Women Struggle to Make Gains

A tumultuous six-year quest for equality

TWENTY years ago this spring, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, arrived at his office one May morning to find an unusual letter on his desk. The five-page, typewritten document, signed by 50 women on the news staff, presented statistical evidence of discrimination in hiring, promoting, and paying women at the Times.

Mr. Sulzberger read with disbelief. "Holy crow!" he remembers thinking. "I thought this was a good place to work!"

For white males, it was. But for the paper's 550 female employees, the world-respected institution was a bastion of chauvinism. Women's pay averaged $59 less a week than men's. Although the paper employed 385 male reporters, its ranks included only 40 female reporters, 11 of them in the family or style pages. There were no women executives on the masthead, no women on the 11-member editorial board, no women photographers, and no women columnists.

Redressing these inequities was not simply a question of fairness, the women reminded Sulzberger. It was also a matter of compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws job discrimination.

That letter marked the beginning of a tumultuous six-year quest for equality, an odyssey Nan Robertson describes with dramatic detail in The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times (Random House, 256 pp., $22). Robertson, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter, was a member of the Women's Caucus that led the charge.

When meetings and memos produced little more than what caucus leader Betsy Wade describes as "plenty of sweet talk to our faces and carrying on just the same behind our backs," the women hired a lawyer. In 1973, 84 women filed individual discrimination complaints with federal agencies. The following year, six women brought suit in New York federal court. Eventually the case became a class-action suit.

Depositions and subpoenaed memos produced a mountain of damaging evidence. When one young woman told a male editor that she wanted a job as a writer, he replied, "Why don't you go home and get married?" The head of the outgoing mail department, reviewing a clerk's performance, wrote, "I would make her my first assistant if she were a man." And the Sunday editor told a colleague, "You don't want to hire a woman. They can't take criticism and they cry a lot."

As the atmosphere grew more poisonous, both sides agreed that a trial would be "like the worst divorce that ever happened." In 1978, they settled out of court. The Times agreed to pay the plaintiffs $350,000 and to adopt hiring and promotion goals.

Although many of the plaintiffs themselves paid for their courage with stalled careers, women in the next generation began reaping the rewards. By 1990, no salary gap existed between the average starting salary of men and women in the news division. Yet even last year, only 23 percent of reporters, correspondents, and critics were women - just 10 percent more than in 1972.

Robertson's title refers to a detested symbol of the second-rate status of women journalists, a balcony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Until 1955, women were not allowed inside the club, even though it was the setting for major luncheon speeches by world leaders. When male members did grudgingly allow women access, they consigned them to the tiny, stuffy balcony, where the acoustics were terrible. Women could not eat, sit, or ask questions, and they were forced to use the back door. Only in 1971 did the Press Club begin accepting women as members.

Robertson's own emotions are strangely absent from parts of the book. But if, as a good reporter, she assumes the events will speak for themselves, she is right. That now-empty balcony still serves brilliantly, in Robertson's words, as "a metaphor for what working women everywhere faced."

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