Like tall ships, proud republics, and recalcitrant lawn mowers, The New York Times is referred to as ”she” — the Great Gray Lady. Inside the place, however, it’s a guy’s world: Guys own the paper, guys edit it, guys report on the universe from a guy point of view. It’s that way at most newspapers, of course — the fourth estate has traditionally been home to men with poor posture and bad neckties who bellow, ”Hey sweetheart, get me rewrite!” — but at The New York Times it’s somehow more so. Only at the Times was the decision to accept ) the use of ”Ms.” debated and resisted and (finally, in 1986) announced with such…gravitas.
Do times ever change at the Times? Of course they do. It’s just that change usually requires a swift yank on the old necktie. And according to veteran Times reporter Nan Robertson, no yank was ever so bracing as the sex-discrimination lawsuit filed against the paper by seven women employees in 1974.
The case, settled out of court in 1978, resulted in a little more than $200,000 in back pay for some 550 Timeswomen (out of a total work force of 6,000) and a new affirmative-action plan. The hiring and promotion of women that followed in the wake of the suit shook the Great Gray Lady to her roots.
The Girls in the Balcony — the title refers to the standing-room-only accommodations for women at Washington’s National Press Club before it admitted women as members in 1971 — is Robertson’s account of the Times suit and its effect on the women who brought it. Along the way, the book also pays the author’s debts and settles her scores with her former colleagues. And Robertson (who also wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of her near-fatal battle with toxic-shock syndrome for The New York Times Magazine in 1982) has kept strict records.
She loves reporters Joan Cook and Grace Glueck and editor Betsy Wade, colleagues who risked their professional lives to lead the battle for sexual equality. She disdains the late editor Charlotte Curtis and former architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, at that time the paper’s most powerful women, who distanced themselves from the struggle. She admires lawyer Harriet Rabb, who was 31 when she took the New York Times Women’s Caucus as a client. Robertson sneers at Abe Rosenthal, then the paper’s executive editor. ”By 1978,” she writes, ”only a tiny circle of yes-men was left around him, cronies who cocooned the executive editor from reality.”
That Robertson spends so much time chatting to her friends and chiding her enemies is a weakness; at times she appears to be writing only to the ”brave women” to whom her book is dedicated. But that weakness, too, is telling. It is the weakness of a woman tired after a lifetime working side by side with men able to rise faster and further while she is left in the balcony. Let her bitch. Let her cheer. These days at least, at the Times, everyone’s a Ms. who wants to be. B