NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
In a piece in last month's Chicago Tribune, reporter Bonnie Miller Rubin described a message from an earlier self, a copy of the Davenport Times Democrat from 1973 that introduced her as that paper's first gal on the sports desk, complete with a photo of her in a short skirt jogging alongside the track team from a local college. In a column, her then-editor wrote: Please, no special treatment for her just because she's a member of the fairer sex. She joins us in a moment.
But we wondered if you'd ever come across a personal object or a picture or story from your past that so vividly illustrates how much you and the world and have changed. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bonnie Miller Rubin joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you on the program today,
BONNIE MILLER RUBIN: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And how did you come across this article?
RUBIN: I'm embarrassed to say I cleaned my desk.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And found it somewhere deep in a bottom drawer?
RUBIN: That's right. You know, like I have to excavate. And so I came across it and I was, you know, surrounded by the 20-somethings that have come to replace we boomers. And so I was just stunned. It was like coming face to face with something. I think in the column I described it as seeing a photo of, you know, for-colored-only drinking fountains. And so when I shared this with my colleagues, they were just incredulous. They thought it was a joke.
They couldn't believe that I allowed myself to be degraded in such a way, being described as pert young miss or, you know, that I would get assignments like cheerleader fashions or how a coach's wife bucks up her man during an 0 and 11 season. That was the University of Iowa the year that I was in Davenport. So they just kept saying, how could you? How could you? Like I let down all of, you know, all of my gender.
CONAN: Sisterhood, yeah.
RUBIN: And - yes, yes. So that's when I thought I had stumbled upon something that was a major disconnect between the generation of women who were the first to come to work in newsrooms in any, you know, big numbers.
CONAN: And certainly those that were on the society page.
RUBIN: That's right, that's right.
CONAN: Yeah. And you wrote also in that column that you did not feel - you did not remember feeling degraded.
RUBIN: No. And I don't think - I mean, I was in sports, and I was sort of jammed down their throats and they didn't want me there. But honestly, Neal, I don't think it was much different for women in covering cops or courts or politics. Really, anything that deviated from, you know, one of the F's - food, fashion, furnishing - and this was - I mean we're not talking about the '50s. I'm talking about the early '70s. We forget how different things were.
CONAN: And what was it like working as the gal sports reporter?
RUBIN: Honestly, they really just sort of ignored me. I think they thought this came down from on high. The man who is the sports editor didn't have any say. So, in a way my naivete served me well. I think you got to do what is comfortable for you. And some people would be much more confrontational in their style. I think I've succeeded by hard work, intelligence, maybe humor. And I just - I sort of went along with it.
I always knew what I wanted to get out of this, which was a nice collection of clips and, you know, get my ticket punched in Davenport, Iowa, and hopefully, you know, do it the old-fashioned way, which was you got on the escalator and then you went to a bigger market. I went to Minneapolis, and from Minneapolis I went to Chicago.
CONAN: And have been well placed there ever since.
RUBIN: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Do you remember that pert young thing in a short skirt jogging along with the track team from the local college?
RUBIN: I do. And I thought like, isn't this cool that they're just featuring me, that I'm getting this sort of - a little bit of star treatment. And, you know, I just cringe.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUBIN: But, you know, at the time everyone was just so damn glad to be allowed in the door. And if it meant, you know, that we - if somebody would've said to me, you also have to deliver the paper, I would've said, OK, you know, I'll do it. So I don't think I ever felt that sense of, you know, let's win one for the sisters. I'm glad that there were - I'm certainly glad that there were other people who did do that, and I probably wouldn't be here today if there weren't people that had a little bit more in-your-face style than I did.
But I think in that column I said - because it was right around the time of NCAA finals - wasn't there something like 300 women covering the Final Four?
RUBIN: So, you know, it's a different world. And people - the reaction to the column, I mean I heard from teachers who told me they weren't allowed to wear pants to school, and these are teachers of maybe young children, like, you know, primary grades where you have chalk and finger paints. And that was considered, you know, just too - I don't know - lesbian? You know, the number of women who wrote me that they had to leave their jobs as soon they were quote-unquote "showing," if they were pregnant. You know, you just - we - the - it's only a generation or two, but it seems like, you know, it was just the cave era or something.
CONAN: Yeah. It's like that moment at the end of "A League of Their Own," which, of course...
CONAN: ...about the women's baseball team back - during the Second World War - league rather. And at the end of the movie, you see the real women who were still alive and still kicking and still playing baseball, that this was within the span of one lifetime, though it seems like a time capsule got opened there at the bottom of your desk drawer.
RUBIN: Absolutely. And then that just sparked a conversation of other things that were a part of my life. I told them that sex-segregated help-wanted ads - I don't know if you're old enough to remember help-wanted men, help-wanted women.
