Nora Ephron may not be the type of activist we think of today -- camping out in Zuccotti Park taking on Wall Street. But through the trailblazing, stalwart qualities of her work, the author and screenwriter has long been an advocate for people and causes in need of a spotlight.
Ephron, who died Tuesday in New York, where she was being treated for myeloid leukemia and pneumonia, may be most remembered for her keen, snappy cultural observations and inspirational witticisms, but she also leaves us with a body of work that created real change, waves of which we feel today.
Ephron is best known for writing movies such as "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle," but her most defining work may be bringing to life such characters as Karen Silkwood, a whistle-blowing activist whose story was the inspiration for the 1983 movie "Silkwood." In that film, Meryl Streep played the title role, and Cher played Dolly Pelliker, a lesbian who pushed for union rights and fought against Big Energy.
In an interview with The Advocate in 2009, Ephron said of Cher's character: "That I really do think was a breakthrough. I don't mean that she was the first gay character in a mainstream movie, but this was no joking, winking, interior decorator gay person; it was a person.”
Ephron also paved a new kind of women's movement. The founding editor of HuffPost's Divorce section, who was married three times, used her own experiences and views on relationships to make both heartbreak, success and empowerment part of the dialogue.
She toppled barriers -- starting as a mail girl at Newsweek because the magazine didn't hire female writers; writing screenplays because it allowed her to work from home when her children were small; becoming a director at a time when there were no women at the helm of big-budget feature films; writing bestsellers, and a Broadway show, and succeeding at each one. "Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim," she said in a 1996 speech to the graduating class of Wellesley College (from which she graduated in 1962).
But most of all, she opened doors. By putting the female experience on the screen and on the page, she made it visible, and worthy, and she elevated it to the level of art.
Though Ephron wasn't a hugely vocal advocate for specific causes, when she believed in something, she made it known. Becoming one of the great blogging evangelists -- so ascribed by Arianna Huffington -- Ephron used her platform to call attention to issues she deemed important.
In 2007, Ephron, who got her start in journalism and worked for titles such as Newsweek, the New York Post, and Esquire, called on readers to make a contribution to the Innocence Project. The litigation and public policy organization seeks to exonerate individuals serving time for crimes they did not commit.
It seems to me that the Innocence Project has done a huge amount to undermine support for the death penalty -- which this week was outlawed in the state of New Jersey. What's more, they're a relatively small organization that my contribution will make a difference to.
Perhaps Ephron, as an advocate, most importantly leaves us with a number of inspiring phrases to remember her by. As she penned in her book "Heartburn":
“And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”
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