When Women Sued the New York Times

Forty-five years ago today, a dozen women representing the Women’s Caucus at The New York Times began a civil rights revolution in journalism. Their July 19, 1972 confrontationwith publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger and his board was, by 1974, a class action employment discrimination lawsuit, Boylan v. New York Times. In an earlier letter, the Caucus had noted that there was not a single woman on the masthead of the Times, and that only one out of the three women in an editorial position worked on political news.

As Nan Robertson put it in her classic memoir, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and The New York Times (Random House, 1992):

There were forty women reporters to three hundred and eighty-five men reporters, and eleven of those women were in family/style. Of twenty-two national correspondents, not one was a woman. Of thirty-three foreign correspondents, only three were women. There was only one woman bureau chief, just appointed to Paris. In the Washington bureau, with thirty-five reporters, only three were women; the number had not gone up in nine years, although the staff had nearly doubled in that time. There were no women photographers. Of thirty-one critics in culture news, only four were women. Reviewers of drama, music, movies, television and books were all male. The sports department had one woman and twenty-three men. There were no women on the editorial board, which had eleven members. There were no women columnists. Of the seventy-five copy editors on the daily paper. four were women. Almost all the lower-paying, lower-ranking jobs were confined to women. (7-8)

Part of what is so enjoyable about reading Robertson’s account of this journey towards settling the lawsuit in 1978 is her attention not just to sexism — its language, its methods, and its often harsh exercise of power — but also her analysis of a corporate culture that allowed a very few women to move up the ladder. By doing so, The New York Times and other institutions like it, affirmed that, although a select few were as good as men, the vast majority of women were not suited to the “male” field of journalism. Paying the women who were hisred less than men who did the same job underlined women’s insufficiency for newspaper work even further.

While these conditions were not specific to journalism, or to the New York Times, decades after women had moved into reporting elsewhere (Robertson marks World War II as a turning point),and at a moment when the editorial and publishing leadership at the Times was moving on demands for racial affirmative action, Times Men (as they were called) were still in active resistance to the notion that small numbers of women, paid a fraction of what men earned, was a problem. In fact, you could argue that managing editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal’s biggest gesture towards diversity in 1972 was when he hired — not one of the excellent women already available at the Times  — but former Nixon speechwriter and conservative intellectual William Safire to write a column for the editorial page.

The Rosenthal in Robertson’s book is a raging sexist, who fights the right of women to open the Times‘ books  on an emotional level that well exceeded his duty to advocate for the paper’s fiscal health. Although the Times began to hire more women, and grudgingly raised the pay of some of the complainants, it was clear all along that the money troubles plaguing the newspaper business by the 1970s represented a new, simultaneously and convenient, excuse not to stand behind gender equity.  Long before digital publishing sapped newspapers’ financial base, urban decline, newspaper strikes and alternative news had created formidable problems for the Times.  No longer the beneficiary of a robust, urban advertising environment, the paper’s white, middle class subscribers were leaving the city. In addition, the Times covered many of the issues of the day — women’s liberation, gay liberation, Black nationalism and counterculture — only grudgingly. Readers flocked to weeklies like The Village Voice, The Soho News and The New York Native to get the real scoop about what was happening in New York. Meanwhile, Clay Felker’s New York Magazine began to publish feminists, radicals and other intellectuals whose work fell outside journalistic propriety, or who sought — as Felker did — to nurture a rule-breaking “New Journalism” that used the sexual revolution as one route — along with drugs, violence and cultural anomie — to exploring a chaotic political moment.

The Times settled Boylan six years later for a sum of money that, when doled out, came nowhere near compensating the women of the Times for years of back pay and frustration. But the settlement also included an agreement to raise women’s salaries, mainstream the women already employed at the paper into assignments that made “full use of the talents and training” that already existed at the paper. It made paths to promotion clear, and a commitment to hiring more women reporters.[1] Throughout, Rosenthal continued to insist that it was the paper’s finances — not sexism — that hindered progress. “If we were able to hire as many reporters as we wanted,” he pointed out to his colleagues in 1972, “believe me, we would find no problem at all in getting totally qualified women in every field. The country is full of them.” So why wasn’t he willing to pay the women he had fairly, or promote them?

Indeed, the paper began to hire and promote more women as men retired or left the paper.[2]  But a look in the archives also suggests that it took far longer to change the attitudes that allowed Rosenthal to ignore all this talent in the first place. Hired two years after this memo was written Lucinda Franks, a Vassar graduate who had come to the Times in 1974, and had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for a five-part series on the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that had killed Weather Underground member Diana Oughton. Yet Franks was described in her official Times bio, written in 1974, as “A proud if gentle-mannered feminist,” who was “willing to use her wiles” to get “a news story.”[3]

Robertson’s view was that perhaps the greatest progress was made among women themselves: they stuck together across lines of age, status, and race, sharing their stories and understanding. As many feminists were learning to in the early 1970s, progress would be made together or not at all, and that even the most privileged of them were not seen as the equal of a man. In addition, Robertson notes, male editors were put on notice that “in the feminist and litigious climate of the 1970s” their “tits and ass cracks” would have consequences. Yet sexist humor aside, it took another 42 years for the first woman — Jill Abramson — to win Rosenthal’s position. That experiment in gender equity only lasted for three years when Abramson resigned amid public accusations that she was “impossible” and “very, very unpopular.”

Forty five years later, has the New York Times changed? Yes, of course — and no, I suspect not.  But Robertson’s memoir is a wonderful return to a time when the women of the Times stood up for themselves and made the paper accountable.


[1] Memorandum to Sulzberger et. al. from John Mortimer (undated), folder 3, box 3, NYT Company Records, John B. Oakes Papers, New York Public Library.

[2] Rosenthal to Sulzberger et. al., July 5, 1972; draft memo from John Mortimer on equal opportunity and “the intense economic problems at the Times,” November 27, 1972, folder 3, box 3; see also folder 5, box 3 for cost cutting measures occurring at this moment; NYT Company Records, John B. Oakes Papers, NYPL.

[3] Draft biography of Lucinda Franks (1974), folder 17, box 14,NYT Company Records, AM Rosenthal Papers, NYPL.


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