By Merrill Perlman, JAWS Board Member
It’s time to confess: I was a JAWS denier.
In the early years of JAWS, Betsy Wade and Joan Cook urged me to join. Why did I need JAWS? I thought to myself. I was already at a wonderful place in my career at The New York Times (the second woman to be the chief of a major news copy desk, Betsy, of course, being the first). I didn’t need a group of women to validate my success. I demurred, more than once, and they stopped asking.
Fast-forward to 2006, more than 15 years later. I was now the director of copy desks at The Times, the largest department in terms of people reporting to it, more than 160. There were other women in top jobs at The Times, but I had little camaraderie with them. I needed something by way of a support group, a sounding board.
I honestly don’t remember how JAWS came to my attention again. But I decided to go to my first CAMP, in Sun Valley, Idaho. Like so many people who have said as much, I had a lot of trepidation: Would I have anything in common with these women? Would they accept me only because I worked where I did?
It was love at CAMP 101. There was Kay Mills, whom I’d admired for years and had a passing acquaintance with. Though she didn’t remember me at all, she later confessed, she greeted me like a long-lost friend. I was giddy at dinner, sitting at a table with people whose bylines I grew up reading and who were inspirations for me in journalism: Linda Deutsch, Edie Lederer, Fran Lewine. There were ready-made friends, like Pam Moreland and Cheryl Hampton, whom I’d run into at journalism conferences, and many, many new friends, like Megan Kamerick and Nancy Day and Peg Simpson. And I discovered a cousin I never knew I had, Bunny Drell.
I was hooked. I didn’t need JAWS, but I wanted it.
As so often happens, suddenly I was on the board.
At leadership training at our spring meeting in 2008 on the wonderful Stanford campus, we were supposed to talk about things in our jobs or our lives that were problems to be resolved. Instead, I dissolved. I was no longer happy in my job, the Times was not happy with me, and I was agonizing whether to take a buyout. I told everyone at that meeting who would listen. And they all responded, with encouragement and advice, and even a couple of comments like “are you crazy? Leave the New York (——ing) Times?!?!?” This was and is what JAWS is all about: support and honest advice.
I’ve given to JAWS, but I’ve gotten more from JAWS. Listening to people like Stacy-Marie Ishmael, or Stephanie Yamkovenko, or Hilary Powell makes me realize how little I know, despite my many years in the business. Talking to people like Elaine Mendus or Donna Myrow or Melissa Ludtke makes me realize that, no matter what I went through in my career, I had it relatively easy. The fabulous listserv reminds me again and again how important this network of support is.
It is not an exaggeration to say that JAWS gave me much of the courage to leave the Times and embark on what has turned out to be a fabulous pseudo-retirement. It is not an exaggeration to say that every time I think of JAWS, I go back to those shaded picnic tables, not too far from the Gates of Hell, and remember.
I need JAWS.