FOR WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH I THOUGHT I’D POST THIS ARTICLE – LEST WE FORGET
WORKING FOR THE MAN
When I got out of school, I worked. That’s what was expected. Women worked for a while and then quit to raise a family. I often did what was expected. It was hard to know what to do otherwise. Role models hadn’t been invented yet or they existed only in the comics – you had your choice – Brenda Starr, Mary Worth or Little Lulu.
It was 1960, a new decade, but not yet the one that was to change everything. Oh, I expected to work. I would do something worthwhile and interesting. I would start at the bottom and work my way up. I would be successful. At what? Something to do with words, with writing. I had writer’s fantasies. My mother had forced me to take piano lessons for years though I was as untalented as they come. Her reason was that if I got married and my husband died, I could support myself giving piano lessons.
The logic of that is boggling. Her fantasies were not quite mine. She had some last century romantic notion of refinement, a lady dressed in old but quality silks sitting at a baby grand gently placing the grubby little fingers of children on the ivories. I was always a disappointment to her. Even my fantasies were different. I saw myself playing a typewriter, not a piano. At the typewriter I could set my own time, not have to keep someone else’s.
My first job was on a small daily paper where I served as the Society Editor, typing weddings, engagements, club meetings, fashion shows, things like that. They wouldn’t give me a press card because they said that I didn’t need a press card to get into a wedding, hah, hardey, har. I wasn’t considered a real journalist. I was a typist who could spell cymbidium, peau de soie, pompons, all those words useful to a woman who intends to make a career writing.
I’d stumbled into this job with reverence after being interviewed by the owner of a small advertising agency. The owner granted me an interview and I sat in the chair facing him with my white gloves in my lap. Yes, in those days, all the dress for success books said one should wear white gloves to the interview and a hat. I drew the line at a hat. So he says after discussing the duties I might perform, “Now what if I spend time training you and then you turn around and get married.”
The possible answers you come up with are unsuitable: Oh, just bill me. Or, I’ll never marry. Good grief! I sat there stunned, silent. What would you say? Like Hardy’s Tess, I should have shaved my eyebrows or practiced some form of self mutilation, not bad enough to scare people, just enough to convince them no one would marry me.
I would like to tell you that I said something pithy, but I remember sitting there silent, probably twisting my class ring around, thinking to myself, who is this creep, and what business is it of his. He could just as well train me and have me quit for a better job, just as a man would. Alas. The times were not enlightened, The Pill was just on the market, few had heard of it, fewer realized what it would do to the women of the world, not to mention the job market.
Looking back I like to think The Pill was a capitalist plot to get women into the job market so there would be a large working force which would allow employers to pick and chose and to offer lower wages because of the competition. But I only became so paranoid after Watergate, not when I was a sweet young innocent searching for a job which would justify to my mother that the money thrown into the college education had not been wasted like the piano lesson money.
These were the days when I’d call up to inquire about an opening and the person who answered would flat out say, “We wanted a man.” So the years have brought some changes. Now they don’t say it, aloud anyway.
But lucky for me, there was an opening for a society editor at the Times Herald, daily circulation 25,000, barely. As the newest, youngest staff member the editor, Irish Beef, told me that I was the one to clean the desk top on Saturday because that’s what the youngest, newest staff member did. I don’t mind starting at the bottom. I kept the supplies in my bottom drawer and every Saturday, after the men left early, I’d move all the piles of paper and clean up the donut crumbs and coffee rings, empty the ashtrays, dump cigar and cigarette butts into the trash, and clean up that green linoleum desk top just like that’s what I was getting paid for.
When a new male reporter came for the sports department I handed him the linoleum desktop cleaner and the rags explaining the youngest, newest stuff. I had been naive enough to believe that this was not a gender issue, even though I had graduated from a University where the alma mater went: Penn State forever, molder of men.
Women’s work! he said and left the cleaning materials where they sat. I neglected to say that he was year younger than I, just beginning, and he started at $115. per week to my $70. But, he was a real reporter and I was Society. I can say that I never cleaned another desk top, however. Occasionally I did my own, but never anyone else’s. I felt tricked, betrayed. I prayed the editor would ask me, I practiced answers for weeks, but he never mentioned it.
Being Society Editor was perpetual harassment. When the local artists sent in a news release they insisted on being called by their own first names – Mary Jones – and the paper’s philosophy/policy was that every woman should go by her husband’s name – Mrs. John Jones. I explained that I only carried out policy, that the editor would only throw it back to me, most likely minutes before deadline, to be corrected and the story might not get in at all. You don’t use your husband’s name, they said. I’m not married, I replied. Oh, that’s too bad, they’d commiserate. You can’t have it all.
Why didn’t I tell the editor what I thought? I was afraid of him. He was tall, heavy, loud, and enjoyed making women cry. I prided myself on never crying, at least in front of him. Many times it took all my will power to get me to the ladies room before I let go. Any argument would dissolve me in tears. Ergo, don’t argue. I’m sorry. I apologize belatedly to those women artists for not fighting for their just cause. I apologize for being a cry baby. I spent years forcing myself not to cry and just when I’d nearly succeeded, the men’s movement began teaching men how to cry. I suppose there’s no use crying over spilled or unspilled tears.
The only time I ruffled Beef was by interrupting him while he was speaking to the publisher, a courtly gentleman, West Point graduate. I’m not even proud of this, but I did have the sense to know it would embarrass him and in those days it was still not talked about, surely not by a courtly publisher in his 70’s who graduated from West Point. “We’re not virgins up here in the newsroom,” the editor blustered. “Speak for yourself,” I countered archly and left, pulling the door shut smartly. I tittered all the way home. The publisher told him to watch his language in front of “maiden ladies.” Har hardey.
