Our Daily Lives

Hired as a Token, She Used It for a Ride to Court

Thursday, June 15, 2000

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Wade, the New York Times' Practical Traveler columnist, rose from being the first woman on the Times's copy desk to become its first female copy desk chief. Realizing that being a "first" was not enough, in 1974 she became the lead of the seven named plaintiffs in a sex-discrimination class action suit against the Times. Four years later, the Times settled. In the late 1970s, Wade also served as the first women president the Newspaper Guild's New York local.

It is not true that Henry J. Raymond still owned The Times when I went to work as a copy editor [t]here. However, it is true that when I arrived in 1956, a venerable deskman, perhaps groping for something relevant to say to the first women ever seated with a pencil at the green linoleum rim, told me that, although it was not well known, the spelling for the circa-1900 darling of Broadway was Florodora, not Floradora. I copied his offering in the back of my stylebook, but I have still found no need for this bit of arcana.

I became an insider at the Times during a pause in progress, a decade after Rosie the Riveter was told with a pink slip that she had not been hired for keeps after all. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, making gender a prohibited form of employment discrimination, was eight years in the future...

How I got to the copy-desk rim of The Times after more that a hundred years of an all-male cast is a tortuous tale.

Fired by The Herald Tribune as a women's news reporter after I became pregnant in 1953, I was working as an editor and writer for the Scripps-Howard feature syndicate, NEA Service.... Turner Catledge, the Times managing editor, was grousing to whoever would listen about the impossibility of finding competent copy editors. When he presented his lament to the Columbia journalism alumni, I wrote one more time to say,"Try me."

Responding to my letter, Catledge swiftly dealt me off to the women's editor and a painful interview for a reporter's job. Bad show. I was not a Taste Lady. But then Mort Yarmon, the copy editor for Women's News, resigned and I got an embarrassed call from the Times asking if I was still willing to do a tryout for copy editor. . .

When I got pregnant in the fall of 1957, The Times did not fire me but gave me six weeks unpaid leave.. . . When I returned, I was transferred to the City copy desk, and the skirmish between the sexes began in earnest.. . .A whimsical news assistant put a ruffle around the paste pot near me, and the whole get-up was photographed for Times Talk {the in-house magazine}. Smile, Betsy this is a joke.

Tokenism, it was clear, was the prevailing policy. . . .Women's News overflowed with talent, but few made it out of there. Layhmond Robinson was a solitary black beacon in the main newsroom. No one could say if there was a numerical quota for women on the reportorial staff, but there were few there.... Widows were hired as acts of compassion, but there never seemed to be more women on the third floor than the year before. . . .Even if there was no formal quota, I had the feeling that the ghost of the great traditionalist Adolph Ochs hovered over every decision...

After assurances I would not be blocked in seeking the late shift, I moved to the Foreign Desk, where I worked through the Cuban missile crisis. When war seemed like an outcome, the late shift often involved going to sleep at 4 a.m. on top of the desk and occasionally taking the long subway ride home to see how the family was doing. Eventually, in January 1972, after an intense affair with the Pentagon Papers at the Hilton, I progressed to slot man (another archaic job title), where I ultimately found myself with 600 other Times women wedged against a glass ceiling.

About then, Grace Glueck reminded us that women were stirring out there, and maybe we should too. Bestir we did, all the way to federal court. That account was best given by the Pulitzer Prize-winner and all around hero Nan Robertson in "The Girls in the Balcony: Women, and the New York Times." (Random House. You could look it up.)

Excerpted by permission of Times Talk, Eden Ross Lipson, editor.

 

 
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