ridiculously – that I could talk some reason into Gloria and the gang before the magazine was launched. One day I actually advocated damping down what seemed to me a very strident tone in one article. I feared we might anger some very nice people.

Gloria looked deep into me.

“One day,” she said, “you’re going to have to peel those scales from your eyes.”

I smiled and said I’d try. I didn’t think Gloria was crazy or even strident. I simply couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. I went back to my space on the floor near a communal desk and spread the piece I was shaping, literally cutting and taping sections in a new order.

Though chastened, I didn’t ever give up on writing an article with my byline.

“Gloria, if I could …”

“Yup. Later.”

And another time: “Listen, Gloria, I’ve got this idea …”

“Uh-huh.  Later.”

The weeks went by and the deadline approached and I got plenty of material to edit. But no writing assignment.

I walked into her cubby.

“Gloria, if you’ve got a sec …”

“Later. Can you get me that file on …”

I dropped into the chair across from her.

“You can forget about paying me.” (Though $150 was a tidy sum.)

“What? We’re not paying anyone. Are we?”

“For an article. You  promised. Remember?”

“Gosh,” said Gloria, searching vaguely for my name. “All the articles have been assigned. That’s too bad. Sorry. Maybe next issue. Could you get me that file on …?”

If there is one, I thought. Who expected this thing-about-womens-voices to make it to a second issue?

My turn.

“What? You promised me an article. An assignment!”

“Can’t you shut up?” I asked myself. She’s gonna think you’re a baby, and ship you to an orphanage in Bulgaria. That was one of my mother’s threats.

“They all got snapped up,” Gloria said, “by, you know, names. Well, except for one.”

“I’ll take it.”

“No, wait. You wouldn’t — I mean, it’s about how a car works. Clearly, you wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“I do. Yes. My father is a car dealer.” Who knew nothing about cars.

“Oh, come on.”

“Seriously.  I’ve grown up in the service department.”

Oh, no!  You’re not lying to Gloria Steinem! You’re pregnant. You’ll be punished. You’ll deserve it!

“Nobody else wants to write it. Go ahead.”

“Yes!”

“Try.”

“What?”

“We can always drop it. Now will you bring me the file?”

I spent the following Saturday in the service department of my father’s dealership — for the first time in my life. My father was mystified. What had possessed his “Vassar Girl” to spend the day with her head beside a mechanic’s, stuck under the hood of a Buick? No small feat with my big belly.

Dad asked me to do him a favor and organize the files. I stormed out of the garage, strode up the block, and with righteous indignation tugged on my little gloves.

I asked my husband how cars work. He got caught up in the drama of combustion and pistons and finally told me I just didn’t need to know. They just work, is all. I bought books. I read manuals. I slaved for days over my writing assignment. I worked so hard getting it down that I can still explain how a car works, and I don’t get ripped off when I take ours in for service.

“Demystifying Your Car” was published 35 years ago in the first Ms.

Those of us writing today for this blog have come together to launch the website of Women’s Voices for Change. We are older voices in the new medium, hoping you hear us, expecting we will continue to learn from each other, delighting in the enterprise as we begin a dialogue that looks forward and backward and every which way.

I know I’m not alone, but even if I were, I want to say again, “Thank you, Gloria.”

Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, a playwright and screenwriter, is on the board of Women’s Voices for Change.

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  • patty November 30, 2006 at 11:26 am

    Ironically, I think you might have taught Gloria and the others a few things yourself … about stereotypes and openness to possibility.

    Reply
  • A.B. November 30, 2006 at 11:07 am

    I envy Ms. Hemmerdinger. Not only did she have the fabulous opportunity of working with one of history’s most important women, but she had the right stuff. She deserved to be in that issue and deserves respect for how she got there.

    Reply