Changing how you think about wedding vows. Changing what you feel about being Jewish if you’re poor. Changing social structures with the money you give away. Even changing your gender. Making change can upend our expectations.
And yet some things resist change. The ways women prefer to communicate is one of them. Even in a digital age, women choose real-time, real-life conversations. In person or by phone, over coffee or over drinks, while editing or while bicycling, direct talk feels like a very female and necessary tool. The setting may be your office rather than the village water well, but the medium is still conversation.
A display case of memorabilia from a male writer triggered my ruminations about women’s talk as a way of doing business. At the Brandeis University special collections library last month, I browsed a display featuring numerous letters between Joseph Heller (author of Catch 22, etc.; he died in 1999) and his editors, fans and detractors. Handwritten, typed on vellum or replicated in carbon copies, the exchanges seemed to me so very male. Not because of their message so much as for the permanence of their medium.
I found myself comparing those 1960s missives with the Lilith archival collection — files dating back to the magazine’s launch in the mid-1970s which are now being offered to venues where they can be used for research and programs. The files are full of detailed letters about manuscripts on new rituals, proposals for interviews with Jewish women behind bars, suggestions about subjects for investigative reports, a batch of handmade feminist hagadot created on campuses, handouts from long-ago conferences about moving women forward in the Jewish community, fan mail bouquets, and complaints from the offended. But the preferred mode for exchanges Lilith editors had with our authors was often in person or by phone. Now it’s by Skype too.
Seems to me it’s a female thing. I find a personal connection is critically useful when helping to shape, say, a memoir or a politically charged subject. But — here’s the rub — when the talking stops, there isn’t an email thread to print out and stash in an archive. Because of the useful, relational way many women prefer to do business, the record may be cheated of some pointed opinions, anecdotes and insights, both bitter and sweet. Let’s acknowledge that some of our fulcrum moments, stop-time incidents in which pivotal changes happen, are still in need of mention. Here’s one example.
Years ago, when Lilith was just getting off the ground, I had an illuminating phone conversation with the canonical Cynthia Ozick. I’d called to ask her to write for Lilith (which she did, then and afterward). She asked, gently, what we paid authors. I breezily “explained” that we did not pay our authors, yet. “Do you,” she inquired, trying graciously to set me straight, “pay your printer?”
“Well, yes — we pay the printer. Because we have to.” The minute the words were out of my mouth, of course, I rued having spoken them; actually, I rued having thought them. And from that point on, Lilith paid authors.
Sometimes change is spurred by revolution, sometimes by recognition. This conversation marked a pivot point. It led to the establishment of a feminist policy and a Lilith publishing principle. I’ve never asked Cynthia Ozick if she remembers our talk, but several times in Lilith’s 35 years I’ve had occasion to recall that brief exchange and what it reveals about valuing creative work, and women’s work.
Much of women’s experience shows up only on the screen playing in our own heads and memories — like my brief, instructive dialogue with Cynthia Ozick. While I’ve had warm handwritten notes from her in the intervening years — and while the Lilith archives contain plenty of other fascinating gems — you’re likely reading the tale of that germinal conversation for the first time here. (Perhaps someone needs to record Lilith staffers leafing through every file in those archives and explaining the backstory lurking in each one!)
Institutional memory, women’s organizations’ history, and our sometimes deeply revelatory verbal exchanges should somewhere be saved. If you have information about such experiences that will elude history if not for your recollection, share the narrative! Even without carbon paper and vellum letterhead, we must make sure women’s evolutionary stories don’t go missing. That’s why the Lilith archival collection itself is such an irreplaceable and valuable record. Change, as you’ll read in the pages of this issue, often builds on what came before.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief