NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Betsy Wade, an exemplar for hundreds of journalists, sat down for a turn-around–she was the subject of the interview now that she had officially retired from her 45-year career at The New York Times.
Wade took a long, hard look at the tape recorder and the reporter with an opened notebook and pen in her hand and opened her own notebook and began asking questions.
“How do you spell your last name now, Liz?” Wade asked her interviewer. “With a ‘ph,’ correct?” Ever the professional, she carefully spelled out “Liz Randolph” in her notebook and looked up with her intense blue-gray eyes, ready to go on, now that she was assured she had gotten the name right.
Wade has made a habit of getting it right–whether it be the spelling of a name or the position of women in the profession. As a result, she enjoyed an extraordinary career for a dedicated wordsmith and self-admitted trouble-maker: She was the first woman copy reader ever hired by The New York Times, the first woman chief copy editor on the foreign desk and the writer of the Practical Traveler column for 14 years. She was also the first woman to serve as president of the New York local of the Newspaper Guild, the largest in the nation and a named plaintiff in the landmark sex discrimination lawsuit against the Times. (
Born in New York City in 1929, Wade’s family moved from East 43rd Street to the well-to-do suburb of Bronxville, N.Y., when she was 5 years old. Wade was nurtured to love words by her father, Sidney, and by the 7th grade she had decided to become a journalist.
Billie Holiday’s Music Told Her Upsetting People Got Things Done
One of Wade’s more vivid memories of her youth was hearing in 1942 Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit,” when she was at camp Manumit in upstate New York.
“Years later I grasped the idea that somebody had written this song in order to upset people and to perturb them and to stir them to action,” Wade said. “It dawned on me that upsetting people was probably a way of getting things done.”
After two years at Carleton College in Minnesota and two years at Barnard College, Wade went on to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was recognized for her skills as an editor.
She got her first bitter taste of job discrimination at New York’s fabled Herald Tribune, where she was a reporter. She was fired after informing her employer she was pregnant.
After the birth of a son, Wade landed at the Times. In 1956 Wade became the first woman hired as a copy editor.
In 1972, Wade became the first woman there to become head of the foreign copy desk–often a stepping stone to upper management. In this position, she one of the editors charged with preparing the controversial Pentagon Papers–the then-secret documents revealing how the U.S. government had failed to inform its citizens of the true course of the Vietnam War.
She was also a founding member of the newspaper’s Women’s Caucus, formed by a group of women in 1972 to address a growing concern about gender issues at the newspaper.
The caucus researched the gender inequities among the Times’ employees. Out of a workforce of 6,000, roughly 10 percent were female. The women found out from querying the Newspaper Guild local that the average salary of male Times reporters was $59 a week more than the average for female reporters.
In addition, the caucus found that 23 percent of the women there were working for the minimum salary in the range for their jobs; only 6.8 percent of male employees received the lowest permitted compensation. They ascertained that the most senior female reporter earned less than 19 male reporters and half of those men were employed by the Times for a far shorter time.
The caucus was also concerned that the newspaper no longer reflected the concerns of women and that the issues presented on the so-called women’s pages were outdated.
After the caucus presented its grievances in a letter signed by 52 female employees to The New York Times management and received a dismissive response, Wade and co-workers hired a lawyer, Harriet Rabb, of the Columbia Law School’s Employment Rights Project.
In one more first, Wade and six other women journalists put their careers and livelihoods on the line in November 1974 by becoming the seven plaintiffs in the class action against the newspaper for gender discrimination. (The Washington bureau’s reporter covering economics, Eileen Shanahan, was another of the seven. Shanahan died November 1.)The plaintiffs represented all 550 women employed by the Times. In the lawsuit, Wade used her married name, Boylan, so the case is forever known as “Elizabeth Boylan, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The New York Times Company, Defendant.”
But for Betsy, It Would Have Been Different–and Not Better
They made their case in pretrial procedures, and the resulting settlement offer in 1977 included back pay as well as a new plan for the hiring and promotion of women.
