The other week, PBS ran an American Masters documentary on Billie Jean King, a ranking Wimbledon tennis champ in the ‘60s and ‘70s who was a champion of equal pay for women.
Most of us probably remember her best for the “Battle of the Sexes” match pitting her against the male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, played in 1973, in which she firmly put Riggs in his place.
But we should also recognize King for the leadership role she assumed in taking on the world tennis establishment and its old boy network by organizing the Women’s Tennis Association and insisting on pay parity for the ladies, even in the face of several women’s tennis stars aligning with that establishment.
And, after being outed as gay, King found herself standing alone again, after several merchandising firms that had pledged endorsements abruptly dropped her from their radar. But by refusing to shrink away, King made it easier for those following in her giant footsteps like Martina Navratilova to take the court with pride.
King’s experience made me think back to my days as a cub reporter on The Jersey Journal in the late ‘60s when, essentially, another old boy network called the shots.
Females on the staff tended to be relegated to what, in journalistic parlance of the day, was referred to as “the Society Page,” where women reporters wrote about such things as home decorations, recipes, women’s clubs, and the like.
One of the longtime staffers there was Hilda Couch, a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism and a onetime president of the Women’s Press Club of New York, and while I never heard her complain about the clear double standard that existed in the newsroom, now I wonder whether she had ever set out to be the next muckraker like Ida Tarbell, only to be shunted off to “the women’s section” of the newspaper.
Ironically, the woman who presided over our “women’s section” – Lois Fegan – started her career in journalism as a gender pioneer – the only woman in the country covering professional ice hockey games. Starting during World War II, she was assigned to write about the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League for a newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa.
As recounted in her obituary (she died at age 97), published by NJ.com in June 2013, when she went to Cleveland to cover the team playing in the AHL championships in 1945, the men in the press box refused her entry.
“So I took my typewriter in my lap and say my fanny down on the cold concrete steps,” Fegan said.
Ultimately, the men made room for her.
During her 35-year career with the Journal as its women’s and travel editor, ending in 1987, Fegan – who once had a tryout as a Rockette – traveled to New York and Paris to report on world fashion shows. She also interviewed actors of the caliber of Clark Gable and Frank Sinatra, as well as seven U.S. presidents.
Probably the toughest – and best – staff member I knew on the Journal – next to a chain-smoking copyreader named Fritz Bennett – was Rae Downes Koshetz who covered City Hall like nobody’s business.
A bit later, Rae got her law degree and went on to distinguished service as special assistant Attorney General in the New York State Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, Assistant Manhattan District Attorney, Deputy Chief Assistant to New York State Narcotics Prosecutor and Deputy Commissioner/Trials of the NYPD.
Looking to get a job done, efficiently and expediently? Just ask a woman and you’ll likely find a multi-tasker capable of solving any problem at hand.
– Ron Leir