My Women’s History: ‘How did you get here?’

My Women’s History: ‘How did you get here?’

This is my final weekly blog post related to Women’s History Month. The posts have been  about accomplishments and lessons from women in my village. These are excerpts from my upcoming memoir Coming Full Circle: Jim Crow to Journalism.

At the Providence (RI) Evening Bulletin, in my first newsroom job there were two professional women journalists — the religion reporter and me, a copy editor. There were women in what we called the dictation pool, a group of fast-typing ladies who worked on manual typewriters with telephone receivers that had shoulder rests attached to reduce neck strain leaning to the left or to the right to take calls. 

Even the pool of what we called back then “copy boys” had no women in the mix. Copy boys were young, mostly under the age of 21. They were there to “rip” copy off the wire machines, run stories from one news desk to another, and frankly, a couple of times a day they would walk through the newsroom to  take orders and our money for coffee and snacks. 

Having women working in the newsroom in Providence must have been an afterthought because a ladies restroom was retrofitted from a closet in the newsroom’s “morgue” or library down the hall on the floor where we worked. On my first day working in Providence, I was handed a key to the ladies room. It was a space so small that we kept the door locked for privacy when someone was in there.

One day one of the dictationists used her key and came in as I was standing at the sink washing my hands. She struck up a conversation.

“How did you get here?” she asked me.

I was puzzled and looked at the door, not wanting to believe she wondered if I came through the same single restroom door she had just entered.

She asked again. “Where did you come from before you came to the newspaper?”

She explained to me that the ladies in the dictation pool were discussing the oddity of this young black and female copy editor, something they had never imagined for the newspaper’s staff. Remember, this was 1970. We had just emerged from the tumultuous decade of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement. Almost every newsroom in the nation was staffed  just like Providence, mostly white and male. The women’s movement had not yet come to newsrooms.

“Oh, you want to know how I got this job,” I responded.

“I am an intern,” I told her, going on to explain that I was a college student taking journalism classes, that I had studied journalism since I was in high school, was editor of my high school newspaper, had worked on my college newspaper and would be returning to be the editor of the Spelman Spotlight at Spelman College at the end of the summer.

“An organization (the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund) chose me for this internship,” I told her. “They sent me to Temple University in Philadelphia for a crash course in copy editing for three weeks this summer, and they assigned me here to work for the rest of the summer.”

“Oh, you are in college,” was her response.

During our quick conversation I learned that she, nor any of the ladies in the dictation pool, had gone to college. They had not fathomed that a person who is black and female would have the opportunity to get a college education. She actually told me that. That may have been the first time I realized what a unique opportunity I had to become a journalist at the beginning of the 1970s decade.

 

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