Postscript: Mary Marshall Clark, who interviewed former New York Times editor Betsy Wade for over 20 hours in the 1990s, speaks with her again in this unique follow-up.
You were the named plaintiff in Boylan v. Times, the sex discrimination lawsuit against the NYT. Last month we posted a link to a session of your oral history for Women’s History Month, that is live on C-SPAN. But as you recall, you and I spoke for nearly 20 hours. My staff and I have a few questions about that larger history that we hope will encourage people to come to our archive to hear your full and fascinating story.
Were there opportunities to get together as women at The Times, and express your concerns? Did you have safe spaces where you gathered to talk, and to plan?
We did have those opportunities and some of them seemed to us very funny. When we wanted to consult with the women from the Daily News to find out what they were thinking, we gathered in a little restaurant in Tudor City — pinched between Daily News building and UN — a place entirely filled with women, women of a certain age, plus-20, having dainty little salads and ice tea. This was the perfect place to meet because it’s clear that no management person of any management experience ever entered the restaurant. This was our funniest meeting site. The most important meeting site was the place where women from the news department of The Times; 9 or 11 or us (we disagree on the number) decided to have a lunch meeting at a restaurant then called ACT ONE in the old Allied Chemical Tower, and the old New York Times tower, a thin sliver of a building at the foot of Times Square. Judy Klemesrud, a reporter in the style department was confident that no one would ever go there. We had our first meeting there and laughed at the thought of meeting under the noses of management.
What was the “moment” in your memory that defined the beginning the women’s movement at The Times?
We would have to reconvene the [women’s] caucus to get the answer. The Times women believed that we were tremendously fortunate. We had jobs that everyone else had wanted and struggled to get. When we went to parties people would say, “Oh you work at The Times. Is there someone I could talk to?” It was very hard for us to understand how unhappy we were. Our lawyer told us we had to think of our employer as Southern Natural Gas! It was a gradual process of pushing and pulling. Grace Glueck said, “The women at Newsweek are sitting in, and also at the Ladies Home Journal, and here we are and nothing is happening here we are not getting anything done!” Part of the push came from my serving as pension trustee and looking at the male chart and female chart for pay rates versus age and seniority. So I knew what the numbers were, I could not copy but the bottom line was the bottom line. We were not doing well. There were no women photographers. But even then there were opportunities, sexually neutral jobs, but The Times wasn’t buying.
When did you know that litigation would be necessary?
Gosh. I think that at the time we had gotten a lawyer, in 1974, and filed very familiar complaints with a city agency and then with the EEOC, a federal agency. We could see by looking at these forms that it had a very legal feel, not a negotiable feel to it. “When did this begin? When did you first notice this or that?” These are not phrases that normally turn up in labor negotiations.
Who were the women who sustained you, and organized with you?
I think that the things that buoyed all of us, that kept us from feeling discouraged in breath-taking moments, were the kinds of women who joined. I am thinking of one in particular. Her job title was “contract matron,” cognate to the job title janitor, except for gender. When she agreed to join the original complainants, I practically sat down and wept. What a brave and intelligent woman, not young. There were events like that, that not only buoyed those of us doing the organizing, but gave us material to organize other women. If Kathleen can join us, then so can you. There were two women who worked in the cafeteria who were high up in seniority order; they were the cashiers. When the organizers of the suit went through the line, The New York Times was buying our coffee.
What was the relationship between your activities as a union activist and your activities on behalf of the lawsuit?
Someone said to me, more than one time, “Why are you guys jumping out of the frying pan into the fire?” When we went from organizing the women’s caucus at NYT and on to running as officers of the Newspaper Guild of New York (the largest local in this international union), it was pretty natural but it was a fluke in timing.
Who were your role models, both in The Times, and outside?
My role model for how to handle difficult situations inside The Times was my long time friend Joan Cook, the most skilled natural political person I have worked closely with. She didn’t know how to lie. Someone asked her, “Why did you shake hands with Bert Powers?” Without a breath, she said, “I didn’t know he was going to cross our picket line. She was a “close-up” role model. I worked with her on two papers (The Tribune and The Times); we had the same gynecologist. Our nanny babysitters were best friends… we pursued the same goals. Joan was a very skilled and emphatic reporter.
The person for whom I have a strong feeling for as a feminist role model is the late professor Carolyn Heilbrun, of Columbia. She was a full professor, an Avalon endowed professor, and bringing along younger women in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and she suddenly realized that her protégées were all getting turned down. So she resigned from Columbia and told them she was no longer going to be the person (the woman) to point to. One of the things I do to carry forward her memory is to lavishly give away murder mysteries she wrote under the name Amanda Cross. I can hardly think of a more brave and important gesture than her resignation.
At her memorial service Gloria Steinem said, “I was listening to television while Anita Hill was testifying. My private phone rang and it was Carolyn and she said, “We have to get her (Hill) a lawyer and some money.”
When you became editor, what was it like to be in authority over the men who reported to you?
On the surface I don’t think this was a move that was like a great splash. I had been filling in as head of copy desk when two or three other people were on vacation. I had been doing it on weekends for more than a year, so I was just taking another small step. The difficulty came when people who I had supervised were promoted over my head and that continued until the end of my career.
What do you have to say to the generation of women now entering the news? What do they need to know, to lead and to flourish?
I think that what I will say to you is much what other members of the Journalism and Women’s Symposium [JAWS] and the members of the Newswomen’s Club of New York and similar organizations say: “They really are going to be surprised when they find out what reality is, and each of them, however wonderful and talented, is going to find that they are not getting the same stuff that the men are getting.”
However, it’s very hard to tell this to young women who think that the battle is done.
Thank you Betsy: for your contributions, your inspiration and your humor. I invite everyone who has read this to come and listen to your entire life history.
Boylan is Jim Boylan, Betsy Wade’s husband.