On June 20, 1986, a decision arguably 14 years in the making at The New York Times took effect: “Beginning today, The New York Times will use Ms. as an honorific in its news and editorial columns. Ms. has not been used because of belief it had not passed sufficiently into the language to be accepted. The Times believes now Ms. has become a part of the language and is changing its policy.”
Gloria Steinem had hounded her friend and Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal for years to change the policy so that women no longer appeared in the Times as strictly “Miss” or “Mrs.” When Rosenthal sent her the memo he had written to the staff about the policy change, Steinem framed it. The first day “Ms.” appeared, the famous feminist and several women went to the Times to deliver a bouquet of flowers to Rosenthal in appreciation.
The policy change occurred no thanks to Charlotte Curtis, the first top female editor at the Times and the first woman whose name appeared on the masthead. Here’s what she thought of the Ms. idea in 1972:
“This afternoon the Managing Editor is going to have a meeting to take up the matter of Ms., pronounced miz, the new title for ladies. The liberated ones want to be called Ms. I don’t. I like being called Miss. When we did a story about Betty Friedan, the feminist, we called her Ms. And her mother, who appeared in the same story, we called Mrs., because she doesn’t want to be Ms. either.
“It’s going to be like blacks. In the transition days of black liberation, there were blacks, Negroes, and colored people. There still are. It will probably be the same with women. Women will aggressively want to be Ms. Some will equally aggressively insist on Miss or Mrs. Anything that’s pronounced miz sounds like poor blacks in the South, and that’s very distasteful to me.”
In “A Woman of the Times,” author Marilyn S. Greenwald describes the contradictions in the life of Curtis. She praises her for paving the way for other women at the Times but acknowledges that Curtis paid a price for her ambivalence toward the women’s movement in losing the friendship and respect of female colleagues. Today, Curtis is not a name widely remembered, as the author notes, because she was not a self-promoter and worked at the Times (1961-1986) before it was common to see journalists transformed into celebrities on television talk shows and cable. I would add that she might be more widely remembered had she taken a vocal role in the feminist movement both inside and outside the newsroom.
Curtis tried to have it both ways. She wanted to break into the old boys’ network at the Times, and she did so through innovative writing and editingand savvy friendships with the men at the top: Clifton Daniel, Managing Editor; A.O. “Punch” Sulzberger, Publisher, and Harrison Salisbury, foreign correspondent, author and the first editor of the op-ed page. (When she was demoted in 1982 after eight years as Oped Editor, she wrote a friendly and self-deprecating memo to the publisher, thanking him for his support and the “prettiest office” in the building, then signing off “Big smooch, Charlotte.” Frankly, the note sounds too smoochie for my taste.)
During her career, she did not rally to the aid of women in the newsroom who balked at salary disparities and barriers to their advancement. When women journalists filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the Times in 1974, Curtis didn’t participate. In fact, she never thought she was discriminated against in the work force and had little interest in the women’s movement even during her tenure as editor of the women’s section. Years after the suit was settled out of court in 1978 (the Times publicly acknowledged no wrongdoing but promised to promote several women and paid back wages to the plaintiffs), some Times women were still steamed at Curtis. Greenwald writes about the copy editor under whose name the suit was filed and who, despite the years, remained offended by Curtis’s decision: “[Betsy] Wade called Charlotte a ‘quisling,’ which she defined as a label for a Hitler collaborator meaning a ‘sell-out,’ a ‘rotten bastard’ and ‘[one who] usually gets shot.’”
The contradictions in Curtis’s life date to the beginning, to her childhood in Columbus, Ohio. She was born in 1928 to wealthy parents, physician George Morris Curtis and Lucile Atcherson Curtis, a suffragette and the first woman to apply for the Foreign Service exam after women won the right to vote in 1920. One would think given the legacy she inherited from the female side of her family that Charlotte Curtis would have carried the feminist banner high. From her grandmother, she had been taught that with persistence she could achieve anything she wanted. But as a graduate of Vassar in 1950, she was expected only to marry the right man, settle down and have a family.
Curtis did marry but was divorced in 1952. That was just not done in Columbus in those days, but she did it anyway, defied convention and threw herself into her $40-a-week job as a society reporter at The Columbus Citizen. As Greenwald puts it, “It was a life of coffee drinking, smoking, and, for some, heavy gambling and drinking. Charlotte had been a tea drinker her entire life.” She was a union officer for the Newspaper Guild at the same time she served as an officer for the Junior League. She was schooled in proper society ways, but she didn’t pull punches in her writing; she scorched the powerful, her peers, with her caustic asides.
No one was surprised when she left Columbus for a job in the Times’s women’s section in 1961. There she continued her coverage of the high and mighty, which columnist Liz Smith says was Curtis’s “own kind of ‘New Journalism.’” My favorite dispatch is from a story Curtis wrote four months after she arrived at the Times in which she skewers a New York hat maker: “He admits he is a genius and the greatest couturier-milliner in the world, and he has tried to forget that he was once a boy from New Rochelle named Hans Harburger.
“And when he talks about himself, which is most of the time, he puts up a colorful and audacious smoke screen of clever phases, shocking tidbits and big names. ‘I am Mr. John,’ he says over and over again. ‘Mr. John is the dean of the industry. I. Magnin rolls out the red carpet for Mr. John.’”
In the book, Punch Sulzberger calls Curtis “to some extent the Maureen Dowd of her day.” The accounts of her reporting in the 1960’s support thistheory. As Greenwald notes, both columnists “use details and her story subjects’ own words to illustrate their personalities and to make them look foolish,” and both inject class criticism into their reporting. Greenwald also gives Curtis as Op-ed Editor credit for creating a path for Anna Quindlen, whose columns in the 1980’s and l990’s featured observations about the everyday life of 30-something women and not commentary solely focused on politics of the day. Curtis gave a voice to people outside of the paper who were ordinary people with ordinary problems. She didn’t reserve the op-ed page exclusively for “official” commentators and experts. She published columns by world leaders alongside commentary by Yoko Ono and Erica Jong. This was a notable change from the direction set by Salisbury, her predecessor who, as the first editor of the oped page, emphasized “official” voices on that page.
Greenwald concludes it is difficult to gauge Curtis’s long-term contributions and legacy. I agree. I wanted to share the author’s unbridled admiration for her subject but decided the book made a strong case that Charlotte Curtis’s allegiances were first to herself, then to the men in the inner circle at the Times, and finally to her female colleagues. I shared the conclusion of some of her Times co-workers who, Greenwald writes, “felt that the woman’s caucus ran a distant third in her heart,” at a time when many women journalists were supporting one another.
Curtis died of cancer in 1987. She died a pioneer. Her influence was seen both in the breezy reporting style that became acceptable in some sections of the Times and in her stewardship of an op-ed page that offered broader appeal. Given she was the first woman on the masthead, however, hers was not the magnificent legacy readers might imagine. Instead, Curtis’s contributions “should be seen as one link of a chain that led to change….”— at least that is the author’s generous conclusion.
Maria Henson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and a 1994 Nieman Fellow. She currently is Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Austin American-Statesman.