(WOMENSENEWS)–To hear Suzanne Braun Levine tell it, her storied journalism career–she’s occupied the top spots at both Ms. magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review–was all a matter of serendipity.
Right place, right time. But in Levine’s case, there’s also the clear determination to keep breaking her own new ground.
After 15 years at Ms. and eight years as editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Levine, in 1997, put on her writer’s cap and hasn’t looked back.
She began with the occasional essay, then went on to her first book in 2000, “Father Courage,” about the challenges faced by men who place their families before careers.
Her latest offering, “Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood,” published in 2005 by Viking, was just issued by Plume in paperback. Levine, a Manhattan resident, has been traveling the country talking about the new lives women are creating for themselves after the demands of a monthly fertility cycle, and all that goes with it, pass.
The book combines scientific research (Did you know that the brain experiences a growth spurt at around age 50?) with stories of real women. Discarding notions of decline and decay, Levine finds a fierce defiance in women of a certain age.
After years of working behind other people’s words, Levine, who has her own Web site, has stepped out, front and center, to say, “This is how it looks to me,” and posts many of her impressions on her personal Web log.
Three Early Knowns
When Levine graduated from Radcliffe as an English major, she says, she knew three things. “I knew I didn’t want to go back home; I knew I didn’t want to go on in academia; and I knew that nobody was about to propose to me.”
Her first jobs took her to Seattle magazine and then back to New York, her hometown, where she worked at Time-Life Books.
Stints at Mademoiselle and McCall’s followed, where she served, respectively, as the features editor and the books and records editor. In the 1960s these women’s magazines featured many of the nation’s best writers and took on serious topics.
Along the way, Suzanne Braun married entertainment lawyer Bob Levine. “I thought having three names would certainly suit me for life at Mademoiselle. It was standard then; if you had three names, it meant that you were certified Mademoiselle.” In other words, the “single girl’s” magazine was edited by married ladies. In 1970, Levine ran her first magazine: a doctors’ office magazine called Sexual Behavior.
Less than two years later, the magazine world was abuzz over an entry that had debuted as an insert in the very hip, young New York magazine, founded by publishing legend Clay Felker.
Calling itself Ms., the honorific that “women’s libbers” were using to replace the marital-status titles of “Miss” and “Mrs.,” the magazine burst onto the scene with a cover depicting a homemaker in the form of a multi-armed avatar, each hand occupied in the conduct of some form of what was then considered women’s work. One hand held an iron; another gripped a frying pan; another spanned the keys of a typewriter.
Filling Out the Ms. Abortion Form
Despite some discrimination Levine had experienced in her career, she had, up until that point, thought little about changing anything. But something drove her to fill out and send back to Ms. the petition form that appeared in the debut issue under the title “Have you had an abortion?” Roe v. Wade had yet to be decided; only two states had legalized abortion–and only recently–meaning that most who responded affirmatively would have had an illegal procedure. Levine was one among many.
What spurred her to fill out the form? “I guess it must’ve been a big deal,” she says after a long pause. “But it seemed so awful to me.” Levine had gotten a diaphragm from the college health service and it was ill-fitted. “And so, when I went and got pregnant, I went back. ‘You gave me a diaphragm, and now I have a problem.’ And they said to me, ‘Sorry, that’s your problem.’ And I was so horrified, I think, that they would take responsibility for one part, but not the other part. And, you know, it’s such a horrible thing to go through.”
Ms., as it turned out, was looking for someone to run the editorial show and Levine landed an interview. Ms. was so new it didn’t have offices. Several of the editors came to visit Levine at her office at Sexual Behavior.
As one of the few women who had run a magazine–men ran most women’s magazines–Levine found herself at an advantage with Ms. “I don’t remember whether or not I got to open my envelope, but I was on the job by the time all those ‘I have had an abortion’ things came in.”
She Ran a Powerhouse Magazine
During her 15 years at Ms., Levine ran a powerhouse of a magazine that featured–and sometimes “discovered”–top writers such as Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood.
Ms. was also an important stomping ground for the women’s rights leadership. On her return from Nairobi in 1985, Bella Abzug came to the offices to brief the staff on the final U.N. Decade for Women conference. (Levine is currently compiling, with former Ms. colleague Mary Thom, an oral history of Abzug’s life to be published by Farrar Strauss Giroux.) Gloria Steinem, one of the magazine’s founding editors, was a daily presence when she was not on the road.
At the magazine’s editorial helm, Levine often found herself in the middle of controversies.
In the mid-1980s, for instance, Andrea Dworkin–the writer and activist against the sexual exploitation of women who died in 2005–and law professor Catharine MacKinnon were promoting a civil ordinance that would allow women to sue pornographers if they could prove that the pornographer’s wares had caused them harm. Detractors saw a slippery slope toward censorship. The Ms. editorial staff itself was divided.
Levine commissioned Mary Kay Blakely to write a story about the debate itself. The even-handed piece that resulted, “Is one woman’s sexuality another woman’s pornography?” created a firestorm because neither side was declared the winner.
In 1987, Ms. was sold to an Australian publisher, and Levine made her exit soon after, taking the helm of the Columbia Journalism Review in 1988.
At her interview for that job, Levine recalls, she was asked, “Do you think you can be an arbiter of journalism after having come out of an advocacy tradition?”
“And my answer was,” says Levine, “that one of the things that we did at Ms.–one of the important things we did journalistically–was look for stories that weren’t being told, or stories that weren’t being told accurately or fairly. And that is sort of the perfect training for being a critic of journalism. It’s all about the stories.”
Adele M. Stan worked for Suzanne Braun Levine at Ms., and was one of some 40 women Levine interviewed for her current book. Stan is the author of “Debating Sexual Correctness: Pornography, Date Rape, Sexual Harassment and the Politics of Sexual Equality” (Dell), and the Web log, AddieStan.com.
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“Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood”:
Suzanne Braun Levine: