The Girl on Top of the Masthead

Forty years after the National Press Club first admiteed women as members–and permitted them to come down from the balcony when they covered  its Newsmaker luncheons–a woman has been named executive editor of The New York Times.

At 57, Jill Abramson is just a few years younger than me. When we came through college in the mid-1970s (she at Harvard, me at University of Michigan), it was a time when opportunities for women–at least in the journalism profession–were rapidly opening. (However, I must admit that if you had asked me back then how long I thought it would be before The Times hired a woman as its top editor, I probably would have said 20 years instead of 40. )

In an interview tonight with Jim Lehrer on The NewsHour, Abramson appropriately did a “shout-out” to some of the women on whose shoulders she had stood. They included Nan Robertson, whose book The Girls in the Balcony, chronicled the struggles of her peers at The Times, which led eventually to the women filing suit against their publisher. Robertson went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her story on her own struggle with toxic shock syndrome.

In writing about Elly Peterson’s life, I was struck by how few women were writing stories for sections other than the society pages in the 1960s, when she first came on the national scene. Peterson became friends with many of the women journalists who were then working in Washington–Isabelle Shelton of The Washington Star, Helen Thomas of United Press International, Fran Lewine of the Associated Press and a few others. Peterson had many good friends among the ranks of the top male political reporters, too. But it made me wonder how many other untold stories were out there, simply because the peeople who were writing the first draft of the country’s history out of its newsrooms weren’t quite as diverse as the country they were covering.

Peterson stepped down as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1970. The next year, the Press Club opened its ranks to women, and the Gridiron Club followed suit a few years later. In 1979, I was hired as an assistant city editor on the Metro Desk of The Washington Post. Out of 10 editors who were deciding what stories the local reporters would work on for that daily section, I was the only woman.

Congratulations to Ms. Abramson. It’s about time!

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