When Women Sued the New York Times

In 1972, feminists at America's most prestigious newspaper launched a civil rights revolution in journalism that is not yet complete. We can all learn from them.

Here’s a little taste of what I was thinking about yesterday as part of my research into the life of a prominent feminist journalist. Thanks to those of you who signed up for paid subscriptions in the last few days: one of the things you will be seeing is my next book taking shape in real-time. I appreciate your faith in me and that readers give me a few minutes of your day three days a week: particular thanks to those of you who take the time to give me feedback in the comments section. Please feel free to share this post with a friend and invite them to:

Photo credit: Haxorjoe/Wikimedia Commons

The story of radical feminism is the story of how women saw each other coming to consciousness and replicated or adapted it to their own purposes. They did it in neighborhoods, as last week’s popular post about African American community organizer Dorothy Pitman Hughes showed, and they did it in bastions of male power.

It began with consciousness-raising, as women quietly brought feminism into major American institutions. First, they had to build networks where they were already marginalized, and it was a dangerous task. This is why, on February 1, 1972, a small group of New York Times journalists calling themselves “The Women’s Caucus” met for lunch at a run-down Times Square restaurant where they hoped, one participant later recalled, “no one would see us.”

They made two important decisions that day. The first was to use their skills as journalists to research gender equity in hiring and pay at the Times. The other was to include all women who worked at the paper, over 500 employees from cleaning staff to editors, in their group. The core activists—writers, researchers, and editors—wrote up their intentions and sent a letter to the management, all male except for a few female stockholders in the Sulzberger family. The letter noted that there was no woman on the masthead of the Times and that only one out of the three women in an editorial position at the paper worked on political news.

With these small, polite steps, the Women’s Caucus at The New York Times launched a civil rights revolution at perhaps the most important newspaper in the United States. By July 19, 1972, after several exchanges of letters and a meeting, they confronted publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger with their demands. While the meeting resulted in a few women getting raises and a few more women hired over the next few months, it wasn’t enough. In 1974, members of the Caucus filed a class action employment discrimination lawsuit, Boylan v. New York Times.

As Nan Robertson described the research the women had done into employment discrimination, The Girls in the Balcony (1992),

There were forty women reporters to three hundred and eighty-five men reporters, and eleven of those women were in family/style [intended for women readers.] 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.

Robertson’s account of what led to the lawsuit addresses not just the daily experience of sexism—a culture that Gay Talese inadvertently illustrated just a few years earlier in his history of the paper, The Kingdom and the Power (1969)—but also the harsh exercise of male power, such as the rule that no woman married to a “Times Man” could work at the paper.

That rule was flatly illegal. But Robertson also demonstrates how sexism, and racism, work by creating exceptions that administrators can point to as evidence that they don’t discriminate. The New York Times allowed a few women to move up the ladder or do political reporting—and paid them less, of course. Together, these things affirmed that, although a select group of women was almost as good as their male counterparts, the vast majority of women were obviously not suited to the “male” field of political journalism.

Publicly, managing editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, who claimed he was too busy “saving the goddamned paper” from financial ruin to attend meetings with the Women’s Caucus, insisted that it wasn’t sexism—the Times couldn’t afford pay equity, or to hire female employees without letting men go.

Perhaps 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 “op-ed” page (a name retired just this week) established two years earlier.

But Rosenthal also knew he was ignoring female talent, and he didn’t care. “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.”

Indeed, in 1974, as part of anemic efforts at gender diversity, he hired one of those “qualified” women Lucinda Franks. Actually, she was over-qualified for an entry-level political reporting job. A Vassar graduate, Franks had already won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for a five-part series on the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed Weather Underground member Diana Oughton and sent a dozen other activists into hiding. Yet her official Times bio described her, not as a gritty reporter who had penetrated an underground political organization to produce a prize-winning series, but a “proud if gentle-mannered feminist” who was “willing to use her wiles” to get “a news story.”

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The Times settled Boylan in 1978 for a sum of money that, when doled out, came nowhere near compensating the women of the Times financially for years of back pay, frustration, and organizing. But the settlement included an agreement to raise women’s salaries across the board and reassign women already employed at the paper to jobs that made “full use of the[ir] talents and training.” As importantly, the Court instructed the Times management to break up the old-boys network, making paths to promotion clear and committing to allowing women to compete fairly for all jobs.

There are other lessons for our time, as we try to imagine a 21st century shaped by racial, gender, and class justice. According to Robertson, the biggest achievement of the Women’s Caucus was solidarity, a form of everyday political determination that demanded and achieved a new work culture at the New York Times. Male editors were put on notice, as one feminist male ally put it, that “in the feminist and litigious climate of the 1970s,” their “tits and ass cracks” were no longer acceptable.

This moment of activism worked—and it didn’t: it gave us the New York Times we have today, with Gail Collins, Michelle Goldberg, Maggie Haberman, and dozens of other nationally prominent writers and editors. But it took another 42 years for the first woman — Jill Abramson — to win Rosenthal’s position. That experiment in gender equity lasted for three years: Abramson resigned in 2013 amid public accusations that she was “impossible” and “very, very unpopular.”

And there hasn’t been another one since.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).

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What I’m reading:

  • Bidens pseudo-SOTU (say that three times fast!) was uplifting for liberals—but as Rebecca Solnit notes, we haven’t recovered from four years of Trump yet. (LitHub, April 29, 2021)

  • Robert Kuttner asks: Does Biden’s universal pre-K program merely expand a flawed aspect of our education system, or do we need to take this opportunity to rethink early childhood education? (The American Prospect, April 28, 2021)

  • As Erica X. Eisen explains, anti-vaxxers have been around since doctors discovered vaccines in the 19th century. (Public Domain Review, April 28, 2021)

You are invited:

  • Wednesday, May 5, 2021, 11:00 am to 12:30 pm (EDT): At the invitation of the Democracy Seminar, I will discuss my recent book, Political Junkies, with guests Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, David Greenberg, and Nicole Hemmer. This is a webinar, and you can:

Register Here