By Betsy Wade
Friday, December 6, 2002
This month, Paula Kassell turns 85. The Bronx-born suburban dweller compelled the mammoth New York Times in 1986 to end the routine use of Miss and Mrs. and begin using Ms. She also founded and ran a newspaper for women with a circulation of 65,000.
(WOMENSENEWS)--On Dec. 15, the journalist and feminist Paula Kassell will mark her 85th birthday with a party. She has scheduled it for a restaurant right by the railroad station in her hometown of Dover, N.J., so guests from Boston, New York and Washington can get there by train. "No presents," she said firmly in the invitation, just send a picture for my scrapbook. All very Kassell in its attention to detail, in its consideration for others.
The achievement for which Kassell is best known--she is sometimes rueful that it overshadows other major efforts--was her ultimately successful struggle to get The New York Times to use the honorific "Ms." in place of the maritally discriminatory "Miss" and "Mrs.", titles the paper clung to until 1986.
Kassell conducted the battle in a way typical of her--in a reasonable tone of voice, in a logical place--in front of The Times' annual stockholders' meetings and through correspondence with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., then the publisher. On her own initiative, she had bought 10 shares of Times stock solely to permit her to raise feminist issues in a well-reported forum; she had for years been consulting with the women's caucus at The Times about strategy on this and other matters.
When Sulzberger wrote Kassell in the spring of 1986 bowing to the challenge she had raised, as a stockholder, for the senior editors to debate the subject of women's honorifics, she won the opening on an issue of editorial content that female employees, who spent most of the 1970's in a Title VII sex-discrimination suit, had not been able to achieve. A month later, on June 19, 1986, Sulzberger told her there would be no need for the editors to debate her issue--the battle was already over and she had won. "Thank you for raising the issue at the annual meeting," he wrote.
More demanding was Kassell's major work: creating and serving as the initial editor of one of feminism's longest-lived publications, New Directions for Women. This periodical got its first issue out in January 1972--a few months before Ms. magazine made its debut as a freestanding publication--and it continued until 1993. With 15 years behind her as a technical writer, editor and analyst, Kassell was in her 50's when she recreated herself as an editor for a public readership at her feminist publication. She switched to the associate editor's seat in 1977, but it meant no diminution of her efforts.
Kassell, born in the Bronx on Dec. 5, 1917, graduated from Barnard College, where reading Margaret Mead led her to realize that society, not biology, determined gender roles. Mead, she said, taught her she could be anything she chose. After college, she did social work in Yonkers until she married and moved to New Jersey. Kassell, who kept her birth name, bore two children, then returned to the work force in 1955. She became one of the rare women who reached middle management at the telephone company's nationally important Bell Labs, but in 1970, after being passed over once more for a promotion beyond that level, she left.
Learning that another New Jerseyan, Marge Wyngaarden, was trying to bring together feminists from all parts of the state, Kassell suggested holding a meeting to attract recruits. She became coordinator of a conference called New Directions for Women in New Jersey, which was held at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, on May 1, 1971. It attracted 350 participants.
The organizers decided to use $240 in profits to keep women in touch through a nonprofit newsletter, with Kassell as editor and her home as the publication's base. Initially it was called New Directions for Women in New Jersey; the regional designation was dropped when it began to circulate nationally in 1975. The high-water mark of New Directions circulation was 65,000, in the early '80s.
In 1972, Kassell coordinated a conference sponsored by the National Organization for Women to inform employers and unions about Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination on the ground of gender. There were 150 delegates at this major undertaking.
The archive at Rutgers, the New Jersey state university, says of New Directions for Women: "The paper filled a need for no-nonsense reportage from a feminist perspective. At a time when women's issues were not regularly or fairly covered in the mainstream press, it ran state, national, and international news stories, book reviews, women's history articles, and editorials."
New Directions for Women, which began as a mimeographed sheet and quickly grew to a tabloid-sized quarterly, was soon in a crowded field. Martha Leslie Allen's detailed and authoritative account, "The Development of Communication Networks among Women, 1963-83," says that in 1972, there were 85 feminist periodicals that survived more than one issue. That field is precious thin now. Sojourner, which published for 25 years, gave up in October; an Ohio State University library archive lists 70 other "ceased periodicals" in the feminist field.
In their lives, all feminist publications have had to scramble. Allen's account records some of the imaginative routes Kassell took. An early issue was distributed in bulk, free, to the New Jersey State conference of the National Education Association, a union strongly associated with women's rights. Kassell also got a modest Ford Foundation grant to increase circulation, particularly among nonwhite readers. At one point, New Directions had workers under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, who were on the job learning about publishing.
Kassell joined the National Organization for Women in 1967, the year after it was set up, and in 1973 created what became the Morris County chapter in New Jersey. She is also an officer and conference organizer for the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, a Washington nonprofit created by Allen's mother, the media scholar Dr. Donna Allen, who died in 1999.
After New Directions closed nine years ago, Kassell, aware of the needs of researchers still unborn, did not consider her work done. She created two cumulative indexes for her publication that provide a priceless tool to the issues raised over 22 years of the "second wave" of feminism. Her subject headings make archivists' hearts sing: "day care," "violence," "crime and prison," "comics," "spirituality," "language" and dozens of others.
New Directions itself, either in microfilm or in paper, can be found at library of Ohio State University, at the Nellie Langford Rowell Women's Studies Library at York University in Toronto and at Rutgers University Libraries. Kassell herself still owns a full run, but like all good historians, she is seeing that microfilm files are in places that can provide access for scholars of feminism.
After Sulzberger's letter to her in 1986, she wrote the story for the front page of New Directions. She did not say that the day of the stockholders' meeting was only nine days after her husband, Gerson G. Friedman, died. Asked about this circumstance in an interview, she said that her husband had always supported feminist causes, and "the time was right" for another challenge on The Times's refusal to use "Ms.," so she set her grief aside and went ahead.
Betsy Wade worked for The New York Times for 45 years and was an active member of its women's caucus.
Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press:
Nellie Langford Rowell
Women's Studies Library:
New Directions for Women
Special Collections/ University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries:
Ohio State University Library: