When Cokie Roberts died at 75 recently, her colorful obituary offered an anecdote that touched a chord with other women journalists who launched their careers in the 1960s and 1970s.
As the trailblazing D.C. commentator spoke of her early days covering Capitol Hill for NPR in the 1970s, Roberts said it wasn’t uncommon for a senator to lean over and put a hand on her knee. Her response?
“I would just sort of pick it up and put it on the table and say, ‘I think this belongs to you,’” Roberts described.
Her straightforward approach to sexual harassment took guts and finesse. It wasn’t easy for a young career woman — journalist or no — to address sexual insults that men often didn’t find offensive. Workplace harassment might not be what it was in that earlier era, although it’s hardly disappeared.
The late Cokie Roberts brings a smile when I recall the rowdy — even bawdy — culture of the metropolitan Canadian newspaper office where I was a wide-eyed, 19-year-old female rookie reporter in the late 1960s.
In that smoke-filled newsroom, British copy editors trained on Fleet Street wore garters on their arms to hold their shirtsleeves up from the hazards of newsprint ink. Many also sported green visors to reduce overhead light glare, the better to see commas and typos.
My role was to write up wedding and engagement announcements, long lists of who poured tea at high-society parties, and field all sorts of etiquette queries.
I had a question or two of my own during that formative time. Eventually I got around to asking why office typewriters were bolted to the desks. I discovered the managing editor — when he was a brash, young reporter — hurled his Royal upright out a newsroom window, nearly taking the life of a pedestrian below.
Acclimating to such a quixotic scene was exhilarating. Thwarting advances by men in an office like this? Not so thrilling.
When a scuzzy, greasy-haired photo editor with a jumpy demeanor grabbed an empty chair and yanked me onto his lap to discuss a photo assignment I’d submitted, I had no clue how to deal with him.
“The next time it happens,” the society editor advised through gritted teeth, “Go directly to Mr. S., the managing editor.” (The same bloke, I later learned, who threw his typewriter out the window.)
It wasn’t long before I stood in Mr. S.’s office, lower lip quivering, as I described several creepy encounters with the photo editor, who even tried to sit on my lap when I resisted sitting on his. Mr. S. offered what looked like a compassionate smile, stood up from his desk and thanked me for my courage. Less than an hour later, every man in the newsroom knew what I’d reported.
Male co-workers would approach, extend a finger as if to touch me, and mock me by screeching, “Mr. S., Mr. S.!” The photo editor stayed away, although among most guys in the office I became the persona non grata tattler.
For a short while, anyway.
Finding my voice
Despite its volatility, a big-city daily newspaper had the liveliness and learning curve that convinced me to stick with it. I only had one college journalism course to my credit, after all. There were plenty of smart people who could inspire and enlighten me. Plus, writers here switched beats as if this was a quick game of checkers. Soon I covered higher education as a news reporter, quite an opportunity for a college dropout from the U.S.
That’s how I wound up interviewing a university president with more questions for me than I had for him.
He fidgeted by the time he asked, “Do you think we’ll have riots like the ones on campuses in the States?”
I flashed on the sting of tear gas during Vietnam War protests at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the risky walks to classes that frequently turned out to be cancelled and helicopters that shined spotlights on student demonstrators in the streets after midnight.
“Not here,” I assured the university president with a bit of a smirk. “Your students still wear sportscoats and ties or skirts and heels. I wouldn’t worry until they start showing up for classes in jeans and tennies—or maybe combat boots.”
This newfound confidence had me thinking. When reporting a sleazy photo editor didn’t turn out how I hoped it would, I pondered what might impede future demoralizing events. After all, Clark Kent wasn’t about to breeze in through an open window and rescue this newbie Lois Lane. Rather than isolate myself and compound those feelings of victimization, I considered how to deflect unfulfilled male ego when it flew my way.
Within a few months, a city editor I’d grown to respect got on a kick of asking under his breath if I’d run away with him to Lac La Biche, a wee hamlet out on the frozen tundra of northern Alberta. I played along because I knew it was a joke — that he was happily married — but it became irritating nonetheless.
