Nora Ephron, Feminist Icon & ‘When Harry Met Sally’ Writer, Dead at 71

Yesterday, writer, director, journalist and intellectual Nora Ephron passed away at the age of 71. Popular for romantic comedies such as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail,” Ephron often went unrecognized for her inherent feminist sensibilities, ones that she shared with the world in an unprecedentedly lighthearted and humorous manner.

Ephron during a Women in Literature conference in New York City, 1972

Growing up in the 1960s, Ephron graduated from Wellesley College, a private women’s liberal arts school in Massachusetts, during a time when six girls in her class were expelled for lesbianism. College courses educated women in little more than the fields of housewifery and etiquette, grooming them to be docile, obedient pets for their future husbands.

Ephron returned to the campus in 1996 to deliver the commencement speech to that year’s graduating class, and revealed much about what life at Wellesley, and around the country, was like for a woman in those times. “We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them,” she told the students. “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.”

Undoubtedly, Ephron, an intelligent, opinionated and independent individual, had much to say about those unfair expectations. Long before her romantic comedies hit the box offices in the 80′s and 90′s, she published several literary works focusing on the position of women in society. “Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women,” “Scribble Scribble” and “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman” all explore the themes of women, sex and the feminist movement. As an intellectual, a writer and a woman, she was certainly not afraid to use her talents to draw attention to the inherently sexist flaws dominating society:

  • “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.”

At the same time, however, Ephron was not afraid to point out the glaring hypocrisy and narcissism of other, more well-known feminist icons of the time. She tackled Phyllis Chesler and Jan Morris in some of her essays, as well as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, the “holy grails” of the feminist movement in the 1960s.

For many who have seen her most popular films, “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” it might appear that Ephron abandoned her feminist sensibilities when she moved to the Hollywood big screen. This is not the case, however. If you look past the surface of these romantic comedies, you discover that their stories center around strong and independent women, who possess control over their both romances and their destinies. She once said she tried “to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as woman actually are.”

When she ended her commencement speech in 1996, she encouraged the women of her alma mater to possess the same sort of independence as the women in her films, and to realize that sexism and misogyny are just as real and as tangible of threats as ever :

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.

Ephron passed away yesterday at the age of 71, from pneumonia that was brought on by leukemia. Her most recent work was the Meryl Streep film “Julie & Julia.”

About Alex Chrum

St. Louis. Left of liberal. Feminist. Bookworm. Hockey fan.
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