“I think Betsy is a ‘but for’ person, as in ‘but for Betsy things would have been different,'” said Harriet Rabb, vice president and general counsel to Rockefeller University. “I think they would have been different for the lawsuit, for the plaintiffs, for the people themselves–the women and the minorities, for the union and for the Times.”
Looking back, Wade says she was motivated by a desire to make things different, and fair.
“I thought maybe we could effect a change,” she said of the lawsuit. “I remember standing on the national desk the night that Geraldine Ferraro was nominated (as the first female vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Walter Mondale in 1984) and looking at the television set. Tears began to roll down my face uncontrollably because I thought, here is a change. Here is a better world. Here is a chance for the girls I left behind me who were high school editors who never made it out of high school and for college editors who ended up trapped someplace.”
In 1975, Wade joined the Newspaper Guild’s International Executive Board as the vice president representing New York Local 3. She served three two-year terms.
In 1979, as part of an insurgent group that included Joan Cook of the Times, Frank Mazza of The Daily News, Joy Cook and Barbara Yuncker of the New York Post, Mel Tapley of the Amsterdam News and Rose Mary Mechem of Time Inc., she was elected president of the 5,000-member Local 3, largest in this AFL-CIO union.
In its four years in office, the group pressed for pay equity between jobs mostly held by men and those mostly held by women, bars to discrimination on the ground of sexual or affectional preference and protection of seniority during maternity leaves.
As a trustee of the multi-million-dollar Guild-Times pension fund, Wade made certain that discriminatory actuarial tables for early retirement were eliminated. In 1979, she wrote a groundbreaking “plain language” pension booklet using gender-neutral terms and unisex names in the examples.
The eight-term reigning president of the Newspaper Guild of New York, Barry Lipton, recalled Wade as a crusader for all newspaper employees.
“Betsy was an activist in the guild in the 1970s and early 80s and she represented a particular point of view,” said Lipton. “But she worked hard to achieve what she thought was in the best interest of newspaper workers.”
Being a leader at the paper and the “first woman who …” put her, as she described it, at the forefront of a wedge that she’d expected would continue moving forward and upward with women filling in and filing in behind her. But Wade was out in the lead alone.
“A young woman from Local 91 of the garment workers union said to me once, ‘Don’t go out on a limb by yourself because they’ll sure saw it off,'” recalled Wade. “I was extremely worried about being out there by myself for a long time, and I was always very relieved when women were hired and they came along behind me, but they weren’t coming along very fast.”
Wade, Wedged Into Corner, Leaves News Side
And the Times did exact a price from Wade. In 1987, she was convinced by her superiors to leave her editing post and the news desk to take over the Practical Traveler column from Paul Grimes, who left for Conde Nast. Wade clearly expressed her desire to stay in the news department, a place for which she had worked so hard, but she eventually took the post.
“I wasn’t just on the glass ceiling,” said Wade. “I was wedged into a corner. So this was a way out.”
With a weekly byline, she became known internationally for getting it right–this time about airfares and liability of insurance companies. And her passion for precision in language carried over to her new assignment.
“Betsy is a real news hound,” said Ursula Mahoney, a just-retired photo editor for the Times’ travel section and a long-time colleague. “She went after facts relentlessly, and she wanted to feel proud of the work she did. Working with her meant knowing what journalism should be and what it could be. She has so much integrity.”
In her retirement, Wade is determined to never “live life looking in the rear view mirror” and is looking forward to teaching a course on journalism and public policy at the Hunter College Graduate School of Urban Affairs. She also plans to write an authoritative pamphlet on travelers’ medical and legal issues, to be made available through doctors.
As for The New York Times, Wade was pleased that political columnist Gail Collins was finally made head of the editorial page.
“It is never too late, but it is so late and so long in coming,” said Wade. “They had plenty of women who were as qualified as Gail years before, and they turned them aside.”
Elizabeth Randolph is a free-lance writer based in New York. She previously was content editor of Women’s Enews.
To contact Wade, e-mail her at [email protected]