Sisters in Ink


The young woman in the ladies room was washing her armpits with a damp paper towel. She tossed it in the trash, then waved her hand in front of the sensor, twice. Double load. She tore it off, ran warm water over the paper, wrung it out, and swabbed her underarms again. Helluva time for your deodorant to fail. By the time I came out of the stall, she had put her houndstooth blazer back on and was reapplying her lipstick. Confidence restored.

It’s been a long time since I was that nervous about anything. Comes with the territory, I suppose, of having a few decades of experience under your belt. Twenty years as a broadcast journalist, turned press secretary, turned author and speaker tends to dial down the stage fright. I found it somewhat endearing then, watching the clear-eyed determination of this young woman dabbing her forehead and fanning her face as she stood in front of the mirror in the ladies room at NYU, trying to reverse a meltdown.

The nervous girl in the bathroom was one of some 500 smart, curious, accomplished, amazing women attending the Out of the Binders: Symposium on Women Writers in New York City this month. The writers conference got its name from the infamous gaffe attributed to Mitt Romney during a 2012 presidential debate in which he said, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.” Apparently he had a gender gap. Apparently it was an afterthought and apparently he thought it might be politically prudent to round up a bunch of women to make his administration look better. Oh, please. Everybody knows you can’t put lipstick on that pig.

Especially the women at Out of the Binders. On a daily basis, these women step over guys like him, like so many piles of stinky laundry, making tremendous strides in areas of critical influence in our culture: publishing, journalism and entertainment media. We’ve come a long way, baby. But we’ve miles to go before we come close to resembling the real world in that lofty C Suite of Content still dominated by suits. Take editorial writing for instance. Even though the numbers are trending up, somewhere in the manner of a six-percent increase in the last ten years according to The OpEd Project, it’s hard to imagine that 80% of the opinion pieces we read today are written by men. Hence the need for power confabs like Out of the Binders –two days of remarkable speakers, panels and workshops, with opportunities for the young-and-nervous and the old-but-still-trying to pitch editors, publishers, literary agents and filmmakers too.

And dude, you should have seen the shoes! Okay, I am a feminist’s feminist, so don’t cringe when I bring up footwear. I just need to state for the record that in addition to a wondrous gathering of women of all ages, nationalities, sexual orientation, socio-economic backgrounds and modes of transportation, the shoes that scooted or clicked along marble hallways were also quite stunning. Booties are the bomb this fall.

Top notch fashion, first rate speakers. I attended a presentation by four women journalists who are not writing for the fashion page. They’re mixing it up in traditionally male dominated beats. Jenna Wortham, a technology writer and columnist with the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones,  an investigative journalist for ProPublica, Azmat Khan, a reporter/producer for Al Jazeera and Camilla Hall, a Gulf reporter for the Financial Times — all of these women perform their jobs day after day with the lingering scent of doubt hanging menacingly over their ability, like the stale odor of a bar on Sunday morning. The obstacles they have to continually overcome, like “yes, chicks GET technology” or “yes, women can report from places like Pakistan and Dubai” and “no, I’m not going to ask softball questions….,” these women push this crap aside like brushing away a fly and they get down to business. They were impressive, erudite, matter-of-fact, journalistic rock stars.

It made me feel proud. I was proud of them and, sitting in the audience, it stirred in me a near forgotten sense of esprit de corps for having been part of this privileged profession. It made me feel good about contributing, in my own small way, to a greater body, the female body of journalistic work. It brought back memories of my years as a reporter — days when I teetered around in a skirt and high heels, schlepping a camera tripod through every imaginable story from homicides to parades. This led to permanent damage to my now, aching feet. How I envied my male colleagues for their wingtips. What would they do if they had to wear panty hose and heels?

How do you even begin to explain to a man what it’s like to be pumping breast milk in the bathroom at the TV station, on your first day back from maternity leave, and all of a sudden, you get an urgent page over the P.A. to report to the newsroom, where you’re whisked into a waiting helicopter to cover…(wait for it….) a helicopter prison break at the state pen? Then, after chasing a bunch of lunatics in choppers, you get stuck out at some remote airfield for eight hours, doing live cut-ins. You call home during a quick break to check on the nanny and the baby on their first day together, only to hear your infant daughter wailing in the background and 30 seconds to air, the let down reflex lets down, soaking your blouse. How could a man ever begin to understand some of the additional occupational hazards we have to manage just because we have the ability to lactate, sometimes at the most inopportune time. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a man hater. I love men! Many of my mentors, and indeed some of best friends and one husband, were boys in the newsroom. Wouldn’t trade that camaraderie for anything. In fact, my youngest son is a journalist and I am enormously proud. It’s just that sometimes for women, by virtue of our sex or circumstances, whether it be cultural obstacles or physical danger, the simple act of performing our job is like boxing with only one glove. In listening and watching the young women on the journalism panel at the symposium, my heart went out to them. I know what they’re up against. I found myself wishing them good luck, knowing full-well how capable they are. I felt encouraged.

Jill Abramson "I am not shamed to say I was fired."

Jill Abramson

I felt inspired by Jill Abramson. The first female Executive Editor for the New York Times, the highest position at the biggest paper in the biggest city in the country, Abramson was, as they say in the vernacular, shit canned by the bosses in the man pants last May. “Well, if you’ve gotta be fired,” said Abramson in spot-on deadpan during her luncheon keynote chat, “do it in May.” Abramson was being interviewed by by another journalistic powerhouse, Emily Bell of The Guardian fame, in a casual sit-down discussion before a standing-room-only crowd of receptive women. Scanning the crowd, their expressions were hopeful and admiring of the two women in the wing-backed chairs surrounded by walls dripping with ornate portraits of stern looking white men. Jill pointed out the irony. The conversation was honest and relaxed, like having coffee with a friend. Abramson joked about being caught off guard by a reporter the night before, who had asked her what she was doing at age 17, probably assuming she’d say something like, “editing my high school paper.” Instead Jill came back with, “smoking dope.” Uproarious laughter broke out from the been there, done that corner of the room. When asked about her management style she described it as “direct.” When quizzed about what makes a good story, she said, “details.” One detail not lost on me: Jill was wearing fuschia, suede shoes.

As I was leaving, feeling confident about the screenplay pitch I had just made, sans sweat, to a woman easily two decades younger than me, I stepped out into the sunny courtyard outside Vanderbilt Hall and spotted the nervous girl from the bathroom. She was sitting erect, on the edge of the park bench, her skirt pulled modestly to her knees, her black patent platform pumps firmly planted in the ground in front of her. She was leaning forward slightly, very engaged, even animated as she was speaking out loud, passionately explaining something to, nobody. She was rehearsing her pitch. I felt a rush of emotion. I wanted to go over and hug her and say, “Good luck, honey. Hang in there! And, you might want to consider more sensible shoes. Start now.”

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    When will society ever realize bright women teeter higher than some men, without platforms? Leave the comma in or take it out :)

    Wow! What a conference. Best of luck with your script.

  2. Jean–Wonderful post, as always. I, for one, gave up all heels many years ago. My shoes are butt-ugly but comfy.