One morning when none of the boys were in the newsroom, a fire report came in and dear editor sent me down to Duke’s Grill, one of the sleaziest bars below the tracks. I came back and said, “Grease fire.”
“Did you go in,” he smirked.
“No, they wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a press card,” I said as smoothly as I could, trying to keep gloat from my tone.
The Editor hired a new reporter for the city desk – a nice looking older man. I talked to him the first day to show him where the coffee machine was and by the time I’d talked to him for five minutes, knew he was an alcoholic. At 8 a.m. booze on the breath is a dead give away. I’d been assigned to compile the results of a survey the paper had run, counting how many yeses and noes and writing down any pungent wit or silly comments. I had been thinking this would be a page one byline for me, a first.
Irish Beef walked in and told me to give the results to the new guy so he could write it up. The poor new guy says, “it’s almost all done. What do you want me to do?”
I gave Beef the thumb over my shoulder, “He wants you to write it.” So the new guy got the page one byline on my story since he changed very little. But that’s how it was. A woman was ok for weddings and stuff, but real news needed a man’s touch. Brenda Starr’s editor never sent her to Duke’s Grill to cover a grease fire.
I guess I got a true inkling about ‘journalism’ as a career and newspapermen in general one Saturday morning in December. There’d been a plane crash on a hillside outside of town and two men from the New York City area had been killed. We knew their names, but the relatives had not been notified and so we couldn’t use them. Deadline was fast approaching and the editor wanted the story. Scoops were still considered something to get. The editor called up the wife of one of the dead men and handed me the phone so I could try to weasel information out of her about where her husband was and what the purpose of his trip was, etc. Beef thought that this was the highest form of female journalism. The woman could sense something was wrong and was approaching hysteria. Why are you asking me this, what’s wrong, she shouted into the receiver. I could feel her terror vibrating the phone wires. I felt like a creep, I was a creep. “Good thing you work ‘Society’ where nothing ever happens,” Mr. Editor said.
“I’d find a better way to get information than to harass a woman whose husband has just died in a plane crash,” I came back. Well, you can’t always be pithy. They were without shame, without guilt, caricatures out of “Front Page.” I decided then that if that’s what being a newspaperman meant, I wasn’t having it. I was not “Front Page” material.
There were at this time a series of burglaries in Olean, usually small, cash register contents, a few items, but once the burglar turned lucky and got close to $2,000. from the City Club (yes, a men’s club next to the Herald offices). I noticed that one policeman was always present – as a discoverer or an investigator. Concidence? Maybe. I pointed this out to Beef who dismissed it.
Later, this particular police officer resigned and left town. Because the manager of the City Club was a neighbor, I learned that the money stolen from their safe had been returned. I reported to Beef. He told me that the Police Department thought it would be bad for their image if this got out so they decided not to prosecute. We couldn’t use the story. Of course not, we didn’t want to ruin the reputation of a burglar-policeman. I did prove to myself, however, that I could investigate something, and I did have a nose for news.
I learned a valuable lesson too. It’s is ok to harrass a woman whose husband has just died, but if you catch a cop stealing, keep your information to yourself because we don’t want to tarnish someone’s image.
A newspaperman can be thought of as somebody who’ll do anything for a story. I don’t buy it. An investigative journalist interprets events or tells us what events mean, but I never met any of them. I learned the hard way that being able to write doesn’t have much to do with journalism at all. Brenda may have gotten the plums in the comics, but in real life, she’d get the pits. I soon typed -30- on my last wedding.
I went on to bigger and better things, a job as assistant editor of a house organ for a company making ballasts for fluorescent lights. And I’d always thought ballast was what ships used to keep balance in the water.
Editing didn’t take up a full month, so the rest of my job was a hodgepodge of things nobody wanted to do, a typical woman’s job of the time. I typed correspondence for the editor (although he did nothing on the production but drop the copy off at the printer’s office because he lived nearby). I gave typing or mechanical tests to job applicants, kept records on factory workers, and filled in for the switchboard operator during her break and lunchtime.
This was the worst. It was one of those boards with plugs because the town hadn’t been converted to modern equipment yet. I was totally incapable of learning this job. I froze with terror; I couldn’t remember who was on which line; I had to look up everybody’s extension number. I wanted to be an editor, but I didn’t want to do this.
Lunchtime I could bear because no one called unless they forgot, but breaks were 15 minutes of pure agony. On this system, you still had to place long distance calls because there was no direct dial. We didn’t even have an area code yet. You’d call the long distance operator and give the number you were calling and she would ask your number. You’d say, Cuba 4. Then, she’d say, yes, what’s the rest of it, sometimes really sarcastic. You’d get to say, that’s it, Cuba 4. They’d usually laugh and ask if I was kidding. They told me we had to be the last place in the continental United States with a number like that. Saying my Cuba 4 line to the long distance operators was the only thing I enjoyed about working the switchboard.
Suzy, the operator, was wonderful. She plugged and unplugged with the grace of a dancer. She knew everything. She had all the information one would want about every employee, the ones who used the phone, anyway. She told me that the president of the company didn’t want “the girls” to wear eye shadow. He thought it was not in good taste. We thought that was a hoot. Suzy wore a bright azure blue. I took to wearing a Nile green when I got up early enough. Cuba 4 was an old fashioned number even then.
This time when I was ready to quit, I told them I was getting married and they laid me off. Fair is fair, after all, didn’t they invest all that time in training me how to put on eye shadow.