Why Are We Still Having This Conversation?

Courtesy Linda Grist Cunningham40-year journalism veteran Linda Grist Cunningham
He was a coffee-drinking, chain-smoking Southern Baptist Democrat –- early 1970s model -– and he owned the weekly newspaper in southwest Virginia. He called me "little girl" in the same sentence that he named me editor.

When his backroom banking buddies wouldn't give me a credit card (you're married, they said; you can use your husband's), he told them if they wanted me to stop writing about their discriminatory practices to give me a card. They did. I wrote about that, too.

That first publisher taught me two lessons. First, there's a lot of persuasive, get-things-done power in being a journalist. Second, being a "little girl" in a guys' world wasn't going to be exactly easy.

I spent four decades in newsrooms, three of them in top editor positions where I re-learned those two lessons regularly. Journalism is a great gig and being a girl sometimes not so much.

Consider, for instance, these excerpts from those 40 years:

"Never worked for a woman. Never wanted to. Don't know if I can, but I'll give it a try." In fairness, this World War II veteran and I eventually had a solid working relationship.

"You've got such a great smile. How could you write all those awful things about me? I never thought you'd actually quote me. I only told you those things because I thought you were a nice girl." This from a state senator who admitted some infraction or other, which I knew was news and which I promptly reported.

"You got the job because you are inexperienced and a woman. That means we don't have to pay you as much." Said over celebratory drinks for one of my first management gigs. Yeah, I was paid less, but I got the job and eventually the cash.

"You do realize you scare people, right? You really need to work on being softer, less confrontational." Actually, I heard this pretty much every week over 40 years.

"How am I supposed to talk with you," asked the male, power-broker voice on the phone. "I always used to talk with the editor and publisher in the steam room at the Y." I suggested a phone call or a cup of coffee likely would work. I was wrong, though. The city's power resided in that steam room at the Y. Nor would I play golf with them on Sunday mornings. Women were banned for the power rounds.

There was the war of words between a certain male public figure and me. He despised the newspaper's editorial policies and never missed a chance in letters to the editor and radio call-in shows to sneer at us as the "girls in the News Tower."

That was the 1990s and the Rockford (IL) Register Star's three most visible executives -– publisher, editor and ad director -– were women. It disconcerted the local misogynists.

We gingerly mellowed over 20 years -– in no small part because he wanted his daughter to grow up strong and independent. We reminisced mostly without hard feelings over lunch when I left the newspaper in 2011.

Here we are in May 2014 and, sigh, being a girl in the news business still isn't exactly easy. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, as the cliché goes.

The New York Times' top editor Jill Abramson was dismissed last week in a move that's bringing out the best and worst of our struggle toward gender-neutral work places.

Here's what I think:
  • At those rarefied executive levels, the boss who signs your paycheck gets to decide if you're the right fit, and "fit" is everything from your work, business savvy and management style to whether the two of you enjoy each other's company. I always believed I served at the pleasure of the publisher and when that "pleasure" went awry, it was I, not the publisher, who went away.
  • It's 2014. I'd hoped we'd be past the girls-in-the-News Tower days. We ought not be writing "first women who" stories. We ought not be discussing Abramson's tenure and management styles in gender terms. We ought not; we are.

And, I am sad.
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