In March 1977, The New York Times began to run a Thursday column titled simply "Hers." In the words of the column's editor, Nancy Newhouse, "it was created as a forum for women to write, once a week for several weeks, about whatever they chose to." To date, more than 50 women have been "Hers" columnists, many of them well-known writers or activists, like Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Phyllis Rose, Gail Sheehy, Gail Godwin and Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Others have been Nancy Newhouse's own "finds" -- a 26-year-old medical student, a beekeeper from the Ozarks, a sixth-grade teacher in Washington.
In 1981, a Chicago reader wrote to the publisher of The Times to suggest that a selection of the columns be published in book form. "The overall content is interesting, beautiful, moving and relevant to human history in terms of the modern feminist sensibility; they should not be lost," she wrote. She was right. Most of what has been preserved here is worth preserving.
There is perhaps no more transient literary form than the newspaper column, yet literary form it is. Every day, readers go forth aroused, enraged or comforted by something read in haste over the breakfast table. The problem is that such fruitful encounters between columnist and reader are so ephemeral: the newspaper is thrown away, next day or next week the subject is changed, life rolls on, erasing the fragile moment of inspiration. The value of this book is that it restores some of those vanished columns to literary history by giving them continuity and a binding.
In the process, we are also given the broader context, which is less evident if one reads the columns in isolation, week by week. Taken together, they do provide a fascinating, if partial and idiosyncratic, record of American feminist thinking over the past eight years. None of it is strident, the best is as balanced and intelligent as Susan Jacoby's observation: "Of course there is a female sensibility. Of course there is a male sensibility. In a great writer of either sex, those sensibilities yield universal truths. I suspect that all of the dull dinner-party arguments on this point stem from the fact that we read too few great writers and too much junk."
The selections have been arranged in categories: "Mothers and Fathers," "Between the Sexes," "The Married State," "Being Alone," "Having Children . . . and Raising Them," "Women at Work." Virtually the only important aspect of contemporary women's lives not addressed is lesbianism.
There are lapses and disappointments, such as Gail Sheehy's overwritten interview with Gloria Steinem or Barbara Lazear Ascher's sentimental treatise on bag ladies. But in general the quality of both thought and prose is high.
Wit is perhaps more in evidence than profundity, as one might expect from such brief pieces. Some contributors are just plain funny, as Joan Gelman is, telling about the recipe she submitted for her son's "Second Grade Cookbook": "MRS. GELMAN'S SPAGHETTI. Into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water to which 2 tablespoons of salt have been added place the macaroni product and boil for 10 to 12 minutes, according to desired tenderness, stirring occasionally. Drain and place on platter. Add sauce."
Other columns have the poignancy of unembarrassed honesty, such as in Betty Rollin's confession of "chronic self-doubt" or Perri Klass' account of what it is like to be a medical student working more than 100 hours a week in a large hospital: "I cried because I forgot to do things. I cried because I didn't know how to do things. I cried because I did things, only to find out they were unnecessary."
And some, the very best of them, manage to combine both wit and profundity, as Phyllis Theroux does in one of my favorite pieces, included in the category "A Sense of Place," on the "privileged simplicity" of life in Southampton. "At the end of the afternoon, we would take our beach umbrellas away, sit on a white porch, have supper, and read our Ellery Queens until we were too tired to turn another page. It would be so calming and quiet, like the noise that stocks make when they are appreciating in a vault."
Although "Hers" was published for Mother's Day, it would certainly make a fine gift anytime. It is edifying that so many of these columns are accomplished enough to recall Susan Jacoby's own question (vis-a -vis some verse of Anna Akhmatova): "Was it a man or a woman who wrote those lines?"