Respond to this Article March 1992

Without Fear or Females

The New York Times' girl trouble.

By Marjorie Williams

Nan Robertson's disappointed love for The New York Times dates back to 1955, when she was hired to work for the "women's page" way up on the ninth floor--one of the few reporting jobs open to a young woman at the Times in 1955.

The Girls in the Balcony
by Nan Robertson
Random House, $22.00

Those who passed through the ninth floor, including women who bore such later-famous bylines as Gloria Emerson and Charlotte Curtis, lived in a different ethical universe from the men who labored in the city room six floors below. "Fashion was New York City's most important advertising industry," Robertson writes. "We were never allowed to forget it." She and her colleagues were expected to produce burbling "news" stories about major retailers in precise proportion to each store's advertising outlay at the Times--a practice rigorously policed, down to the column inch, by the paper's advertising director.

It was, among other things, a perfect sign of the paper's contempt toward its women employees. Men took care of delivering the news without fear or favor, while women were delegated the dirty job of bringing in the cash.

Robertson eventually made her way down to the third floor and later to the Washington and Paris bureaus. But her work on the women's page was only one of many humiliating experiences in what she describes as an almost unrelieved history of piggery at America's most important newspaper. Early and late, ambitious women have been shocked to learn that journalism harbors as much sexism as the next trade. Vested power is at stake; discrimination against latecomers is the rule. Even so, Robertson argues, the Times has a long history of unusual hostility to women: "Look back on the landscape of 19th and early 20th century journalism," she writes:

Nowhere is it emptier of women than on The New York Times. While Nellie Bly (the pen name for Elizabeth Cochrane) was whizzing around the planet in 72 days or locking herself into insane asylums to do front-page stories for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World; while Rheta Childe Dorr was going off to the Russian Revolution for The New York Mail; while William Randolph Hearst of the Hearst chain and Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard chain and Joseph Patterson of The New York Daily News and Colonel Robert McCormick of The Chicago Tribune were pushing their women stars, The New York Times stood fast against what it was sure was the weaker sex.

Adolph Ochs, publisher from 1896 to 1935, was frankly opposed to hiring any women at all, and editorialized against female suffrage. Even during World War II, when the man shortage dramatically broadened women's opportunities at other newspapers--and when the more tolerant Arthur Hays Sulzberger had taken over--The New York Times stood fast against hiring women replacements when male reporters were called up.

It wasn't until the late fifties and early sixties that women began to crack the city room in any numbers. They were greeted with, at best, a tolerant condescension.

In some of the book's best passages, Robertson details the Times's bland sexism toward even its most successful female reporters and its disregard for all the obstacles they had to hurdle simply to get their jobs done. In 1963, for example, when the recently anointed publisher Punch Sulzberger came down to meet the Washington bureau staff, bureau chief James Reston happily took the entire group to the Metropolitan Club--excepting, of course, the bureau's three female reporters, one of whom was Robertson, who weren't allowed in the club's dining room.

Another of the three, Marjorie Hunter, complained to Reston one day about the indignity that gives this book its title--the National Press Club's policy that women were permitted to cover the club's prestigious newsmaker luncheons only from the cramped, hot balcony of the room, while their male colleagues took notes and ate lunch in comfort below. Reston's response, writes Robertson, was to turn to a male colleague and ask "with an air of innocent wonderment, 'What's wrong with Maggie?'" When the bureau's three women resolved to boycott these assignments, Robertson remembers, Reston "was not only baffled by the fuss, he was quietly furious."

Casual slights were routine. Dan Schwarz, the Sunday editor, once wrote to a colleague who had recommended a young woman for a job, "What does she look like? Twiggy? Lynn Redgrave? Perhaps you ought to send over her vital statistics, or picture in a bikini?" A Times personnel director ended his otherwise glowing performance review of a woman mail clerk with the notation, "Weak points: May lack education, and may overdress."

These memoranda, which came to light as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed in 1974, merely provided written evidence of an attitude already amply displayed by women's salaries and slow career ascents. In the early seventies, empowered by the women's movement, female reporters who had begun to organize learned from their union's payroll records that they probably had a good case against the paper.

The core of Robertson's book is an account of the lawsuit, Boylan v. The New York Times, which was settled in 1978, before it went to trial, on terms that enabled both sides to claim partial victory--but that unquestionably cautioned the Times to do better by its women. In many ways, it's a drama typical of its time: How shocked these women were to realize, after months and years of reasoned negotiation, that the guys still held all the cards and had little intention of sharing them. How shocked these men were to learn that their protestations of good will and affectionate paternalism were not enough to keep the women content.

Columnist manifesto

The lawsuit, related in voluminous detail, is in some ways the least compelling part of the book. Regrettably, the author has her own myopia where the Times is concerned. She has spent almost all of her career there, and it is an act of bravery for her to criticize so harshly an institution she clearly loves. But there's an annoying inside-baseball quality to the book, whose every page seems subtly colored by the assumption that anything on the subject of The New York Times is interesting.

