Better Late Than Never

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March 11 2010 12:03 PM

Better Late Than Never

A couple of days ago the New York Times ' sports section reported on the fascinating saga of Dorothy Jane Mills , who, for several decades beginning around 1950, assisted her husband, the historian Harold Seymour, in writing a three-volume scholarly history of baseball. More than assisted: She co-wrote it, but received little recognition at the time and, it would seem, precious little thanks from her husband.
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Seymour, according to the Times , initially was Mills' American history professor; as his student she typed up his lectures, got in the habit of critiquing them, fell in love, married him, and helped research his dissertation. According to the Times' account, when Oxford University Press arranged to publish it, Mills "conducted research, devised outlines and rewrote sections" but "kept quiet when she received no credit on the cover and barely even in the acknowledgments in the first volume and its sequel, published in 1972."
By the third book, Seymour was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and so Mills wrote most of it. When she asked her husband (whom she always addressed by his last name) for co-author credit, she says, he refused. Asked why she didn't go ahead and put her name on the cover, she said, "I couldn’t do that to him. I couldn’t change things. No. He felt they were his books. Even though I knew better, I couldn’t alter that."

Seymour is now dead, and Mills-who remarried, continued writing under her own byline, and, at 81, is working on a novel-continued to resent her lack of credit. She began talking and writing about her contributions after he died, and subsequent reporters confirmed the work she did. This month, when the Society for American Baseball Research chose to honor Seymour and his series with an award, she fumed and so, apparently, did female members of SABR. After a bit of a kerfluffle, she, too, was honored. " 'Everyone assumed that he had done all that work by himself-that’s what he wanted them to assume, but we were equal partners,' " Mills is quoted saying. "'He just couldn’t share credit. And I didn’t say anything at the time, because at the time, wives just didn’t do that.' "
The Times suggests that what may have been going on was "intellectual spousal abuse," an interesting concept and one I had not heard of before. The term introduces the possibility that even when a wife-or, I guess, a husband-agrees to contribute work to a spouse's project and have it go uncredited, it may not be truly consensual. Or wasn't, back then. Her speaking up after the fact reminds me of situations in which a woman goes public about alleged sexual harassment that occurred in the past. I have always thought the dynamics of those situations easy to understand. There are lots of factors that can mitigate against speaking up at the time, but at a certain point-often when the alleged harasser is about to get a major promotion involving public glory, supervision of lots more women, or, say, a major judgeship-it becomes harder to stay quiet.

More to the point, reading the piece, I also thought of recent instances where a wife contributes significantly to work published under her husband's byline. A year or so again there was much discussion of the fact that writer Dan Baum acknowledged that his wife, Margaret Knox, does a great deal of editing and organizing on his bylined work. We blogged about it, and the American Prospect published a thoughtful post that received a number of comments including some suggesting that whatever consenting adult writers consent to is their business. Others found the arrangement troubling, given the history of women typing their husbands' theses and not getting credit. More recently, Jezebel meditated on a profile of Paul Krugman that shows his wife, the economist Robin Wells, has done a fair amount of editing of his work. Jezebel writes that "it's hard not to see their relationship in the context of a larger pattern of famous male writers and their devoted, semi-invisible wives."

Marriage is such a complex arrangement, involving competition, support, synergy, compromise, cheerleading, constructive criticism, unconstructive criticism, etc. How much help is OK? How much uncredited help is OK? If you'd credit a research assistant, shouldn't you credit a spouse? How do we think about these things in the era of companionate marriage and wives with degrees and accomplishments? If the husband cheerfully acknowledges the help-as Seymour clearly did not, back then-is it OK? If the wife is OK with providing the help uncredited-as Mills, apparently, really wasn't, even back then-is it OK? The Mills case is a useful reminder that what a person agrees to at the time sometimes rankles, later, under altered circumstances. But then, that's true of many things in marriage. One wonders if spousal co-writing will ever factor into a divorce settlement and if so, how that will be untangled.

Then again, in this case technology, or maybe just technological glitches, can also mete out a peculiar justice: Looking for Seymour's books on Amazon, I noted that Mills (who also wrote under the name Dorothy Z. Seymour) is credited as an author in the blurbs advertising the paperback versions of the baseball history (though her name is not on the cover, as far as I can tell). And in some cases, thanks to computer truncating or something, Dorothy Seymour is named in the blurb as the sole author of the book. So, at least in that way, she gets the last laugh.

Liza Mundy is the director of the Breadwinners and Caregivers Program at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex.

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