Gail Sheehy on Feminism and the Early Days of New York Magazine

Gail Sheehy on Feminism and the Early Days of New York Magazine

Gail Sheehy has been in the journalism industry long enough that she’s learned some important lessons. In her new memoir, Daring: My Passages, she sets out to share these lessons with a generation of women (and men!) who look up to her. From chasing down difficult stories to cutting her teeth at the then-fledgling New York magazine, Sheehy has a wealth of exciting and inspiring experiences to impart to her reader. Here, she chats with Bookish about having it all and the challenges of leaning in.

Bookish: One of the persistent themes in Daring: My Passages is “wanting it all.” Today, there’s a pretty robust conversation about how women can be successful professionally while still having a family. How did you approaching “having it all”?

Gail Sheehy: When I was 20, I thought I could have it all. When I reached my mid-40s, I realized it takes half our adult life to discover where true meaning lies. Then the honest question is: Do we have what matters? Enough self-respect? Enough mutual love? Enough purpose? I didn’t have a marriage, family, and successful career until I was 47. Many women in today’s shrinking middle class live in fear of losing it all.

Bookish: How do you respond to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In? Did you “lean in”?

GS: I commend Sandberg for rallying girls and women to dare to make their voices heard and take the leap to leadership positions. But I know from experience that unless a woman is affluent or has an at-home husband/father, it is not possible, or healthy, for a woman to “lean in” with both feet while she’s chasing young children. I wasn’t able to “lean in” as a full-time writer with a husband and older children until I reached midlife.

Bookish: Much of your success, it seems, comes from being willing to chase down the difficult stories. Where did you get the courage and the drive to do this?

GS: Insatiable curiosity. Why are things the way they are? Can we fix them?

Bookish: Your 1976 book, Passages, was named by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books of the era. What do you hope you’ve taught a generation of young women about going for what they want?

GS: Follow your passion while you’re young, even if it means temporarily giving up other things you value, like money, marriage, and children. Women’s lives are long and have many seasons.

Bookish: How do you think breaking into journalism is different today than it was when you were first starting out?

GS: It takes longer, because print outlets keep shrinking and digital journalism is poorly paid in the break-in years. Tackle a big story, something everyone is talking about but they don’t know the why? That’s how to make a name for yourself.

Bookish: You write about being one of the original writers for New York magazine. How was the experience of helping to shape one of the most influential news magazines in print today?

GS: A thrilling ride. We were the new generation, experimenting with a New Journalism. We had an editor, Clay Felker, who wanted to make us stars. We became a family—working, drinking, smoking, laughing, and helping each other to do our best work. And every week, we got plenty of feedback about what we’d written—good, bad, but never indifferent.

Bookish: It’s clear that this book is meant to guide young women who aspire to a career like yours: Were there books that you read when you were young that had a profound impact on your professional trajectory?

GS: The Beverly Gray Adventure Stories—a girl’s series about an intrepid reporter who started writing for a newspaper in New York and kept her boyfriends guessing while she traveled the world and built a fascinating career. (The author, Clair Blank, graduated from college but was only able to work as a typist and secretary and never traveled to any of the exotic places she described.) Also, biographies of Jane Addams and Anna Pavlova.

Bookish: At various points in the book, you refer to yourself as a feminist. What do you think are the most pressing issues facing feminists (and women) today?

GS: The same old ones that have never been fully addressed and which conservative lawmakers are determined to roll back: full reproductive freedom for women to make choices about their own bodies, equal pay for equal work, raise of minimum wage to a living wage, child care support, paid sick leave, paid maternity leave, and paid leave as caregivers for sick elderly parents. We are behind every developed and many poor countries in these reforms. Current issues include domestic abuse and sexual assault in the military and on college campuses.

Gail Sheehy is the author of sixteen books, including the groundbreaking Passages, and a leading advocate for Americans age fifty and older. A contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984, she won the Washington Journalism Review Award for Best Magazine Writer in America and is a seven-time recipient of the New York Newswomen’s Club Front Page Award for distinguished journalism. She lives in New York City.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth was an American Studies major at Georgetown University, and is currently getting her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. She spends entirely too much time and money at the Strand, where she once saw Daniel Radcliffe. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).


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