ALIVE Interview: Gail Sheehy, Renowned Journalist and Women's Equality Pioneer
Renowned journalist Gail Sheehy comes to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival tomorrow evening to speak about her new memoir, “Daring: My Passages,” where she recounts her experiences as a trailblazer in the male-dominated scene of 1970s magazine journalism (for more details about the event, see our previous blog post).
Sheehy wrote for most of the country’s major national magazine and newspaper titles along the way, developing the “New Journalism” movement’s experiential style, leading the charge on social issues and profiling many of the 20th century’s most important world leaders. Her 1976 book, “Passages,” was named one of the 10 most influential books of our time by the Library of Congress. In anticipation of her appearance—and in honor of Women’s History Month—ALIVE caught up with Sheehy to talk her new memoir and her role at the forefront of the feminist movement.
ALIVE: Your new memoir recounts your experience of early adulthood as one drastically altered by the times you were living in. When you married at 23 and began bringing money in to support your husband, Albert Sheehy, through med school, what were your expectations for your career?
Gail Sheehy: When I first arrived in Rochester in 1960, I knew I needed to work as the sole breadwinner, but I also had career aspirations—something rather rare at the time for women, let alone a doctor’s wife. Most of the wives came from affluent backgrounds and didn’t have to work. My first job was as a department store fashion coordinator, but I had wanted to be a writer since I was 7 years old, when my grandmother bought me my first typewriter.
A year later, I applied for my first newspaper job at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The editor of the women’s page, George Jewell, completely ignored my portfolio of writing and went straight for the age, gender, and marital status questions—even asking how soon I expected to get pregnant. Workplace discrimination against women was the norm back then, and women writers were only hired to write about fashion and the household.
After my husband graduated from medical school, we moved back to New York and settled in the East Village. I garnered an interview with the city editor at the World Telegram and Sun. The city editor’s opening line of attack was, “What makes you think a little girl like you from the boonies of Rochester can write for a big city daily?
It touched a raw nerve. I responded, “I didn’t know geography was the measure of talent.” He exclaimed, “I like the way you talk, sister!” and hired me on the spot.
I was wooed away from the World Telegram and Sun by Eugenia Sheppard of the New York Herald Tribune as a feature writer, which I soon learned was where all “girl journalists” of the day were sequestered. The opening of my memoir, “DARING: My Passages,” described what I thought of as the longest walk of my life. I sneaked down the back stairs of the Trib to cross into the “testosterone zone”: the busy newsroom where men in white dress and tie worked. I just had to pitch my best story to the man who was remaking journalism in the early 1960s, Clay Felker.
“Where did you come from?” he asked.
“The estrogen zone.”
He liked my idea and told me to write in scenes. That was totally new in journalism. I took the leap, became a New Journalist, and never looked back.
But I wasn’t prepared for a great fall – my marriage fell apart when I discovered my husband’s long-term affair. To save my self-respect, I had to leave the marriage. That turned me into a single mother with a two-and-a-half year-old daughter. Vanished was the dream of being able to write from home while we raised a family, and my husband’s medical career supported us until my first book was a success.
ALIVE: The “daring” label on the cover doesn’t just apply to your masterful work in Northern Ireland or Cambodia: It applies also to simply crossing the hallway at the Herald Tribune and pitching stories to a different editor than the one for whom you were meant to be writing the women’s pages for. Did you know quite early on that you had this quality in you, or does one daring act beget another until it becomes who you are?
GS: I did some daring things in my girlhood, like taking the train by myself from the suburbs 45 minutes into New York when I was only 9 or 10. My grandmother kept my secret. We used to listen to a radio show together called “Grand Central Station,” which ballyhooed Grand Central as the “crossroads of a million private lives.” I just had to run up to the balcony and look down on those lives with a pencil and a pad and write about people I couldn’t have imagined.
But I am an ordinarily fearful person. And when I backed away from a challenge or a chance, I felt weak and foolish, so I had to find a way to walk through my fears. Over the years I developed a habit. When I fear, I dare. Anybody can learn it if they set out to do so.
Sure, sometimes you’re going to stumble. Occasionally you’ll fall on your face. But people who succeed in careers and in life are those who learn from their failures. You put in place as many supports as you can to mitigate a possible failure, and then learn from it what to do differently the next time.
ALIVE: What is your best advice for women wanting to lead a “daring” life?
GS: Step out of your comfort zone. Travel to far-off or unfamiliar places when you’re in your college years to find out how you survive. Expose yourself to other parts of the world. Look back at your own country and see its strengths and its flaws. Try a difficult sport or public speaking. You may find out you have surprising strengths. Try subjects that are not your strong suit. Everybody has to become better at tech—so take some math and computer science courses.
When you take your fist big dare, have fun preparing for it. Dress to be noticed, put on your mischievous smile, and act like you’ve already conquered the hill.