Peggy Simpson’s remarks at Kay Mills Memorial

By Peg Simpson

When I think of Kay, these are some of the words that come to mind:
Gutsy, energetic, smart, driven, sharp-tongued, cantankerous, impatient, generous.

These conflict, you say. As Betty Anne would say: SO???!! Kay was a complex person. Despite her abundant skills, she could come across as self-effacing. I can’t recall her ever promoting herself even when she should have.

She was self-confident and sure-footed, however.

She might have come across as California cool. She did talk low and talk deliberately – especially compared to some of today’s fast-talking blowhards.
Her style hid a lot of passion, however, including about the still continuing force to expand “women’s place” in the world today, about the still-continuing civil rights movement.

She certainly knew the leaders but it was the stories of people on the ground she wanted to tell — and did, including a fantastic book on Fannie Lou Hamer.

I met Miz Hamer when the newly formed National Women’s Political Caucus brought her from Mississippi to the halls of Congress in 1971 to urge Democratic presidential candidates to slate as many women delegates as men in the upcoming nominating convention.
Heaven forbid. I covered Miz Hamer’s news conference – it was my first of many stories on this new movement – and maybe it had some impact.

Kay saved string on Miz Hamer, however, and eventually wrote a dynamite book about her life story.

Kay and Eileen Shanahan and I basically invented beats on the national women’s political movement in 1971-72 when lots of new groups were founded. The very idea of a “women’s movement” was a laughing matter for some – including, you remember, President Nixon, who used a White House press event to rib Helen Thomas and Fran Lewine about the first meeting national women’s political caucus….about those women who wore trousers.

Nixon’s ridicule helped put the Caucus on the map.

It also energized Kay and Shanny and me to find innovative ways to not just do our core beats – for Newhouse, the New York Times and the AP – but to learn the players in this new women’s movement and to understand the legislative proposals they were pushing in Congress. We were so busy covering the movement, we rarely talked about how we did what we did.

Thank goodness, Kay pulled back and wrote a book published in 1988 about the fight by women in the media to get ahead – which also shed light on the formative coverage of the women’s political movement. I hope this groundbreaking book — “A Place in the News – from the Women’s Pages to the Front pages” – stays in print and stays in lots of classrooms.

I know I’m supposed to think of things funny to say about Kay. I just keep thinking of ways she relished life in all its twists and turns:

** Kay loved those great national parks in California…..and she loved introducing them to her friends and I remember her terrorizing some New Yorkers who had grave trepidations about it all, until they saw the beauty of it with Kay.

** She loved mysteries and introduced many of us to her favorite mystery writers, young and old, most of them women–

** As a Texan, I shared her passion for succulents and know how much she prized the great cactus and succulent gardens in LA …..and then in her own yard.

** And, professionally, she just kept on learning …..and sharing what she knew, including how to navigate the bumps in the road.

When she started writing books, she pulled some chairs around a tree at the next JAWS retreat and did the first “how to” seminar on finding an agent and writing a book proposal. She told what she’d done right, what she’d done wrong. She paved the way for today’s JAWS camps where book agents and publishing house veterans are in our midst, networking with book-writing novices.

Several years ago, Kay started a blog on women – and wrote about how and why she was doing that. She told me at the last JAWS camp that she’d put that on hold, temporarily, to devote full time to finishing her very first mystery. Which of course required long trips to Paris and southern France AND a lot of good food and wine with friends there.

She never stinted on wine at JAWS either. She would snare a large enough suite to fit in a dozen or so long-time JAWS pals who could catch up on each other, late nights after the dinners. But – as the testimonials on the JAWS listserv have shown — she also made time to talk to lots of JAWS younguns.

Back when she and I were covering the early women’s movement, there was an insidious description for some of the “first women” who got ahead and then pulled the ladders up behind them.
The Queen Bees.

That sure wasn’t Kay.

She was all about keeping those doors open, of making sure that the pipelines to power, in the media and out, will include lots of savvy and committed women prepared to right the wrongs of the world.

And for that, we’re all grateful.