CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–Finishing a column about security moms the other day, Ellen Goodman was already thinking about the next topic she would tackle. Laura Bush, she thought: Time to address the way her husband’s presidential campaign was using the First Lady as a water carrier on stem cell research and the human side of the war in Iraq, among other so-called soft issues.
“I was thinking of how he is more conservative as the commander in chief, and how she is the auxiliary commander of the compassionate conservatives,” Goodman said. “He has outsourced the old compassion to his wife–such a typical kind of split-screen partnership. So, do we accept that as having any meaning for what it says about him or not?”
It was not the first time Goodman has brought issues of concern to women into her coverage of the 2004 presidential election. Goodman has addressed the implications of Supreme Court appointments for women; stem-cell research; assault weapons; and how Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne flip-flop in public statements about their lesbian daughter Mary. Goodman also devoted a column to Linda Grabel, the 63-year-old legal secretary who asked President Bush to give three examples of bad decisions he had made in the second presidential debate, and talked about the candidates’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage in a column she called “equal rites.”
Crafting two columns a week for 30 years, this is how Goodman has remained one of the most prominent (and reasonable) voices in American journalism, always staying atop the critical issues of the day and nearly always speaking out on issues of concern to women. Her acumen and insights won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, along with scores of other commendations.
“I think it was lucky for me, I gave at the office,” Goodman said, displaying the characteristic wit that infuses her writing. “I saw the women’s movement, and I covered it, from the beginning. I was sent to cover a meeting of what was then called Cell 16, part of a radical feminist group that met at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, probably not even in 1970. The women’s movement very much put a grid over my life, like so many other women, as a new way to look at the world. And it was wonderful, a really rich time.”
The ‘Girl Job’
Goodman, 63, married straight out of Radcliffe in 1963 and went to work at Newsweek in New York. She was a researcher, the “girl job,” while males her age became reporters. She moved to Michigan for her husband’s medical residency and landed a feature-writing job at the Detroit Free Press. Goodman moved home to Boston in 1967 and took a job in the women’s section of the Boston Globe. Not long after her daughter Katie was born in 1968, Goodman was divorced, leading her into what was then the treacherous realm of single working motherhood. Goodman got so tired of people asking her what she was doing about child care that she began saying she just left Katie at home with the refrigerator door open, “and, you know, things work out.”
Goodman’s professional angel was the late Thomas Winship, one of the Globe’s legendary editors. Winship called Goodman one of his “kids,” talented young staffers he was willing to take a risk on. Winship admired Goodman’s breezy writing style and her ability to ask tough questions without alienating her interview subjects. Winship, renowned for his editorial prescience, also saw that the time was right for a column written by a woman that went beyond fashion, high society or the vagaries of dealing with husbands, children and housework. In 1972, Winship gave Goodman a column on the op-ed page, a huge coup for any young journalist, never mind a woman with less than 10 years of writing experience.
By 1974, Goodman was filing two nationally syndicated columns per week–a writing regimen she has maintained without interruption.
Appearing in more than 400 newspapers, Goodman is so professionally punctilious that she has never missed a deadline. Often she files several columns at once, so she will have a stockpile when she goes on vacation. She fills each 750-word space with carefully reported musings on current events–local, national and international. Her stamina is matched by a nimble writing style that never sinks into self-importance, whining or preaching. Whether her topic is medical ethics, civil liberties or gender dynamics, Goodman leaves room for irony–and often, for a delicious sense of humor.
“Well, yes, humor,” she said. “If you don’t see that, you’re done for. I think my mind just goes to the absurdity of almost any situation.”
Goodman telegraphed her commitment to women’s issues when she covered the Democratic National Convention in 1972, the year her column started. An African American congresswoman from New York named Shirley Chisholm was running for president, and whereas most male journalists at the convention treated Chisholm as a diversion, Goodman took her seriously. Goodman also made sure that candidates were accountable for their views on abortion, a big issue at that convention.
Time and again, Goodman has written about rape and domestic violence. She took an early stand on protecting the identity of sex-crime victims unless they choose to be identified.
She said she has no interest in being nasty, ever. “I want to welcome my readers in, rather than throwing them out,” she said, adding: “That doesn’t mean I am not firm or opinionated. But I do not participate in food-fight journalism. I am not interested in being the print equivalent of the O’Reilly factor. That is just not who I am.”
In between, Goodman has managed to write so many books that she occasionally loses count: eight, as it happens, but Goodman has to sit and figure for a moment before she is certain. Her most recent book, “Paper Trail,” includes a passage from when her daughter was little and asked what her mommy did for a living.
“She said, ‘Oh, my mommy is a columnist,'” Goodman recounted. “That means she gets paid for telling people what she thinks.” After a long pause, Goodman admitted: “That is about as good a job description as I have ever come up with.”
Goodman’s “solid opinions and even-tempered, reasonable voice” and her adherence to “her original values–liberal, humanist, feminist values” are what have kept her from going stale in three decades of column-writing, said Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers.
“She is always on the cutting-edge, but you don’t perceive her as a careerist who is out to make a point just to prove how smart she is,” Rivers said. “With some writers, you are admiring their showmanship. With Ellen, you get a sense of a serious person at work who makes it look easy. Thirty years of writing a column, that’s a real trapeze act.”
At home with her second husband, retired Boston Globe restaurant critic Robert Levy, Goodman is an avid gardener who dotes on her prized tomatoes. She is also a potter–and if she could choose to do whatever she wanted with her day, it would be to spend every minute with her two young grandchildren. Yet Goodman said she is in no hurry to give up a career that happened in part by thoughtful planning, but in equal measure by serendipity.
“You know, the first narrative of my life is that everything I did led inexorably to what I am now,” she said. “And the second is that I arrived a place that I could never have imagined.
“I think that is sort of important, particularly when this whole younger generation of women thinks they should have a five-year plan. My own feeling is you prepare for and you are open to the possibilities that come your way, but you don’t always know what they will be.”
Elizabeth Mehren is the New England bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.