This was a turning point, however. On a Friday lunch hour, I purchased a new suitcase for an upcoming vacation. I yanked off the sales tags, toted the empty luggage up to the office, plunked it on the city editor’s desk and loudly announced, “I’m packed and ready to go. When do we leave for Lac La Biche?” The bright blush on his face and the curious looks from other men in the office convinced me he’d never suggest Lac La Biche again—and he didn’t.
There’s no question learning how to dish trash talk back at men in the workplace had its challenges, especially before the women’s movement gained momentum. The Canadian Human Rights Act didn’t even address sex discrimination or prohibit harassment until 1977.
By the time I finished university in the early 1970s and landed my next newspaper job in Wisconsin, women had started to admire activist Gloria Steinem more than Miss America. All forms of sex discrimination had been prohibited since the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the women’s movement became the driving force in the years that followed.
Times were changing — not always for the better
Nevertheless, I was again stuck in a society section, the low rung in the newspaper hierarchy. It’s a foot in the door, I kept muttering to myself. In addition to typing up engagement and wedding announcements, however, I started writing about sex discrimination, affirmative action, equal rights, even a gruesome rape trial, all of which the society editor considered very unladylike behavior on my part.
To appease her a bit, I’d also interview beauty queens and sneak in questions about whether they were natural blondes, if they ever left the house without makeup, how they felt about women’s lib.
Times were changing — not always for the better. Funky massage parlors had popped up everywhere. Given their popularity, community leaders questioned whether masseuses offered more than relaxing back and foot rubs. In the heat of this new development, the paper’s editor called me into his office.
“Would you be willing to do some hard-hitting, investigative reporting by going undercover and working in a massage parlor? It’d be a great opportunity for you,” he said in an encouraging tone of voice. “You could reveal what’s really going on.”
I didn’t blink.
“You know,” I said flatly, “I’ve been asked to prostitute myself in my work, but this takes the top prize.”
I headed out the door before he could say “Wait!”
Any sense of powerlessness declined by my late 20s. Sure, I had to wend my way out of a newspaper society section again, but I’d learned how to deliver a challenging message to male bosses and co-workers when I needed one.
Late one afternoon, a group of reporters adjourned to a nearby watering hole before heading home. A female sidekick or two served as support when drinking with the guys, but this time I made the mistake of going solo.
It wasn’t long before a fellow journalist — a religion reporter, no less — stepped up with a big grin and asked, “Are you wearing a bra under that sweater?”
A quizzical look came over me as I excused myself to the restroom without offering an answer. I dashed into a stall, removed the bra and quickly returned to the bar, where I looked the religion writer in the eyes and said, “I’m not now.” I pressed my warm — still quivering — brassiere into his hand. He nearly dropped the bra on the barroom floor, but he left me alone after that.
Crude? Perhaps. Demeaning? If I could alter a man’s sexist behavior, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I realize a resilient personality with a fair share of feistiness isn’t part of every woman’s temperament. Confronting sexual insult isn’t always easy, either.
Perilous work environments haven’t disappeared even though workplace harassment is in the public eye today. The Harvey Weinstein effect and #MeToo movement are now global trends as women who are sexually harassed and assaulted challenge the men who wield fame and power. Legal remedies exist, but the battles are far from over. There’s much more to be done so women truly feel safe in whatever work they choose to pursue.
It was a relief when my own career — spanning three more daily newspapers — later became more subdued and less combative. Yet I can grin today when I recall those early years and some of the ways I battled sexual harassment in my career.
It’s time for more women to share with one another how they’ve dished it back. The late Cokie Roberts is a leading light.
Annie Culver served as a staff writer for five daily newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, then wrote essays for early Microsoft websites—including a frisky one aimed at women called UnderWire—before becoming a senior writer at universities in the Northwest. She’s retired now and freelances for fun. She lives in Seattle, Wash.