Women Who Paved the Way

The new documentary, MAKERS: Women Who Make America, traces the history of the women’s movement, one pioneer at a time. Executive producer Betsy West has her own story of working in a man's world.

02.26.13 9:45 AM ET

“Get your butt into my office, my little pumpkin,” read the note from my boss a week after I began my first job in New York City in 1975.  Fresh out of university, I was ripping wires and writing copy for ABC Radio News, part of a small band of women being ushered into testosterone-driven newsrooms by employers who now had no choice but to give us a shot. They’d been put on notice in the early 70’s by lawsuits against Newsweek and The New York Times won by women consigned for decades to low-level jobs.

The boss was a handsome, burly guy, a married father of young children, who patrolled the newsroom with a self-confident swagger and traded quips with the men at their typewriters, and me. I soon fell into their easy banter about serious news events. I wanted to be one of the guys and was happy when, a year into the job, they remembered my birthday.

On that day, a reporter rounded the office wall dominated by a giant world map carrying a cake with lighted candles.  When I got closer, I saw that the cake had an unusual shape—long and thin.  At first, I thought it was meant to be a pen or pencil, until I realized it was a replica of something else that could only have come from the nearby Erotic Bakery.

Of course, I laughed along with my colleagues and made a good show of cutting the “penis cake,” but to this day I can summon up those feelings of shame and embarrassment.

You can hear similar stories and far worse from the working women my partners Dyllan McGee, Barak Goodman, and I interviewed for the upcoming PBS documentary MAKERS: Women Who Make America. As Gloria Steinem says, “We didn’t have a word for sexual harassment back then. It was just called life.”

By 1991, Anita Hill had famously made sexual harassment a household term, with allegations that her onetime boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, had made lewd and unwanted sexual advances.  But even before American women began sporting their “I believe Anita” buttons, the issue had come out in the open, thanks to the extraordinary women who had the guts to object.

After winning a lawsuit to become a New York City firefighter, Brenda Berkman spoke publicly about the reception she received when she joined the force in 1982. Her fellow firefighters strung a giant bra across the firehouse ceiling and endangered her life by tampering with her oxygen tank.

In West Virginia, one of the first female coal miners in the country sued the owner of the mine to get him to stop stalking her. “Nobody kisses me unless I want them to,” explained Barbara Burns who fought a 13-year legal battle and withstood pressure to settle the case, which she finally won in 1999. By then, the Supreme Court had reversed itself and adopted the definition outlined by feminist scholar Catherine MacKinnon that sexual harassment is, in fact, a form of discrimination.

Laws, attitudes and practices have come a long way in the 50 years since the start of the modern women’s movement. Today we have an industry of anti-harassment trainers hired by corporate America to prevent a hemorrhaging of profits due to employees or bosses who might not understand why a cake shaped like a penis is an inappropriate birthday gift.

Still, the habits of male prerogative die hard.  Just ask Emily May, the young feminist whose Hollaback! organization shames street harassers, cat-callers, and subway gropers by uploading their pictures online.  She says that running a gauntlet of unwanted sexual attention is still an underreported and culturally accepted reality facing women in public places.

And the boss who never stopped addressing me as “his little pumpkin”? He turned out to be one of those guys who let you know they are available but don’t press the case. Years after I moved on from that newsroom, I heard he’d been fired in the wake of an affair with one of his employees, a woman with virtually the same job I’d held. But carrying on a relationship with a subordinate may not have been what cost him the job.  Perhaps it was the noontime trysts he was arranging at a nearby 59th Street hotel and expensing to the network.  Talk about male prerogative.