Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Susan E. Davis: Writer, Editor, Activist, Comrade


[Book Division Co-Chairs Susan E. Davis and Edward Hasbrouck at the 2012 NWU Delegate Assembly, New York City. Photo by NWUsletter editor Sue Katz.]

Susan E. Davis, a leader for many decades in the National Writers Union (including as Co-Chair with me of the Book Division of the NWU) and in other struggles for a better world for all, died peacefully in her sleep at a hospice near her home in Manhattan on September 26, 2020, after suffering a massive stroke in her apartment at Penn South a month earlier.

Sue joined the NWU in 1987 to celebrate finishing the first draft of the novel she eventually self-published in 2011 as Love Means Second Chances. (Note to aspiring authors: You don’t have to write books, or have finished a book manuscript, to become a member of the NWU!)

Sue served her NWU sisters and brothers as External Organizing Vice President (2004-2005), Assistant National Grievance Officer (2005-2007) National Contract Advisor and Co-Chair of the Grievance and Contract Division (2007 - 2018), National Contract and Grievance Officer and Chair of the Grievance and Contract Committee (2018 until her death), Co-Chair of the Book Division (2005-2018), Co-Chair of the New York Chapter, and member of the Women’s Committee.

Sue brought to the NWU a long background in publishing and activism.

From 1964-1970, Sue worked at McGraw-Hill as one of the women who did most of the editorial work in a book publishing industry where most of the decisions were made by men. Sue initiated a petition demanding that McGraw Hill — which had published Eldridge Cleaver’s bestseller Soul on Ice — contribute some of the profits to Cleaver’s legal and political defense. Sue also helped organize a women’s liberation group and a “Social Issues Forum” among McGraw-Hill employees. The last straw for McGraw Hill management, apparently, was when Sue began handing out pledge cards as part of a union organizing campaign. McGraw-Hill fired her for “terrorism, obscenity, and interfering with the authority of a superior,” and her firing became a cause célèbre for women in publishing.

Sue carried on as a freelance and sometimes staff editor of books, magazines, and trade publications.

The books Sue was especially proud to have edited include Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions (by John Catalinotto, World View Forum, 2017), and an anthology, Women Under Attack: Victories, Backlash and the Fight for Reproductive Freedom (South End Press, 1999).

In addition to her work for women’s liberation and reproductive rights, Sue was very active in the draft resistance and GI movements. In 1969, she helped organize a women-led anti-war march (I think that’s Sue in the middle of the front line) on Fort Dix, NJ, where 38 GIs were on trial for “mutiny”. In 1971, Sue’s work as copyeditor of the American Servicemen’s Union newspaper, The Bond, earned her an honorable mention in a report by the House Internal Security Committee about their “Investigation of Attempts to Subvert the United States Armed Forces.”

Sue’s work against white supremacy and in support of Black liberation long predated her membership in the NWU, and included a leading role in the NWU’s ongoing support of our member the journalist and author Mumia Abu-Jamal.

As a contributing editor of the Workers World newspaper, Sue volunteered one day a week as copyeditor and wrote articles including a column on labor activism, “On the Picket Line.”

Like many authors who don’t have children, Sue’s most important legacy may be her books, especially her novel, Love Means Second Chances. (Sue also wrote several non-fiction books.) As Sue discussed in articles and interviews, her novel was in many ways the culmination of her personal journey and her decades of work for reproductive freedom. That work also included volunteering with the Haven Coalition to host women who came to New York City for abortions they couldn’t get, or couldn’t get anonymously, in the places where they live.

Writing and publishing her novel was itself a long struggle for Sue, as it is for many writers and perhaps especially for self-publishers. That struggle gave Sue profound empathy for the NWU members she worked with, and advocated for, through the Book Division and the Grievance and Contract Division (later renamed the Grievance and Contract Committee). Sue’s work in the NWU exemplifies mutual aid between workers and our ability to help each other speak for ourselves and advocate for our own collective interests.

As National Contract Advisor and National Contract and Grievance Officer, Sue selected, trained, mentored, and supervised the volunteers who advise on contracts and handle grievances. She was always available to help any advisor or to step in where needed. She was especially committed to the importance of the GCC’s contract advisement work with individual members, which is the most active part of the GCC’s activities, in the belief that a good contract is the best way to avoid a grievance.

Although I had been a member of the NWU (and a beneficiary of contract advice from the GCD for my first book) since 1995, I didn’t meet Sue until I came to the NWU Delegate Assembly for the first time in 2009. Susan encouraged me to accept a nomination from the floor to join her as Co-Chair of the Book Division. Sue welcomed me warmly into the NWU community of activists and a successful working partnership, which grew into friendship, as co-chairs.

Sue was an excellent editor. Although the NWU has always included freelance editors in its membership, I’ve rarely heard much discussion within the NWU about the role of editors.

The relationship between writer and editor is, at its best, a partnership. But the editing side of this working marriage is often treated like other “women’s work”: invisible and undervalued. The “real” creative work is seen as having been done by the writer of the first draft, even if it was incoherent and unpublishable. The author’s name appears on the cover or in the byline, while one has to dig through the fine print of front matter or masthead to find who the editor was, if they are named at all.

I’m not an easy writer to edit, which is part of why I have so much respect for good editors.

It is perhaps the highest praise a writer can give an editor to say that it was a true pleasure to have Sue edit most of what I wrote, and what we wrote together, for the NWU. Nobody has been able to do as much to improve my drafts. Not my mother, who certainly edits my writing with love and who has been, among other professions, a legal and technical editor; nor my best beloved, who has gone above and beyond in being willing to copyedit my writing in a pinch; nor the editors of my books, with whom I have had excellent relationships despite my conflicts with some publishing corporations.

Sue’s editing was concerned with more than grammar, punctuation, and style (none of which are my strengths). Sue was able to think about how our words would be read by their intended audience, and to see where they would be understood differently from what we intended — or not understood at all.

Sue was a savvy strategic and tactical thinker, and we had long talks about how the work we were doing — including the words we used, as writers, on behalf of the NWU — would lead to the results we sought. Our goal as co-chairs and representatives of the NWU was to say what NWU members would want said, and to encourage them to speak for themselves, not to impose our views on them.

The NWU is the most diverse organization of writers in the U.S. (and one of the most diverse in the world, from what I’ve seen representing the NWU internationally). That gives a heavy responsibility, and creates a difficult task, for NWU leaders and spokespeople. It’s not just that we disagree about what’s in our interests, or how to achieve it: Sometimes different NWU members have different interests in the same policy question. Deciding what position the NWU should take isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about trying to push through a decision that favors writers like ourselves over some other subset of our fellow writers. Rather, we should try to be conscious of our diversity, listen to others, and think about how our collective actions will affect all our members and other writers, including those who write in different genres or media or who have different business models.

In the work I saw, Sue always kept the cause ahead of whatever personal interest she might have had in each decision, and tried to find ways forward that wouldn’t throw some of our comrades under the bus.

Sue cared about people. She was unafraid to speak up for what she thought was right, but her criticisms were of ideas and proposals for action, not personal invective.

Sue and I were almost a generation apart in age and had very different political philosophies. That never got in the way of our working together, nor of our friendship. We often disagreed, but I can’t remember either of us being personally angry at the other. Our relationship became one of the most important political and working partnerships of my life, and I will miss Sue very much.

Sue’s death is a loss for the NWU and for all the causes for which she worked. It is for all of us who knew her, worked with her, learned from her, and loved her to carry on that work.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 30 September 2020, 10:14 (10:14 AM)
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