Equality in the Newsroom? Not So much

Marj Paxson’s first job was with the United Press wire service in Omaha, Nebraska during World War II. It was there she had her first brush with sexual harassment, fighting off the advances of a clerk at the Nebraska Supreme Court.  

Twice during her career, Marj was demoted when the section she was capably editing switched its name from “Women’s” to a more trendy name like “Style” or “Day” – after all, if it’s not a women’s section, why should a woman edit it?

Marj fought with managing editors, arguing that a women’s editor should get paid as much as a sports editor.

When Marj landed a job as publisher of a small paper in Pennsylvania, a bright young reporter thought about quitting rather than submitting to the rules of the “token woman” appointed by corporate honchos at Gannett.

Marj recounted in her oral history that when someone called her a “barracuda” she saw it as a step up from “bitch.”

But in her final job as publisher of the Muskogee Phoenix, Marj often took her dog into the office with her. Her mother was concerned – “do they let you do that?” she asked. Marj must have felt great satisfaction in telling her, “Mom, I am they.” She was finally in control of the newsroom.


The newsrooms of mid-20th century American newspapers were crazy places. Open spaces crowded with office furniture – reporters facing each other across desktops crowded with typewriters, phones, paper, and paste pots. Typewriters clanking, phones ringing, reporters talking, editors shouting, perhaps the clatter of a teletype in the corner. The smell of stale coffee, cigarette smoke, and greasy food.

No place for a lady. Or at least that was the thinking of most managing editors making hiring decisions.

The complaints of women looking for jobs in journalism were widespread during the 1960s and early 1970s. News magazines only hired women as researchers – not writers. Many editors believed that if they hired one woman on the city desk they had done more than their part in the liberation movement. Women could not be expected to cover the rough and tumble worlds of politics, international news, crime. Editors shuttled female reporters to the women’s department – and then stifled their drive to cover the news that women wanted to read about. And the women who broke through and reported on male-dominated beats were definitely not welcomed.

Ellen Goodman described the situation at the 1972 Democratic convention, one of the first major political events covered by female journalists:

I remember one night Myra MacPherson was there from the Washington Post, and we were all out to dinner together. She’s a very savvy reporter. People were just talking around her as if she weren’t even there. When she said something, the guys would just talk right over her. My friend Ann Blackman and I were at the same table, and we were rolling our eyes at each other, and we finally just couldn’t believe it … We were very conscious of their either awkwardness or preening, not quite knowing what to do with this group of women who were there for the first time.

In 1970, many female journalists decided that they had had enough. Forty six women at Newsweek first plotted a revolt in the women’s restroom and then sued the magazine for gender discrimination. They won the suit, and just five years later one of the instigators, Lynn Povich, was the first female senior editor at the magazine. A similar challenge was mounted at the Washington Post, as women working there objected to hiring practices, promotion decisions, and discrimination in work assignments.

As a result of these and similar actions, the playing field shifted for newspaperwomen in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1991, Marj Paxson looked back on her own experiences and forward to the future of women in the newsroom:

Well, there’s a lot of talk about equal opportunity and fairness in advancement but the subtle prejudices are still there. And they’re probably the – not probably, they are – the same kinds of prejudices that I faced. I keep hoping that as the younger generation of male editors comes along, they may have different attitudes. I’m not sure they will. This goes back for a long time and is a very deep-seated feeling. And I just think we’re going to have to work and work and work at it.

So where are we now? More than four decades after the Newsweek women’s revolt and more than two decades after Marj looked cautiously to the future – are things better for women in the newsroom? Amanda Hess, in a 2012 discussion of Lynn Povich’s book, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, reviewed the less-than-encouraging numbers:

Women’s representation in newsrooms has improved, but writing and editing gigs are hardly a 50/50 split. In 2011, women constituted 40 percent of newspaper newsroom employees … Major magazines publish seven stories by men for every one by a woman. Men dominate the National Magazine Awards … And though an aspiring journalist’s career path is no longer confined to slow-moving legacy media like Newsweek and the New York Times, the online landscape is not necessarily a more gender-equitable one.

Almost three quarters of journalism and mass communication graduates are women. Yet women are still under-represented in the newsroom and – especially – in positions of editorial power. The gap remains in content, as well, as fewer than a quarter of news stories in 2011 were about women. There is less blatant discrimination in hiring and promotion. But Marj Paxson was undoubtedly right about the slow rate of change in attitudes. As Hess argued, “between clearly actionable sex discrimination and full gender equality lies an extensive menu of workplace tactics by which employers can marginalize women.”

So, like Marj said 20-plus years ago … we’re going to have to work and work and work at it.


Quotes from Marj Paxson and Ellen Goodman from the Washington Press Club “Women in Journalism” Oral History Project. Quotes from Amanda Hess from Slate online article, “What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t, Since the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses.”


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