Nora Ephron: The Funniest Feminist

Nora Ephron passed away today. Not only did we lose an amazing writer, thinker, journalist, storyteller, and director; we lost the world’s funniest feminist.

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Nora Ephron passed away today. Not only did we lose an amazing writer, thinker, journalist, storyteller, and director; we lost the world’s funniest feminist.

I was lucky enough to know Nora for my entire life. Whenever I gave her something of mine to read, her first note was inevitably “make it funnier” no matter if it was supposed to be funny or not. The second note was usually “more honesty”—instructing me to reveal the parts of myself I find deeply embarrassing or shameful or scary because that’s what this is all about, right? It’s very hard to challenge a woman who wrote about everything from her parents to her divorce to her neck, and there would have been no point in arguing because she was right…always.

Ephron came up in the 1960s, working first as an intern in John F. Kennedy's White House (“…it has become horribly clear to me that I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House whom the president did not make a pass at,” she wrote in The New York Times), and then the New York Post (she got that job by satirizing Post columnists and being a little too good at it). From there she started writing essays for Esquire like “A Few Words About Breasts,” which combined her penchant for personal history mixed with incredible humor.

Ephron graduated from Wellesley at a time when six girls in her class were expelled for lesbianism. “We weren't meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them,” she told the college's class of 1996. “We weren't' meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them. If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect.”

Naturally she had something to say about that. Her work in the late 1960s and 1970s focused on women, sex and the feminist movement, which was eventually compiled into the books Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women and Scribble Scribble. She used her greatest gift to cut to the core of inequality and misogyny so prevalent at the time:

  • “Men dominate the conversations in Washington and therefore, as far as I am concerned, the conversations are far less interesting than those in New York.”
  • “I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.”
  • “I am still amazed at the amount of Christian charity [Wellesley] stuck us all with, a kind of glazed politeness in the face of boredom and stupidity. Tolerance, in the worst sense of the word.… How marvelous it would have been to go to a women's college that encouraged impoliteness, that rewarded aggression, that encouraged argument.”

Forget the never-ending “women aren’t funny” line that spews from every male comedian who has been or will be on the Celebrity Apprentice. The debate Ephron tackled was sexual politics itself and she did it with humor, with words both powerful and resonant. She understood that aphorisms aren’t just throw-aways that cheapen over time but can be piercing retorts in the right woman’s mouth. As Entertainment Weekly wrote about Crazy Salad, “Gloria Steinem was never this much fun,” which is both a little catty and deeply true — Steinem’s weapon of choice was never humor.

Of course, Ephron also made fun of the women’s movement when she found things frustrating or ridiculous. You are more likely to be heard if you’re a member of a choir you’re preaching to after all. When Crazy Salad was published, the AP wrote, “A dedicated feminist, Miss Ephron nevertheless pokes affectionate fun at her consciousness-raising group and sexual politics (‘We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy…and a dry martini and now we have come to the era when happiness is ‘knowing what your uterus looks like.’)” (Notice that the AP called her “Miss” and not “Ms.”)

Ephron took on Betty Friedan, Phyllis Chesler and Jan Morris in her essays, always poking holes where she saw hypocrisy, cliché or narcissism, and at the same time outwardly struggling with how to be a good reporter and a good feminist. I would (with admitted bias) argue that even if you don’t agree with what she wrote the courage and talent behind it was great for women.

As her career grew, she extended her voice from journalism to film, writing Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, and directing Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and many more. She said she “[tried] to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.” Considering the number of Oscar nominations and the number of roles Meryl Streep took in her films, I think she exceeded expectations.

In 1996, two years before You’ve Got Mail would premiere, she gave the commencement address at her alma mater. After some warm-up jokes about dated hairstyles and tuition prices, Ephron, in no uncertain terms, challenged the graduating class to bring it or go home:

What I'm saying is, don't delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don't let The New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you — there's still a glass ceiling. … Don't underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don’t have the alibi my class had.

Reading that as a woman in my late twenties makes me think two things: “God she’s right” and “wow the 90s were terrible.”

When her book I Feel Bad About My Neck came out, she again found herself at odds with some women of her generation who saw it as demeaning to negatively portray the process of aging. If that were what the book was about, I’d agree with them, but it was so much more than that. It was about family and politics, food and parenting, and yes, a look at those little embarrassing moments that come with time and all the little injustices your body inflicts without your consent. As she’s said in many ways over the years, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” I dare you to argue that’s not empowerment.

Nora Ephron will be remembered for many things — that she loved her family, that she helped change the voice of journalism, that she was one of the first great female directors — but I will always remember her for what she did for women be they her friends, women she mentored, women she advised, women she employed or women who read/heard/saw her work. Thanks, Nora, from all of us.

Alex Leo is the director of web product for Thomson Reuters Digital. Previously she was a senior editor at The Huffington Post and an associate producer at ABC News. Her work has appeared on The Daily Beast, Jezebel, The Hairpin, as well as in Nora and Delia Ephron's play, Love, Loss and What I Wore.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.