Making and living modern women’s history

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Connie George
Ms. magazine’s first editor Suzanne Braun Levine recently published her fifth book, How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood, about later-life love.
Photo courtesy of Susan Braun Levine

For a young college graduate in the 1960s with admittedly no clear vision for her future, writer and editor Suzanne Braun Levine ended up on a career trajectory that has made her one of the most accomplished authorities on women and family issues.

Her long list of professional achievements includes having been the first editor of Ms., the groundbreaking magazine that launched 40 years ago and was instrumental in promoting women’s rights, even helping to determine the definition of “rape.”

Now 70 and author of a new book on the sex lives of women over 50, Braun recently reflected to the Beacon, “Basically, I’ve been following my generation into the next chapter of transforming experience.”

How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood, released last December, reveals Levine’s studies of women throughout the United States who are exploring later-in-life love after reexamining their interests.

The book describes scenarios as varied as involvement with multiple partners at once, choosing a solo life with only-platonic companionship, rebuilding intimacy with a lifelong partner, reconnecting with a long-ago love, and testing the waters in a same-sex union.

Power and passion at Ms.

An initial position at Seattle magazine led her to work in New York as an editor for Time, Mademoiselle and McCall’s.

But in 1972 at the age of 31, she joined other young women in producing Ms., one of whom was the magazine’s publisher — renowned activist and feminist Gloria Steinem. The time was pivotal for American women who were beginning to lobby for equal rights at home and in the workplace.

While some older women of the era struggled with adapting to the evolution in their gender identity after generations of inequality with men, “It was the younger women who had the nerve” to put out a magazine like Ms., Braun said.

It was also personally transforming for Braun, she said. She had just spent two years as editor of a medical journal on sexual behavior, being paid only about two-thirds of what a male candidate for the position had been offered. Though she accepted the position at what she called “the girl price,” Braun said her resentment at being disrespected by the lower salary made her “very ready for Ms. and its support of women’s rights.”

The Ms. staff combined women with a variety of concerns, not only for equality of women, but for civil and welfare rights. Her biggest challenge as editor, she said, “was to turn all this challenge and passion into a magazine” — and she discovered just how much women could learn from each other’s experiences.

Ms. expanded my understanding of the world,” she said. “It gave me things to fight for and believe in, and it put me into a moment in history.”

Her awareness of this history-in-the-making contributed to Braun developing and producing the 1981 Peabody Award-winning HBO special She’s Nobody’s Baby: A History of American Women in the 20th Century.

Braun was with Ms. until 1988, and then served from 1989 to 1997 as the only woman editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

A new direction

Finally, at a peak in her career as an editor, Braun said she became uncertain which direction to go next.

While she had not previously considered writing a book, she realized she had always been interested in the subject of family dynamics, including a growing trend among men becoming more involved in their home lives. Braun’s first book, Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put the Family First, was published in 2000.

In 2007, she co-authored with Mary Thom an oral history of one of the country’s most outspoken former congresswomen, Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet,and Shook Up Politics Along the Way.

But three of Braun’s five books have put her in the forefront of exploring the lives and relationships of women over 50, in what she describes as their “second adulthood.”

In addition to the recently released How We Love Now, Braun published Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood in 2005 and Fifty is the New Fifty: Ten Life Lessons for Women in Second Adulthood in 2007.

She also writes a column on similar issues as a contributing editor to More magazine.

Prior to her 50s, Braun said, “I didn’t find my voice. I didn’t feel I had anything to say. I didn’t feel I had a right…I am absolutely certain I could not have written any of these books earlier in my life,” she added.

“That’s why I find this stage of life so exciting. Our authenticity is emerging. That sense of authority is coming forward.”