Robertson fails her material in two ways. She never addresses whether her perceptions of the Times might apply to some larger world. Where a more objective writer might conclude that the Times was (and is) quite typical in its behavior toward women, Robertson sees a magnificent institution that shockingly failed, in this one area, to meet its vaunted ideals. She insists on seeing the Times as special, and never effectively explains why anyone who doesn't draw a Times paycheck should care about what really boil down to personnel squabbles.

The most compelling reason, of course, is the news itself: How does the Times's treatment of women affect the world view presented by the paper? Robertson never tells.

Even more disappointing is the way she breezes past the major dilemma that now faces women in any newsroom: the sexual stereotyping of assignments. Today women have more than a token presence on the traditionally "male beats," but it's far less than parity (check out a press conference at the Pentagon or the State Department if you doubt that there are still male beats). A more confounding problem, though, is the existence of women's beats.

Almost any female reporter is aware of her editors' tacit assumption that women should be the ones to assure good coverage of "women's issues," defined in many newsrooms to include abortion, rape, child care and early childhood education, sexual harassment, the feminization of poverty, and more. Often, women reporters are subtly charged with the responsibility of alerting their predominantly male editors to these stories. The message is, Okay, gals, if you say this stuff is important, we'll go with it.

Robertson at times seems to accept the idea that it falls to women to bring a different "voice" to the news. She approvingly paraphrases a male editor who has a good track record in hiring women" "Whereas some men on the national staff tended to pass over or downplay such subjects as birth control or toxic shock, [he said,] the women would say, 'Wait a minute--this is a hell of a story.'"

Interestingly, this is one of the few areas in which newsroom managers suspend their quaint belief that all of their reporters are, and should be, devoid of personal feeling in any matter they cover. Surely there is some unexamined sexism in editors' allowance of a different standard for women: shades of the ninth floor, circa 1955. The problem is a tough one for women (and, in very similar forms, for other minority reporters hired to mix up the white-male makeup of newsrooms). On the one hand, good reporters often produce their best work by pursuing questions that strike some personal chord. Robertson, for one, won a Pulitzer prize for her account of her own dreadful bout with toxic shock syndrome. And often, women reporters do care deeply that these issues get serious coverage by then papers. What the hell, I'll do it myself is sometimes the most rational response to an editorial ethnic that defines news too narrowly.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between a paper tolerating coverage of these issues and taking that coverage seriously. There is something of a vicious cycle at work here: As long as it's up to women to spot and cover these stories, these subjects will continue to be defined as "women's stories," and women who write about them will be perceived as limited reporters. As long as male editors assume that the talented women on their staffs are there to alert them to 'women's stories," those editors will never give appropriate weight to either the women or the stories.

To be sure, men and women often see things differently. If Anita Hill taught us nothing else, she showed how thoroughly divided men and women remain in some dimensions of life. sometimes the best an editor can do is solicit coverage from someone who understands a story better than he does. But journalists should at least aim to have access to universal language, and to achieve the imaginative empathy that ideally enables a man to write persuasively of sexual harassment and a woman to write realistically of combat.

Times fables

Robertson's bias on this issue--an unconscious one, I suspect--shows in her discussion of women who now work at the Times. As a sign of wmen's progress, she points to Anna Quindlen, only the third woman never to have her own column on the TimesTimes. I like Quindlen's work, especially the more personal columns she wrote in her last incarnation, as the author of "In the Thirties." But even on the op-ed page, she tends to stay within the safe harbor of 'women's issues." Dont' get me wrong: She does what she does better than almost anyone else who does it, and hers is a valuable presence in the Times. But Quindlen doesn't seem to pose much challenge to the tradition that assigns men the real power within newspapers.

Dowd, on the other hand, has commanded more traditionally male territory, including politics and the White House. At her best, she's used the privilege of covering these areas to see things no one else does and express them in original (and often wicked) ways. Some of her style is related to gender, I think, and some of it is not; the heartening thing is that the Times values so highly a woman who covers this turf with such originality.

Robertson concludes that the Times today is far fairer to women than it was before the women's movement began, but remains far less fair than it thinks it is. In this, too, the Times strikes me as typical. As one unnamed female editor puts it, "The men running the Times now truly do not believe themselves capable of sexist feelings. Thry have serious wives. They help with the dishes. But they are still looking for, and are only comfortable with, people in their own image--in other words, other white men. They have a joking camaraderie together that rules us out."

Two steps forward, one step back. The Times's ethos today is embodied in Arthu O. "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr., the 40-year-old who succeeded his father as publisher in mid-January. He so prides himself on his enlightenment, Robertson tells us, that he keeps in his desk drawer a types page of excerpts from Marilyn French's book. Beyond Power. After Quindlen wrote an op-ed page piece excoriating her employer for its sleazy article naming the woman who charged William Kennedy Smith had raped her, Pinch made a point of embracing her in the newsroom for all the troops to see.

In the fall of 1990, he described to one of the newsroom's top female managers. Penny Abernathy, his vision of how the Times would change with the times. "I want to leave my son a different newspaper from the one I'm inheriting," he said.

Abernathy was thrilled. It wasn't until she left his office and related the conversation to her own (female) boss that she realized what was wrong with Pinch's democratic vow: Sulzberger, her boss reminded her, also has a daughter.

Marjorie Williams is a Washington writer and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.


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