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Hear the Ladies Of the Gray Lady


By Madhavi Sunder

In 1969, Gay Talese gave us the Kingdom and the Power: The Story of the Men Who Influence the Institution that Influences the World. Now Nan Robertson gives us the story of the women.

Robertson--most noted for her Pulitzer Prizewinning New York Times Magazine article on her ordeal with Toxic Shock Syndrome, and her book, Getting Better, which chronicles her bout with alcoholism--is back, with yet another personal-account book, this one on sex discrimination at Robertson's former place of employment: The New York Times.

Robertson begins The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times with a description of her youthful obsession with walking through the Times corridor lined with portraits of the paper's Pulitzer Prize winners. Of the 21 pictures on the wall when Robertson started at the Times in 1955--she was 22 years old--20 of the portraits were of traditional, `Timesmen.' Only one, Anne O'Hare McCormick, was a Times woman.

Robertson quickly learned, of course, why there was only one woman ahead of her who had been able to claim the highest honor in the profession. The book tells the story of the Times women, from McCormick in the 1920s, who was hired after the death of Times founding publisher Adolph Ochs (who had refused to hire women while he was alive), to the women of the present. The newsroom which Robertson entered in 1955 was one entirely unwilling to help her realize her dreams; the few women who were allowed into the Times, she tells, were relegated to the women's pages--regardless of their background or interests--and assigned to stories covering food, fashion and family fun. In the years that followed, the women who were somehow able to promote their careers beyond those pages--these being women only of exceptional talent, like Robertson herself--nonetheless found themselves significantly underpaid, and unable to advance to any positions from which they would be able to exert power and influence over determining what was "fit to print" in the Times.

Robertson's main focus is the historic class action, sex discrimination suit against the Times, Boylan v. The New York Times, which the Times Women's Caucus filed in 1974 against its venerable boss. The suit, which was known in legal, journalistic and feminist circles as the "Title VII World Series," was eventually settled in 1978, despite the Times's prior insistence that it would fight the women's claims all the way. Indeed, the suit had become a huge source of embarassment for the renowned newspaper, which had until that point stood firmly as one of the great bastions of liberalism. Startlingly disparate salary figures and sexist private memos written by top Times executives, which were handed over to the plaintiffs by court decree, threatened ominously to bring the great edifice down. The media, of course, was more than willing to give the Times a taste of its own medicine and happily engaged in a feeding frenzy off the debris which floated to the top of the Times's massive pile of dirty laundry. One memo from a boss asked for a potential female employee's "vital statistics . . . and her picture in a bikini." The plaintiffs had also accumulated several testimonies from women who remembered male editors saying everything from "no woman will ever be an editor of The New York Times," to Times women's "nipples pucker for power". One male editor of the Times called it the "single worst moment" in the history of the newspaper.

The suit reflected the problems of women in the field generally, and of all working women before the days of Title VII litigation. Hence, the title, Girls in the Balcony. The balcony in this case is the balcony of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. During the 1950s and '60s, "every man of consequence on the globe" who had anything important to say would do so in a speech at the club, Robertson tells. The problem was, however, that the club did not allow women as members. After much rumbling from the women, the club eventually devised a plan to let the women cover the speeches: The women reporters were squeezed onto the balcony of the club, outside of the ballroom where the men sat and spoke. They were served no food and were forced to take notes on speeches that were barely audible from such a distance. "It was humiliating," recalls Robertson. She called the balcony "one of the ugliest symbols of discrimination against women to be found in the world of journalism. [And] it was a metaphor for what working women everywhere faced."

Most importantly, the book tells the story of the unsung heroes of the women's movement at the Times. These are the plaintiffs of the suit--Betsy Wade Boylan, Joan Cook, Grace Glueck, Louise Carini, Andrea Skinner and Nancy Davis--all of whom received little remuneration and whose careers were in fact resigned to dead ends at the Times forever, because of their insubordination. Yet thanks to their efforts, the suit was to become "the single most important collective event in the history of the women at the Times," says Robertson. Without it, women would never have been brought into the ranks of the Times at the rate which the court order required--although the Times did not live up to all the outlined obligations.

Robertson should be praised for doing something which has never been done to this degree: relating in detail and with compassion the story of the women of the Times, especially the stories of those like Wade, Cook and Glueck, who are the unsung heroes of the women's movement. They were women who put their own potentially high profile careers on the line for the sake of 600 other women on their paper and the millions of women and men who read and are influenced by the Times.

Despite her valiant subject, Robertson fills her book with excessive and lavish praise of the women involved in the suit. One gets the sense that her objectivity may have been sacrificed for the sake of her friends and former colleagues.

Now, whether Robertson's book does what the back cover proclaims--"finally set the record straight on sex discrimination at the America's paper of record"--is another matter entirely. Robertson's coverage of the suit in such a personal way--and her behind-the-scenes account of the internal Times debate over the naming of the alleged Kennedy rape victim in Palm Beach--do very little beyond offer the same kind of "insider" Times gossip which all the Times chroniclers preceeding her have done. In a day when questions of women and work continue to baffle and bother feminists and corporate leaders alike, as women continue to be passed over for promotions, Robertson does very little to discuss the complex problems women at the Times face today. Most of these include problems of subtle discrimination: male-biased career tracks and value systems, family and lifestyle issues and biased definitions of news. Robertson's book is no Backlash; Susan Faludi's book makes a contribution to the current debate over difference and equality which the feminist of today are trying to resolve. Robertson merely tries to make the women in her life, "larger than life"; Robertson is, after all, a Timeswoman. In that respect, she is no different from her male peers who think the Times is the be-all and end-all of the earth.

The author is writing her senior thesis on impediments to women at The New York Times, called "For the Record: Discrimination and `A Different Voice' at The New York Times".

The Girls In The Balcony

by Nan Robertson

Random House


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