Women Doing Heavy Lifting

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

April 12, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Thirty-five years ago, the generic term ''newspaperman'' was often used casually to cover all practitioners of the trade, regardless of gender. That was not simply because male chauvinist reporters had not yet learned to watch their language. It was very close to the truth.

In those days, there were only half a dozen women in the city room of The Sun, and proportionately no more at newspapers across the country. A couple of ours were holdovers from World War II, hired to replace men who were drafted. A couple were devoted to the daily ''women's page.'' And only a couple were thrown into general assignment, politics and police work along with their male colleagues.

Though they were at least as skilled as the men beside whom they worked, women were seldom committed to journalistic heavy lifting, the kind of stories that make Page 1. At The Sun, there was extensive dialogue in the mid- and late Sixties about whether a woman correspondent should be sent to Vietnam. She might get shot; she might be a burden, or even worse an embarrassment, to troops in the field. She did not go.

All this comes to mind on scanning this year's list of Pulitzer Prize winners. Eight of those in journalism went to women. Not one was for the best fruitcake recipe of the year, the best reducing diet, the best fashion coverage, the best advice to the lovelorn or gossip column.

A woman, Sydney Freeberg, was lead reporter in the Miami Herald's probe of a violent religious cult, which won the award for spot news. Natalie Angier of the New York Times won for science reporting. Marjie Lundstrom and Rochelle Sharpe of Gannett won the national reporting prize for their investigation of infant-abuse deaths across the country.

Susan Faludi of the Wall Street Journal won in explanatory

reporting for her expose of how the leveraged buyout of a supermarket chain enriched investors and threw 63,000 people out of work. Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post won in foreign reporting for her courageous file from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Sheryl James of the St. Petersburg Times won in feature writing for describing the tragic story of abandoned babies.

Susan Headden of the Indianapolis Star shared the investigative reporting prize for an expose of medical malpractice in Indiana. And Jane Schorer of the Des Moines Register won the gold medal for public service for examining the ordeal of a rape victim during and after the crime, and reopening the controversy over publication of rape victims' names.

I go through the list to repeat the point that these awards were not for anything soft and fluffy or routine and menial, for the jobs thought of as women's lot not long ago. Of course there was no absolute barrier then between women and harder, high-profile assignments, but those who crossed it were exceptions, often built up as stars precisely because they were women.

In 1917, the first year Pulitzer prizes were awarded, Laura Richards and Maude Howe Elliott won for their biography of Julia Ward Howe. In the next 20 years, women won in fiction 10 times, poetry four and drama three. But it was 1937 before Washington correspondent Anne O'Hare McCormick of the New York Times became the first woman winner in journalism. Not until 1951 did a woman win for the kind of work in which reporters get their boots muddy and risk being shot.

That woman was the redoubtable Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald-Tribune. Maggie was indeed an exception, and indeed built up as a star because she was a woman. She did most of the buildup herself, using every talent God gave her in reporting the Korean War. Some of her male competitors resented that fact, others wished they had as much brass as she did.

For the record, 25 years ago I was one of those who argued that a woman should not be assigned to Vietnam. I was just back from Vietnam, where on my first combat patrol as a correspondent I saw a woman colleague killed by a trip mine. Though that scene was in the front of my mind, no doubt my reservations about women at war were rooted deeper.

To say now that I was wrong sounds rather weak. My own admission, and that of thousands of other reformed chauvinists who used to dominate the newsrooms, is appropriately ignored. Women are too busy doing their jobs to notice.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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