Pink Collar Ghetto

My old boss, Sue Goetschius, was in the New York Times a few weeks ago.  Alfred University and Alfred State College were tussling with their namesake village over money.  Sue’s acting vice president for external affairs at the university, but three decades ago she was Allegany County bureau chief for the Olean Times Herald.  I was a reporter; I covered the village of Alfred and the schools there.

Sue was one of a trio of women – Debbie Clark and Joan Dickinson, the others – who educated several batches of young reporters, guys mostly, at our mid-sized afternoon daily.  (“Serving a two-state, five-county area.”)

Sue was a consummate reporter, asked every question, knew every source and the foibles of each and could write it to the exact length required by the news hole to be filled (“Bulk it out!”) in sturdy, expository prose.

She graduated Cornell, got married and went to work for the paper in the course of weeks a dozen years before I showed up.  Early on, as she interviewed a fortune teller, she was remonstrated by the seer.  “A young married woman like you!  Out every night with a different group of men.”

“Yeah,” Sue replied, “the village board, the school board, the hospital board….”

Joan was a poet.  Her prose, especially her columns, are still some of my favorite reading.  Her reporting, like Sue’s prose, was sound and true, but if she didn’t ask that extra question, make that extra connection… well, the story read well anyhow.

Debbie synthesized Sue and Joan.  She’d left higher-circulation papers behind to live in Wellsville and would sing ‘60’s tee vee theme songs (“Flipper,” for example) on deadline.  She covered county government with wit so dry it crackled, not infrequently earning the ire of bombastic pols.  There is nothing quite so endearing as a rural county legislator in all his hauteur throwing a tantrum.

We worked on first generation desktop computers (“Hey, could you switch the modem my way?  Thanks.”) unfortunately, if accurately, called “Terminal Systems.”  There was no nuturing.  Grammatical mistakes were fodder for taunts.  (It does tend to prevent recurrence.)  Whether to ban indoor smoking was a constant, heated debate.

And now Sue’s acting vice president of external affairs at Alfred U. and Debbie is acting director of communications, which I think was Sue’s old job.  Another old colleague, Mark Whitehouse, is sports information director and associate communications director.

When I read the piece in the Times, the word “acting” jumped out me and when I saw it in both Sue’s and Debbie’s titles, it mad me think of sexism.  I’ve had many colleagues in my career, few smarter or harder working than Sue Goetschius and Debbie Clark.  Forty years into their careers and it’s “Well, we might give you the job – eventually – but for now you’re ‘acting.’”  Do they treat men like that? (Joan – gloriously feminist – died ten years ago; better access to health care might have prevented it, a fact of solemn memorial for me this week.)

Sue and Debbie and Joan were there to train me and Mark Whitehouse and many other young men who passed through the bureau because women didn’t – and don’t – get the salary or opportunities men do.  Sexism.  I once heard a grizzled editor say, “Women are great: you can get five of ‘em for the price of three men.”

I grew up in a working world of men and when I hit the OTH I was unprepared to admit how much I had to learn from these women, yet so much of my career is based on the post-graduate education they gave me.

I hired a young woman last week, whip smart and tenacious, for a job that will require her to be both.  I thought of Sue and Debbie and Joan and the debt I cannot repay them.  I multiply them by the millions of women whose potential was and is left unfulfilled and wonder how it is we have been so foolish so long.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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