Story by 2014 Fellow Melissa Ludtke | Photos by Ellie Van Houtte | Video by Macrina Newhouse
JAWS on Friday honored the hard-fought and enduring achievements of women, who were among its founding board of directors by establishing a fund committed to continuing the progress their actions set in motion. The JAWS Legacy Fund honors its formidable founding directors and supports continued JAWS programming.
At the JAWS CAMP 2014 Legacy Lunch, Peg Simpson, a colleague and contemporary of Joan Cook, Eileen Shanahan and Kay Mills, who created the wire service’s beat on the fledgling women’s movement in 1972, told stories from decades when systemic gender discrimination was endemic in newsrooms. For some, her words renewed memories. For the many younger journalists in the room, Simpson’s history lesson left them with a greater appreciation for how what these women did matters for them today.
Cook’s organizational acuity and perseverance pushed and prodded women and racial minorities at The New York Times to come together to file a successful class-action discrimination case against their employer. When court documents revealed women’s abysmal and unequal pay, including her own low salary, Eileen Shananhan, one of the plaintiffs whose reporting had brought front-page attention to the Equal Rights Amendment and single-handedly chronicled the economic circumstances of women’s lives, left the Times. (Simpson also decided to join the legal action pushed forward by women at the AP and, like Shananhan, left her employer.)
From the Washington bureau of Newhouse News — alongside Simpson at the AP and Shanahan at the Times — Kay Mills covered the congressional hearings on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that singled out sex discrimination for legal remedy. The hearings highlighted disparities in women’s lives across a range of legal, educational and workplace issues. Such hearings were not viewed worthy of news coverage by the overwhelmingly male press corps on Capitol Hill, but these women disagreed. Their stories found progressively eager eyes among an American public whose consciousness about societal inequities was pricked by the Civil Rights Movement, prodded by Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” and captivated by the burgeoning political activism of women.
As Simpson put it: these hearings “helped us to understand connections of how this systemic discrimination had been accepted for decades. … We were finding how the knee bone was connected to the thigh bone.”
As these women steered JAWS in its founding, clear to them from these experiences was the need to create, in Simpson’s words, “a safe space for women of all ages to come together equally and safely to talk about sexism and racism, which is still a work in progress.” Each of these women was “smart and smart-mouthed,” Simpson said, and even as they had insights to share on “how to beat the bastards,” they knew, too, that the legacy of their actions would endure in how future generations of women journalists equipped themselves “after they have batted down the doors.”
Contributions made in honor or memory of JAWS members to the Legacy Fund will go toward the organization’s operation and special projects that reflect the values and actions of those it honors.
Watch the video by Macrina Newhouse below to hear more about the session.