Stiffer laws and fingerpointing: how strategies that helped people of color can help working women

When I  first starting working as a journalist, we had few, if any, minority reporters at the newspaper. We had none whatsoever in our rural Central New York bureaus, where our readers were mostly white.
Yet, here we were condemning others for not having people of color on their payrolls.
Newspapers across the country praised new government incentives. We reported on the lawsuits. We exposed the inequities. We wrote editorials about unfair and racist policies. We pointed fingers and demanded fair pay and equitable hiring practices.
Then the world woke up and started pointing fingers at us.
Who were we, with our lily white newsrooms to condemn them?
Things changed.
Our bureaus suddenly became more colorful.
At the time, I was routinely working 14-hour days with little or no overtime pay. I sometimes worked six- or seven-day weeks. I thought nothing of it. The culture was encouraged by the newspaper as a whole — by everyone from the publisher to my editor to fellow reporters.
That was how we got ahead.
We did the work of two people for the pay of one. We made ourselves invaluable and if we did that well enough, we might just get moved to the city desk. When women decided to have kids, they either quit, took copy editing jobs or resigned themselves to rarely seeing their children.
Those who tried to reign in their hours were written off by the rest of us.
They were no longer “real” journalists.
Men who wanted more time with their families got the same treatment.
So imagine my surprise when one day, a young, black woman — a recent college grad — who worked in my bureau, refused to work overtime. I heard her on the phone taking a stern tone with an editor. She told him she had a life and she had plans.
She wasn’t about to work for anyone free of charge.
I was sure she wouldn’t last.
But she did.
When she left, it was on her own terms.
I was a journalist.
I couldn’t resist.
I asked her how she got away with it.
It was simple, she said. Newspapers needed journalists of color. They were desperate, but people of color had never before been encouraged to study journalism. It was a matter of supply verses demand. Newspapers were low on supply, so she could demand.
Some called her treatment unfair, preferential because of her minority status.
But I saw what was unfolding and I watched with amazement.
Newspapers didn’t want to be accused of giving people of color unfair advantages any more than they wanted to be accused of denying them. And this wasn’t really even an advantage. What newspapers had been doing was illegal and these new employees of color had the power to expose those practices and, more important, to take better jobs elsewhere.
So when this reporter and others like her starting refusing to work unpaid hours, our bosses had to comply with the law on behalf of all employees. The newsroom culture started changing. I was no longer afraid to request overtime and I often (not always) got what I asked for.
I never again worked an extra day without pay or other compensation.
So when I heard our President talk about creating equity in the workplace for women Tuesday night by making it easier for them to juggle family and work with child care incentives and better health care, I shook my head. Those are good things, but they are not enough.
They still give employers no reason to offer equal pay and equal opportunities.
What helps is empowerment and empowerment comes in the form of enforceable laws, constant monitoring and public pressure. Someone has to point the finger. Someone has to threaten exposure and lawsuits when that finger is pointed. The lawsuits and the exposure must hurt.
That works.
There is no need to devalue of women (like me) who choose to stay home with their families, but women who make the opposite choice must be valued as highly as their male colleagues. It’s only logical. It’s only fair. It shouldn’t be an issue.
But we are battling fierce cultural norms.
And, sadly, just as we needed government quotas, incentives and more enforceable laws to initiate equity for people of color, we need that same kind of pressure for working women. Women will not be the only benefactors.
Laws that helped people of color helped me, a white woman  from the Adirondacks.
Laws that help women will help men. They will help families. They will help single people. They will help stay-at-home moms and dads. They will help employers, who will have more loyal and stable workforces. They will make the United States a better, more stable, more desirable place to live.
Laws — not binders, not tax breaks — will inspire change.

 

Helen Thomas: she didn’t know when to quit

I was never thrilled about political reporting.
I did it when I had to and I covered politics to the best of my ability. But my heart wasn’t in it.
Perhaps it’s because I have a former lawyer for a father who could turn any discussion into a unwinnable debate. Maybe it’s because I have a bunch of brilliantly braniac siblings who argue with far more knowledge and logic than I ever care to have.
I argue from my gut.
It’s just who I am.
But still, the whole Helen Thomas thing makes me sad.
I respected her.
Newsrooms are sexist. I hated that about my former career. Most of my male editors and colleagues were more than fair and, generally. open-minded. But far too many were not. I could tell those stories here, but I will not. I will not because of female reporters like Helen Thomas, women who paved the way and gave me the courage to fight back.
I will not because of the male colleagues and editors (my husband included) who also respected female journalists like Helen Thomas (and me) and who listened and took action when I needed their help. (Rich Sullivan, I have to mention you here. You were my rock.).
I will not tell those stories out of fairness for those who are trying to create change.
Rehashing old hurts would only result in backward steps and threaten the accomplishments of women like Helen Thomas.
But, for all her accomplishments, Helen Thomas did not know when to quit.
Because of that, she stepped backward for all of us.
And she lost my respect.
As we age, most of us tend to become less tolerant of incompetence, of the views of others and of inefficiency. We become less able and less willing to exercise caution in our expression and, in journalism, that’s when it is time to quit.
Helen Thomas probably knew that she had reached that point, but she had neglected something vital on the road to that front row seat in the White House press room. She forgot the need for a life outside the newsroom. Outside politics.
So when her time came, long after she lost her patience with the political world around her, she clung to her identity as a journalist. She continued immerse herself in a world that she found less and less tolerable, a world that began having trouble tolerating her.
This became publicly clear in 2006 when she referred to George W. Bush as “the worst president in American history.” She is entitled to her opinion, but any good journalist knows that cautious expression of those thoughts is vital to credibility and so is the ability to rise above our own feelings and beliefs. Even the best columnists, those who are allowed to be subjective, back their opinions with evidence of some sort to lend themselves credibility.
Similar outbursts followed until this final unforgivable declaration, Helen Thomas’ suggestion at a May 27th White House event that Jews should ” … get the hell out of Palestine… Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land; it’s not German, it’s not Poland’s.”
Thomas then added that the Jews should go “home” to “Poland, Germany … America and everywhere else.”
She later issued an apology, but it was too late.
Helen Thomas resigned from her job with Hearst Newspapers at 89 years old on June 7 after most every other major organization she was affiliated with had already denied her and dropped her. Her resignation should have been a glorious moment, a celebration, a time to relive her accomplishments.
A toast to an icon.
Instead, it was a moment of shame.
It was shameful, not only because of her remarks, but because of it’s broader implications for women. Her drive to prove herself as a capable woman in a man’s world led to obsession, obsession with a career that has a natural ending long before life ends.
It left her with a singular passion.
And with nothing else beyond the end of that career.
It left her unable to quit.
It shouldn’t be that way.
Helen Thomas is free to believe what she chooses about Palestine and the Jews. Like it or not, we Americans can’t deny her the right to an opinion and as a retiree, she could have gotten away with it. Sure, plenty of folks would have been critical, but her words would not have carried as much weight.
But on May 27, she was a journalist.
I hope we can all put this into perspective.
I hope we can understand that this Helen Thomas is not the same Helen Thomas who made history as a White House institution.
I hope I can.
Then, maybe, I can salvage at least a little of that respect.