Ellen Holtz Goodman

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Ellen Holtz Goodman

An American journalist, Ellen Holtz Goodman (born 1941) won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. She wrote about issues that spanned the range from personal to political.

Ellen Goodman was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on April 11, 1941, the daughter of a Boston lawyer/politician of some social standing, Jackson Jacob Holtz, and Edith Weinstein Holtz. Her father died in 1966, when she was 25 years old. He twice had been a Democratic candidate for Congress from Brookline, an affluent suburb, in the Eisenhower years (the 1950s). In her youth Ellen lived a conventional upper-middle-class life. She later wrote in the introduction to one of her books, Turning Points (1979), that she wanted everything to stay the same: "I wanted to live in the same house, go to the same school, keep the same friends … forever."

Goodman attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1963 with a degree in modern European history (cum laude), and married Anthony Goodman, a medical student, within a week of graduation. They had a daughter, Katherine Anne, then were divorced in 1971. Before that, the couple went to New York, where she got her first job, at Newsweek (1963-1965) as a researcher/reporter. Looking back, Goodman said that in the early 1960s women were researcher and men were writers, and even in the mid 1970s men reported on hard news and women covered soft news. "When I first became a columnist," she recalled in 1996, "one of the things I was most interested in doing was breaking down those lines. I always had the sense that life spilled over the retaining walls."

Her husband's career brought the pair to Detroit, where she landed a job as a feature writer at the Detroit Free Press (1965-1967), but again her husband's profession called him, this time to Boston, where they returned in 1967. She was hired as a feature writer by the Boston Globe, then became an associate editor in 1984.

In 1970, when the Boston Globe opened the editorial page to women's issues, Goodman began writing Op-Ed columns. Then came a year-long Nieman Fellowship at Harvard (1973-1974), her At Large column in the Globe (beginning in 1974), and her successful syndication with the Washington Post Writers Group (1976). By the mid 1990s, her column reached more than 440 newspapers around the country. Television appearances, public speaking engagements, and the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary (1980) attested to the popularity of her writing.

Goodman's columns covered a wide range of topics, including parenting, divorce, alternative life-styles, feminism, male-female employment roles, and even gardening. In the late 1960s and early 1970s her work also addressed the antiwar and civil rights movements, plus the emerging feminist movement. She wrote about lesbianism in the U.S. Army, feminine hygiene sprays, and whether American women should shave their legs. The sharp change in the U.S. national frame of mind from the reformist 1970s to the more conservative 1980s, coupled with her 1982 marriage to Robert Levey (a colleague and national reporter with the Boston Globe), provided some clues to the changed tone of Goodman's newspaper columns. Her writing style remained incisive but became less confrontational.

Her basic audience was American women, many of them college-educated, white-collar, with two-careers, and made to feel that they were individuals in an increasingly uniform society. For some readers Goodman's commentary was meaningful and penetrating; others found it to be predictable. Goodman was not a creator of public policy, instead describing herself as an "observer." She thought that she spoke for the homemaker. "Try to find the obituary of a homemaker someday…. There's almost no voice for private lives in the newspapers." She rejected the notion that her topics were trivial. In a 1996 speech in Oakland, California she referred to a slogan from the feminist movement, "The personal is political," and applied the phrase to the focus of her work: "It meant that the things that people cared about and were involved in in their private lives, things like child care or abortion or the food you ate, also had a political context."

Five collections of Ellen Goodman's newspaper columns have been published: Close to Home (1979), At Large (1981), Keeping in Touch (1985), Making Sense (1989), and Value Judgments (1993). She also authored a book, Turning Points (1979), which explored how Americans coped with changes brought about by the feminist movement. Critics missed Goodman's sense of humor in this book, believing that she was a livelier writer doing editorial columns than in producing an extended volume.

Goodman received numerous awards for her reporting and writing. She was honored with the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award in 1980; the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1988; the President's Award from the National Women's Political Caucus in 1993; and the American Woman Award by the Women's Research and Education Institute in 1994.

Further Reading

Neil Grauer's Wits and Sages (1984) and Barbara Belford's Brilliant Bylines (1986), both contain chapters on Ellen Goodman. She is also the focus of a brief piece in American Women Writers, Volume 5 (1994). Colorado Business (April 1981) contains a report on Ellen Goodman's ideas. Ms. (July 1983) includes an article by Ellen Goodman: "The Turmoil of Teenage Sexuality." Additional information can be found in David Astor's article in Editor and Publisher (June 16, 1984); Washington Journalism Review (January/February 1980; (September 1980); National Review (February 14, 1986). □