Adventures in Feministory: Grace Paley

Paley at a protest shrugging her shoulders optimistically Activist, poet, mother, writer, Jewish woman, pacifist—it's hard to pick what defined Grace Paley. Born in the Bronx in 1922, Paley went on to publish award winning works of poetry and fiction, to be an active member of both the anti-war and women's movement, to teach writing at Sarah Lawrence, and used her poetry as a weapon well into her eighties.

Paley, in a housedress, being escorted down some stairs by a police officer

Here are just some reasons why Grace Paley was an all-around badass:

· Mickey Mouse club it's not--as a child, Paley was in a Socialist youth group, and growing up during the Great Depression, she could see first-hand the truth in the anti-capitalist songs they learned. Both her parents had been persecuted in Russia for their political beliefs, and they had a huge impact on her future politicization. Can you imagine kids in clubs today learning about how we're in a recession because of the Fat Cats?

· In 1969, she traveled to Hanoi as part of a peace-making delegation, and helped facilitate the release of several American POWs. She was sent as an American delegate to the World Peace Conference in 1974 in Moscow.

· She was one of the "White House Eleven" arrested in 1978 for demonstrating against nuclear power on the White House lawn.

· Besides being a pioneer for the War Resisters League and the eco-feminist group Women's Pentagon Action, she was also an early yarn-bomber! One of the ways the WPA protested the arms race was to weave the doors of the Pentagon shut.

· Norman Mailer was Chair of the 1986 PEN Congress, and appallingly invited Reagan's Secretary of State, George Schultz, to speak at the conference. Paley made a ruckus over the decision, but Mailer ignored her, saying he wouldn't be "pussy-whipped." Paley's response, along with several other women writers, was to stage a protest WITHIN the conference about invitation as well as the appalling lack of women panelists featured that year. Read more about the incident here.

Paley at a table surrounded by college students

Paley's writing ranged from political poetry to post-modern fiction. Her collections of short stories include Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day. Her Collected Stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Grace Paley told her students to "Write what you don't know about what you do know." Her work was greatly informed by the who she grew up around, she wrote about the daily lives of working women and mothers. When asked by the Paris Review about if she "opened doors" for women writers along with Tillie Olsen, she responded,

I hope so. Of course that's not up to me or Tillie to say, Yes, there was the door and we opened it—we can't say that. It's not nice. I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It's what I have to write. It's what I want to read. And I don't see it out there.

an older Paley outside at night. there is a small, full moon in the background

You can hear Grace Paley (and her great Bronx accent) with Nawal El Saadawi and Paule Marshall on a Democracy Now! episode from 2000. (Paley passed away in 2007). You can search for her on YouTube, but I also recommend seeking out the 2009 film Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a documentary on her life, featuring interviews with Paley herself, her family, and her artist and activist friends (like Alice Walker and Vivian Gornick!) Also, check out this tribute to Paley at PEN, where writers like Katha Pollitt, Walter Mosley, Eve Ensler, and others remember Grace. Photo at left from

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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2 Comments Have Been Posted


Thanks for this excellent introduction to Paley. Although I'm writing a dissertation on women writers and feminist movements during the past fifty years, I'm ashamed to say that I'm not familiar with her work at all. I'm off to remedy that ASAP!

Grace Paley's stories changed

Grace Paley's stories changed my life, and I'm thrilled to see this reference to Tillie Olsen, too, because her "Silences" about women writers, also changed my life. Amazing women. Thank you for the pix, too.

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