Post, Undaunted

Undaunted Beyond the Book, September 21, 2023

September 21, 2023

Four months have passed since A.A. Knopf launched Undaunted into the world, a book of very niche interest that has generated more enthusiasm than I thought possible. Read down a few paragraphs and you’ll see that something driving that interest just might be in the air. I admit that I did imagine it triggering at least a few columns or op-eds from reporters deciding to share their personal agonies, triumphs, and reflections on careers in a field where the top echelons were harder to reach for those who were not white men. These thoughts were not entirely out of the blue; such an outpouring did accompany the release of my 2003 book, Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, which coincided with the film premier of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. (Check the Passing “Notices” tab here and you’ll get the drift.) I’m not whining, but this round, nothing even remotely like that has happened.

All the same, a surfeit of really good things have. Undaunted‘s reviewers for mainstream publications—Janet Hook for the Los Angeles Times, Clara Bingham and Veronica Esposito for The Guardian, and Meghan Cox Gurdon for The Wall Street Journal all are journalists of long standing and most referred to their own careers in framing their critiques. Scott Simon for NPR paid homage to his public radio foremothers in his Weekend Edition interview with me and again for the family book club he offers via X/Twitter. I’m sure his two broadcasts have something to do with the long, still-unwinding skein of requests for podcast interviews I’ve been receiving, not to mention Undaunted‘s twenty-four hours as an NPR Book of the Day. Big thanks there. The New York Times Book Review chose an eminent historian and scholar in women studies in Jane Kamensky, who heads the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. Tina Jordan, who writes the Times‘s books newsletter did single Undaunted out for a hat tip in her July 7 newsletter and the editors included it in one week’s “What to Read Next.”

Among the early requests for appearances came an invitation from a Times veteran, Carla Baranaukas and I think from my dear friend Dinitia Smith, to address The New York Times Alumni Group. This was a particular mid-summer pleasure, even though only the two of them amid a large group on Zoom had read the book before I spoke. Nonetheless, the quality of the questions reflected how well the group grokked the book’s essence.

Otherwise, response to the book from readers, when I hear about it at all, has mostly been from non-journalists who either love it or find the text and its many characters too dense. As one friend offered in commiseration: “Tell them how sorry you are about their attention span.” I’m too Midwestern for that; I’ll take my lumps.

A few journalists have taken the time to write appreciatively. Within twelve hours of publication, I got a note from Tony Marro, the editor of Newsday during the two years I spent on the paper, from 1984-86, first as the paper’s UN Correspondent and then as one of two deputy metropolitan editors for New York Newsday.

Newsday, January 28, 1985

This was just as the “tabloid in a tutu” was starting up. Reading my Chapter 18, “Power Coupling,” Tony was shocked at how antediluvian the New York Times still was in the mid-1980s about the up-and-coming-journalist wives of its own up-and-coming-journalist husbands; that is, women up-and-coming at competing publications. This is the point in the book where at least one woman journalist felt the urge to throw the book against the wall in her fury over what she just read.

Newsday, Tony said, even all those years ago, never evinced this galling brand of sexist discrimination. Good for Newsday, but I was more taken with how he had gotten so far into the book so soon after its release. “Oh, I started in the middle,” he said. He was not alone in confessing that he read the book via the index.

A few New York Times alumni wrote to compliment the book’s even-handedness. One former masthead figure sent me into apoplexy with several paragraphs of reflection on some huge mistakes. They were not mine, it turned out, to my enduring relief after reading the letter a second time. The reference was to the newspaper’s uppermost management.

Exciting for me has been the sweet coincidence of in-depth biographies of women who are or could have been among Undaunted‘s representatives. These include Lorissa Rinehart’s First to the Front about the war photographer Dickey Chappelle; Jennet Conant‘s Fierce Ambition about the New York Herald-Tribune‘s Marguerite Higgins, second woman journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize (albeit thirteen years after the first, which was Anne O’Hare McCormick, and McCormick’s came twenty years after the establishment of the prize); Susan Page‘s Rulebreaker about Barbara Walters; and Rachel Shteir‘s Magnificent Disrupter, about the life of Betty Freidan.

In this company, I’d also include the new memoir by the PBS war correspondent Jane Ferguson, titled No Ordinary Assignmentand the other night, I met June Massell, now a food and travel writer, who provided a detailed precis of her long and superb early career as a network television reporter and producer in the period well before women became commonplace in the industry. The Brown Daily Herald just profiled the television network producer Linda S. Mason about her new memoir, Speak Up: Breaking the Glass Ceiling at CBS, about her career.

All that said, only one letter has come to me so far that had the contours of the responses to Undaunted I had imagined I would have seen in print. Instead, it came privately from  Mary C. Churchill, who was a New York Times stringer in the Trenton, New Jersey bureau for four years, from 1974 to 1978. Her Times tenure was during the Vietnam era, when draft-exempt women were in more demand than they had been since World War II.

Mary Churchill, then and now

She’s allowed me to share it here, which is by way of saying I’d love to hear and share your stories, too.


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