The Highbrow

Marjorie Williams

A journalist who made feminism matter.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here.

Imagine being told, at 43, that you have a few months to live. And imagine—among other things—that you have a career deepening in new ways, and two young children, a boy and a girl, who still believe that Santa Claus is real. The truth is, most of us can’t imagine anything like it. But this is what Marjorie Williams, a Washington Post columnist who died last January at 47, describes in her extraordinary essay about being diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, “Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir.” It appears in The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, a new collection of her journalism edited by Slate’s Tim Noah, her husband. Reading the essay, one is rocked back on one’s heels not only by the steady summoning of detail—including the split-second thrill she felt when the doctor first discovered a tumor—but by the fact that she wrote the essay in the first place. ” ‘I don’t want to end my life in some hospital barfing in the name of science,” ” she recalls telling Tim. ” ‘I mean it: I want to be realistic about what’s happening to me.’ ” And she was. The essay is the distillation of the gift that Williams, whom I never met, displays throughout the volume: total engagement inextricably connected to a comic detachment—a stoic determination to make the most of her tragic, and at times absurd, situation. (“I savored the things I’d avoid forever. I’ll never have to pay taxes, I thought, or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. … I won’t have to be human, in fact, with all the error and loss and love and inadequacy that come with the job.”)

Marjorie with daughter Alice, shortly after her diagnosis, summer 2001

It is too bad that a media debate about the role of female newspaper columnists took place shortly after Williams’ death, because, in addition to being a writer of celebrated political profiles for Vanity Fair, she was a female columnist whose unselfconscious way of writing about politics and family issues would have complicated the conversation. Williams was not, like Anna Quindlen, a columnist in the “personal and pointillistic” mode (a style Williams found disturbingly “feminine” and “nice”). Nor, like Maureen Dowd, was she aggressive and pushy on the page, only to insist, as Dowd did recently, that, “as a woman,” she really wanted “to be liked.” Nor, like Anne Applebaum, her colleague at the Post, did she mostly eschew writing about women’s issues. Here was a political writer who was unafraid to call herself a feminist. Here was also a feminist who made her name writing about “masculine” issues like politics and social policy, and who never adhered to liberal dogma the way that Quindlen did.

Younger than Ellen Goodman, Quindlen, Susan Estrich, and even Dowd, Williams has a thoroughly second-wave sensibility. She grew up assuming women could chart their paths, but she was of the generation that discovered that tidy feminist formulas and edicts didn’t really hold. Along the way, all of us were going to have to negotiate “a succession of choices between the possibilities of independence and the seductions of dependence.” The personal wasn’t simply political. The aim to achieve true equality at home was harder than it looked. Working moms were always going to feel torn between the playroom and the laptop, and there were no homiletic answers. There was only the truth, in her case, that “the complexity of doing right by those you love” is tougher than being a brain surgeon. You can’t get it right.

Williams’ outlook was forged by sensibility rather than by ideology. She came to journalism by way of literature, and the DNA of her sentences is literary. Her father was editorial director at Viking Press (she remembers him sending notes to Stephen King, observing that “the deus ex machina comes originally from Greek drama, not medieval times”). Her parents held dinners for writers like Carlos Fuentes, and she grew up eavesdropping on cocktail hours laced with wit. Before entering journalism in her late 20s, she was a book editor, and all her pieces—the profiles that make up the first section of this book, and the essays and columns that make up the remaining two-thirds—use language in lovely and astute ways: She writes of a child whose mind is “still trapped in a cave of sleep”; of the way that Vernon Jordan held a hug too long, his fingers “saluting the small of a back”; of Washington, D.C., as a “hive of conformity and caution.” Her essays work “this seam between the accepted narrative … and the grubby human stuff that is nearly always as plain as the nose on your face.” (This last is from a “Diary” that originally appeared in Slate.)

Marjorie on Cape Cod in June 2004, the summer before she died

The media has a tendency to thrash out debates about post-sexual-revolution life in Manichean terms. Williams complicated this tendency, both in her writing about the personal realm (where she saw how easy it is to lose the gritty idiosyncrasy of life by framing one’s experiences purely in power terms) and in her writing about the political realm (where she was a great anatomist of the distinctly personal ways people wield power). She had a cleareyed way of seeing two sides of an issue, or of a person’s character, an insightfulness she brought even to her intimates. One of the most arresting pieces here is an essay about her mother, a scientist turned housewife, whose kitchen was full of bounty, but whose frustrated heart and mind were more and more closed to her adult daughters as she drank herself to death. Elsewhere, she scrutinizes the assumption that a happy marriage is a melding of two people in which neither asks him or herself “What would it be like to be alone? Who would you be without your spouse in your life?” And in a piece on the social price of having children she realizes, ruefully but also not without delight, that “parenthood itself, properly pursued, is its own glass ceiling.”

Throughout, she is insistent on the need for women—in the media, in politics, and elsewhere—to continue to fight for equality in the workplace. But she refuses to accept that women ought to devote themselves exclusively to the pursuit of equality, whatever the cost to family and children (and women themselves): “Feminism’s insistence that abolishing the sexual double standard was more important than anything else has led, at its worst,” she writes in a piece on Bill Clinton, “to a brittle, pitiless vision of sexual autonomy, in which anything goes and everyone can look after herself.”

Williams’ political profiles have been rightfully celebrated in the months since she died as a sign of her brilliance. But her columns are just as brilliant and unusual, serving up a bracing dose of pragmatism and hopefulness without hardening in the predictable molds. Reading her, I was reminded of Norman Mailer’s comment, in Advertisements for Myself,that “novelists are the only group of writers who should write a column” because “their habits are sufficiently unreliable for them to find something new to say quite often.” Williams never did write a novel, but, as Tim notes in his introduction, she wanted to and hoped a novel might be the first book she would publish. Instead, it is this book of essays and columns, which have the strengths of a great novel: insight, wit, and a fierce refusal to accept anything that struck her as too reliably orthodox.

Marjorie and her kids in June 2002, after diagnosis but well before she showed any outward signs of illness

It’s finally impossible to separate out the experience of reading this book from the tragic story that led to its existence. You read The Woman at the Washington Zoo—if you have read the introduction—knowing of the time bomb that will go off all too soon. This would make for harrowing work except that the company is so good, the voice so strong, that it’s hard to remember for long that its author is not alive. It is eerie to discover, too, that from the start—years before her diagnosis—Williams had her eye on the dust in every beam of sunlight. Even when she was most in the “sweet present,” she writes in a 1997 essay, she was aware of what she called “the maddening disorder, the constant, unexamined fear, the dark possibilities that live within the walls of even the best-ordered life.” Perhaps this is what makes the wisdom here, even in the shortest pieces, seem so hard-won and indispensable.


Full disclosure: Tim thanks me in the acknowledgments of The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, for giving advice about blurbs and a book title. Obviously, a piece about the wife of a colleague could never be “objective” in any case.

Click here to read an essay by Tim Noah, Majorie Williams’ husband, about going on tour for The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a book he didn’t write.