A Woman of her Times

Do great women and men drive the trajectory of society or does the historical context exercise a powerful grip that molds the actions of individuals?

Social theorists such as Georg Wilhelm Hegel and Karl Marx have argued that historical context can wield an overwhelming influence – even a great thinker such as Aristotle, they suggest, did not rail against Athenian slavery because he was a prisoner of the Zeitgeist of the time.

The more contemporary philosopher, Andy Rooney – okay, some would just call him a curmudgeon – made the same point regarding the valorization of the Greatest Generation. He didn’t think those like him (and my father) born in the 1920s were really anything that special but noted that “his generation had a Depression, World War II, and a cold war against which to test their character.” History like that could turn any generation from good to great.

I think about this issue as I learn more about the lives and times of editors of women’s sections during the time of second wave feminism. Change was a powerful force during the 1960s – civil rights, anti-war protests, global fights against colonial oppressors. For women in the United States, there were consciousness-raising groups, public protests, systemic changes at all levels of government. It was the time that “everything changed” … that a “tidal wave” engulfed gender relations … that a world was “split open” in ways that shifted the ground on which men and women walk.

I realize, of course, that these times were created by the actions of many, many individuals. But social theory also teaches us that the historical context turns around and exerts a power influence on all of us. I was born in 1959 and waltzed through much of this time period in the oblivion of childhood. But how would I have reacted if I had been born 20 year earlier? Or, alternatively, what kind of life would my mother have forged for herself if she were a member of Generation X or a millennial?

I especially think about this issue when I consider the life of Maggie Savoy.

1917 calendarMaggie Savoy was born in 1917 in Des Moines, Iowa. She grew up in Iowa and Phoenix, Arizona and graduated from USC in 1940 with a degree in journalism. She married her college sweetheart the day after graduation and started work with the publicity department at MGM, then moved on to the staff of the Red Skelton show. She opened a public relations firm in Phoenix and in 1947 – at the age of 30 – became the women’s editor at the Phoenix Gazette. Ten years later, she moved to the larger Arizona Republic and was described as a force of nature in Phoenix society and Arizona politics. As J. Edward Murray, her editor at the Republic described:

Crusading, innovating, even wheeling and dealing when she had to, Maggie used her daily society column to stir a social conscience in the movers and shakers. And she used her consummate skill at interviewing to whack the town on its backside with the opinions of visiting dignitaries. The town took it because it was her town and the town knew it.

Maggie’s first marriage ended in 1950, but a year later she wed a prominent banker in Phoenix. Her second husband was killed in a car crash in 1963. It was a difficult time for Maggie, made more complicated by the close friendship she had established several years earlier with Jim Bellows, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune. The friendship had blossomed into an affair several months before Maggie’s husband’s death, and soon after the accident Jim Bellows left his pregnant wife and two children to marry Maggie. It was shocking and scandalous, but Maggie and Jim believed in the destiny of their love – they belonged together.

Maggie SavoyAfter marrying Jim, Maggie worked briefly for the Associated Press in New York, and then for United Press International on the west coast when Jim became associated editor of the Los Angeles Times. Maggie became the women’s editor of that paper in 1967 and crusaded in Los Angeles in the same way that she took on Phoenix a decade earlier. As Art Seidenbaum recounted:

Maggie took that patronizing title, Women’s Editor, and squeezed every cuteness, every tea sandwich, every simper out of it. She was a society editor in the most embracing sense, taking on the whole community instead of the few fashionable creatures who live on guest lists.

Maggie wrote about women and about men, in a real world where women and men scuffle, bleed, beg and once in a while behave like heroes. The way she changed the world was by introducing strangers to each other – strange faces, strange colors, strange ideas.

Maggie mixed business and pleasure and blurred the lives of both. The people she wrote about were often the people at her home because Maggie inevitably became involved with them. Delegates from high places and from gutters.

It was the late 1960s. The women’s movement was gaining steam by the day. Maggie Savoy was at the forefront of the movement, reporting on the changes and prodding both men and women to pick up the pace of change. She wrote:

Last generation’s woman filled in her time, exercised her brains and talents, rolling bandages, doing “good things,” which more often than not required addressing envelopes, joining bridge clubs or elevating her mind with Gayelord Hauser lectures. For this she got a pat on the head from proud husband, her picture on the Society page. This generation’s woman—educated, trained and exposed to the same information-glut as her husband—simply is not going that route.

This generation’s woman has read “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” spits the word Freud like a four-letter word and refuses the double moral standard … With children flown the coop, divorce or widowhood likely years ahead, she demands—will inevitably get—meaning to her life and challenge to her brain.

1970 calendarMaggie Savoy died in 1970 of esophageal cancer. She had fought uterine cancer a few years earlier, but the disease returned and she died at the age of 53. She died at the cusp of second wave feminism. There were so many challenges – and so much progress – still on the horizon, I can only imagine how she would have reported on and influenced the movement. I can only imagine how she might see the world now from the vantage point of an incredibly feisty nonagenarian.

Instead, we must view Maggie Savoy as a woman within her times. She undoubtedly wouldn’t have minded that she was described by Gladwin Hill of the New York Times as “Gorgeous. Stacked. And smart as hell.” She was a tall and stylish thrice-married woman with a booming voice and undeniable presence. She gave parties in smoke-filled New York apartments where both booze and banter flowed. She had a magnetic personality that attracted both the mighty and powerless. And she believed – in 1968, mind you – that the women’s movement could be boiled down to four issues that feminists still talk about today:

  • Free, 24-hour child care centers.
  • Free abortion, on demand.
  • Complete equality for women in employment, advancement, opportunity.
  • Complete equality for women in education.

If Maggie had been born in 1880, she probably would have been active in – or reporting on – the Women’s Freedom League as they fought for the vote, equal pay, and increased respect for women in public and private life.

If Maggie had been born in 1980, she likely would be contributing to Jezebel and tweeting about women’s health, domestic violence, and misogynist media portrayals. While smashingly dressed, of course.

But Maggie was born in 1917 and died way too soon in 1970. She was a woman of her times. But she would have been a force to be reckoned with in any era.

Quotes from Maggie Savoy columns and friends from: Anyone who Enters Here Must Celebrate Maggie, Ward Ritche Press, 1971 (copyright held by James Bellows).

7 thoughts on “A Woman of her Times”

  1. Love this. It surprises me that Phoenix, given its staunch conservatism, was a place that allowed her to flourish. Was the political climate in the city different then?

  2. Lauren – Probably a bit different in terms of more of an “old west” attitude and libertarian politics. More important, though, was the fact that J. Edward Murray was an incredibly progressive editor who let Maggie move in the ways she wanted/needed to move. Of note to Phoenix folks, she was instrumental in preserving the area around Camelback from planned development. We may have her to thank for much of the beauty in the valley.

    1. Thanks, Kim. I will admit that I have not been good about sourcing photos on the blog (often because I don’t know of the original source for sure – when it gets to book stage I will be meticulous about this). You have, of course, trod much of this ground before, and I’m just working on bringing these women to more people’s attention and linking their lives to ours today. I’d love to talk more with you – I so enjoyed when we had a chance to meet in Orlando!

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