Member blog post: Lone woman in the newsroom

This blog post stems from a JAWS listserv discussion. Betty starts her post with this note:

“Excuse a long response to the question were you ever the only woman in the newsroom…
My hand is raised.”

medsgerBettyBy Betty Medsger, JAWS Member

I was the only woman in the newsroom when I was hired to be a reporter at my first job at The Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, Pa.

The whole situation was unusual, beginning with how I got the job. I graduated from college in January 1964 and planned to teach history in Pittsburgh, beginning that fall. I was living at home and signed up to do substitute teaching. I was disappointed at the infrequent calls, and, as I was walking by the newspaper offices one day, I decided I should get some kind of steady work until my full-time teaching job started.

I went to the employment office and asked if they had any jobs for filing clerks. I filled out the required form. When the person behind the desk noticed that I had just graduated from college, they asked me if I had ever considered being a reporter. I had not, but it sounded interesting.

As it turned out, this paper had a policy of always having one woman reporter. And “the one” had just left! I was interviewed that night by the two top night editors and started to work the next night. (At this point in the story, it will be understood if recent graduates in non-paying internships throw tomatoes.)

They wanted one woman reporter because they thought a woman should write the wedding and engagement stories and also review the local symphony. Women, they seemed to think, understood music better than men did. I assure you I had absolutely no qualifications for writing those reviews, the most shameful part of my long career.

I learned basic writing skills, but there was little or no room for expanding skills into depth reporting. When I told the editors I was planning to leave after three years because I was eager to work in a big city, they gave me some advice. You are a good reporter, one of them said, but you should not be a reporter in a big city because all women reporters in big cities become mannish.

That was said in late 1966. I am more amazed, and ashamed, of how I reacted than I am of what they said. By that time, late at night at the end of my shift, I had read The Feminine Mystique. Apparently I had not fully absorbed it. I thought they must be right. So I applied for a job as a writer at Temple and Penn medical schools in Philadelphia. I accepted the offer from Temple.

Part of my job there was to interview and write releases about the gala fundraisers organized by the doctors’ wives. This was not my idea of what I wanted to do. Finally, I decided that I cared more about being a journalist than I did about whether I would become mannish, a concept that was a little unclear.

Every two weeks I went on my lunch hour to The Evening Bulletin, then the largest and best paper in Philadelphia, trying to convince them to hire me. Several months later, after I had submitted a number of stories they had published, they hired me.

When I entered that newsroom, I was amazed to see several women. For the first time, I had a mentor, though we didn’t use that term. She was Doris Wiley, a wonderful person and one of those reporters who could cover any quick assignment. She had a quick mind and was a graceful writer. She felt the same way I did about being a reporter: Isn’t it amazing we get paid to do this?

Then we found out that “they” also sort of thought that way. As the power of feminist ideas made us more than merely readers of The Feminine Mystique, we demanded to know the salaries of people in the newsroom. We were shocked to learn that Doris was earning half of what the men of precisely the same longtime experience were making. From then on, we saw ourselves differently.

Doris died a few years ago at 91, a woman of great talent who was never fully recognized. As a young reporter, I owed her so much — the injustice she discovered she experienced made me fight against that.

I have had a number of sweet moments in the past month as old friends saw stories about my book, The Burglary, and got in touch for the first time in years. Perhaps the sweetest moment was when I was signing books after an event at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I looked up at the next person handing me her book to sign, and saw a middle age woman with a very familiar face. She said, “Betty, I’m Judy Wiley, Doris’ daughter.” She was smiling and looked exactly like Doris. Such a beautiful reminder of our two rocky roads.

Closer: when I was hired in 1982 as a professor in the journalism department at San Francisco State, again I was the only woman. When I ran for chair of the department three years later, one of the things I said I hoped the faculty would do under my leadership was hire faculty of color. Despite the diversity of the campus, our student body was not diverse and we always had been an all-white faculty.

Moments after I won the election, one of the faculty members looked at his watch and said, “As of 12:30 today, the only people who will be hired on this faculty will be women and other mongrels.”