Helen Thomas as I'm sure everyone on the Internet read today, retired after making controversial comments about Israel/Palestine. Adam Serwer had some good things to say on the subject. I, like Adam, am not going to defend her remarks themselves. I don't think anyone really is. But I thought I'd recount my own personal reaction to Helen Thomas' retirement, since -- hell -- it's my blog.
I had the honor of actually sitting at the same table with Helen Thomas at some feminist event a while back (I can't even remember which one) at the National Press Club, and was fascinated to hear her personal accounts of starting a career in journalism, well, before women really had careers, in journalism or otherwise. She told us a story of an event where women were given awards for their work in journalism and the presenters wanted to hold the event, of course, at the National Press Club. But back then, women weren't even allowed to be members of the National Press Club, so the award ceremony couldn't be held there, since the women wouldn't be allowed inside.
It is for that reason that I respect and admire Thomas. She is a fiercely independent woman who fought her way through endless sexism and injustice and was never afraid to speak her mind while doing it. Others remember her for asking the tough questions of the Bush administration when everyone else was afraid to. She had too much seniority to care what President George W. Bush or his colleagues thought -- and she had too much seniority to be kicked out for asking the questions.
But. And there is a but.
Thomas wasn't always right about things. In fact, when I saw her speak at a feminist conference in 2008, I was dismayed to hear her echo the sentiments of Gloria Steinem and other second-wave feminists who seemed to be claiming that Barack Obama's popularity was proof that racism had long faded and sexism remained real and present as Hillary Clinton's campaign floundered. I can't necessarily blame her for her sentiment. It seemed common enough among women of her generation, who marched the marches and fought the fights in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. But a lot of young women sitting in the room with Thomas felt she was out of touch and that playing oppression Olympics wouldn't do anyone any good. Her recent remarks seem to reflect the same idea.
I believe Thomas, like so many prominent figures in politics and public life -- not just today, but throughout history -- have to be viewed in a complicated way. You have to acknowledge both the great strides and the shortcomings. To do less is not to do justice to these fixtures in public life.