Merle Hoffman: Passionate, Generous and Visionary

Merle Hoffman: Passionate, Generous and Visionary

by Phyllis Chesler

The acclaimed Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University celebrated its 25th Anniversary recently with a discussion in NYC, The Archival is Political: Preserving Women’s History at the SallieBingham Center. In 2011, the Center’s directorship was endowed by and named in honor of journalist, activist and women’s health care pioneer Merle Hoffman. The NYC event on Oct. 28, 2013 featured a conversation with Hoffman, Eleanor Smeal, Carmen Rios, and Jaclyn Friedman. On the Issues is pleased to print here author Phyllis Chesler’s introduction of Merle Hoffman at the event.

Remarks by Phyllis Chesler Introducing Merle Hoffman

 Merle is my Renaissance Prince playmate, my Viking sister-warrior, a woman who is both practical and wildly imaginative, a business woman who is also a serious intellectual, a woman who loves opera as much as I do, and who, for many years, took me to the opera where we sat together, either spellbound and close to tears or, off we marched, after the first act. As I always said: “If my hair does not catch fire, there is no reason to be here.”

Merle is passionate and generous and visionary. She is also a grand philanthropist. Let me tell you the story of how we met. It was 1987 and there I was, organizing demonstrations outside the courthouse in New Jersey where the Mary Beth Whitehead or Baby M case was on trial. Motherhood itself was on trial. Merle came, saw, and the next day, had a messenger hand deliver me a check for $1000.00 to cover some expenses. I was amazed. No feminist had ever funded my work on our behalf. Next, she interviewed me on her Television cable program (I remember I brought my then nine year old son Ariel along), and soon the three of us ,yes, Ariel too, were marching together in Washington D.C. for women’s reproductive rights. We were together in New York City when nine women were arrested in front of New York City’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the first pro-choice civil disodedience action.

 Merle and I tried to interest women in a feminist army, a feminist government in exile, and in a feminist cemetery. She gave me my 50th birthday party, and I chose to do so at Kate Millett’s Bowery loft. Merle gave me book parties, especially the party for my book about the Baby M case and the issues it raises:  Sacred Bond–The Legacy of Baby M. For years, I stood by her side when she was alone and under siege, and she did the same for me.

 But the best was yet to come.

 Merle had founded a wonderful feminist magazine: On the Issues, for which I soon became the Editor at Large. Neither of us was a politically correct feminist. We wore make-up and glamorous clothes, had aesthetic as well as political and intellectual sensibilities. Merle took exquisite care of the cover art, and the art the accompanied the major pieces. This was where I published my first major piece about the Women of the Wall struggle which still rages on in Jerusalem and where I also published many other major pieces, about psychiatric abuse, motherhood. It is where I published my second article about my life in a harem in Afghanistan which is now the subject of my new book.

 Merle herself always published daring, serious, unexpected, editorials. I brought many feminists in. Once a year, Merle invited us all to “party” for the day at her home in Garrison and between the two of us, we have many colorful stories from those days.  

The magazine lasted in hard copy for nearly 15 years and is now an online magazine. Thus, Merle funded many radical feminist writers, and we had a continuing voice in more than one magazine and long after the salad days of the Second Wave.

 From childhood, Merle has loved Queen Elizabeth, playing classical piano, riding horses, and touring the wild, wild world. She still travels everywhere: From Mt Everest to the Galapagos Islands, from Africa to Antarctica, from Persia to Russia (where she wanted to start Choices East). England, Italy, the Mediterranean, Stockbridge, are also favorite getaways jaunts when she is not in New York City or Easthampton. I introduced Merle to Easthampton where I once had a home. I thought it was time for her to leave the dark green forests for the sparkling ocean beaches and I am so glad she agreed with me.

 In 1992, I became the first major radical feminist whom Duke acquired, right after Sallie Bingham donated her papers and created the Bingham Center. I drew up copious lists of other radical feminists whose archives should also be acquired first for Ginny Daly, next for Christina Favretto.  (Hello wherever you two are!)  Alix Kates Shulman, Kate Millett, and then Merle, as well as others, all came. Feminists from all over the country called me when they began their negotiations with Duke or when they heard that I was there, all wanting advice. Our ideas, our history are being nobly gathered together at Duke.

 And now Merle has endowed Laura Micham as Duke’s Archivist. Long May She Reign! Documenting and archiving feminist ideas and activism is itself radical and crucial. In the past, as Dale Spender has documented, “Women of Ideas” all got lost, were never kept in print or taught in universities and the feminist wheel had to be re-invented anew in each generation. That will never happen again.

 Over the years, Merle coined certain phrases which I found myself using as well. This is extremely rare because, as a wordsmith, I never use other people’s language. And yet, from Merle, I acquired phrases like: “Radical compassion,””Paid enemies,” “If you want to attack me take a number, the line forms on the left,” “On the issues,” and possibly “gender apartheid,” which has become the focus of so much of my recent work.

 In addition to all else, I must note this: Merle has changed. Love has changed her. Now, Merle has found the love of her life, her daughter Sasha. This love deepens our friendship. It is an unexpected joy that my oldest granddaughter, Lily, follows Sasha around so quietly, seriously, dutifully, lovingly, and that Sasha is so very patient with her.

Merle and I are not done yet; some of our best work together is yet to come.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of 15 books including the best selling Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody and Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman. Her new book, An American Bride in Kabul may be purchased here. She may be reached at her website