RUBIN: But that didn't change until '73, that same year. That was a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court. I'm trying to think of some other things. It wasn't until the '80s that a wife who, like, put her husband through a medical residency or law school, if they split up, would be entitled to part of his future earnings. So all these advances that young women just thought were part of the wallpaper.
And I think in that column - I wrote: I went to match day at the University of Chicago. And this is where, you know, you get matched to a residency. And I was just struck how many pregnant women were in med school, how many women with headscarves and saris - and it was just a reflection of our nation - and that they were going to surgical residencies and, you know, orthopedics, not just pediatrics or OB-GYN. And, you know, I went up to them and I said, aren't you just so thrilled to be here? And they were like, why shouldn't I? I worked really hard. And there, in the very auditorium, were these class pictures that were all white, all male. So, you know, when people talk about the good old days, I think they were good if you were white, male and straight.
CONAN: We're talking with Bonnie Miller Rubin, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. And if you've had an inadvertent time capsule fall on your head from an earlier self, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Karen's on the line, calling from Rapid City.
Hi. I - the object that I have is not my personal object. It's from an earlier generation, but it relates to today's conversation on both counts. My mother passed away of ovarian cancer in 1984. When she was a 16-year-old girl, she had ambitions to be a sportswriter, and I still have among her papers a letter from the then-president of the sport - the Baseball Writers Association, saying basically: Dear, Ms. Ryland(ph), take a hike; there's no way anyone is going to let you get a job like that. Being female, you'll never get into a locker room. You must be dreaming. And she kept that, like as a - almost like a validation of her disappointment, which I'm sorry to say, today she probably would have tore it up and said, you know what, take a hike a yourself. I'm going to do this.
Yeah, we'll see you in court, is another thing she can also say.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAREN: Right, right. So now, when I watch sports and see all the courtside broadcasters who are women, I feel like it's like everyone stands on the shoulders of someone, and we stand on shoulders of women who we don't even know, who just made that first attempt to even speak what they wanted and were shut down from the get-go. So thank you for being that person who remembers and who represents.
RUBIN: Oh, what a nice caller.
CONAN: Thanks, Karen. Let's see if we go next to - this is Jerry. Jerry with us from O'Fallon in Missouri.
JERRY: Good afternoon.
CONAN: O'Fallon, I assume that is.
JERRY: I'm working on a documentary about Ozark Air Lines, where I was hired 34 years ago as a flight attendant and have come across several photographs of - I feel like I had a son that I never - a younger son that I never got to meet. But it's kind of a strange look back on what working in the airline business was like prior to deregulation. I'm sure they had many stops in Davenport or to Quad Cities, as we used to refer to it. And my primary motivation on the documentary was it was an entirely different world that has basically disappeared.
CONAN: What did you look like in those pictures, Jerry?
JERRY: Well, I had lots of hair, and I probably weighed about 130 pounds - 40 pounds probably less than I do now and seemingly could go forever on four hours of sleep.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call and reminding us that Ozark Airlines once upon a time plied the skies. Let's see if we go next to - this is Tam. Tam with us from Kansas City.
TAM: Hi. I was - years later, I - in my yearbook, I remembered that I was voted most likely homemaker. This was back when girls took home ec and I sewed and cooked. But what's interesting is that I'm a lesbian, so I guess I'm a homemaker, but I've always worked in men's fields. I (unintelligible) I traveled with a circus for a number of years. I've sold carpet. I've done all kinds of things where I was one of the few women that was - were there. And so I was intrigued by your show today because I remember distinctly what that was like.
CONAN: Well, Tam, congratulations on being such a successful homemaker.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TAM: Yeah. Well, you know, I guess, you know, in an ultimate way. So thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Here's an email from Laurel in Michigan: When I was a 19-year-old engineering technician, we used a surveyor's trailer for a field office on a job site. It was plastered with inappropriate posters. This was 1992, not the 1970s. Being the only woman in the field, I quietly removed them and put them in the closet. Next day, there they were again. I repeated and found them up again the next day. That Friday, I drove to the next town over from mine, bought a "Playgirl" and glued the posters over the "Playboy" versions of the posters in the trailers. I came into work Monday to find the head tech and other interns laughing their heads off, and the surveyor ticked. No more posters that summer. Bonnie Miller Rubin, thank you very much for your time today.
RUBIN: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And I hope you were just moving your desk. That wasn't a retirement column, was it?
RUBIN: No. But given the way things are going in the newspaper business, it's always a good idea to just have your boxes ready.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the column and thanks very for your time. We appreciate it.
RUBIN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bonnie Miller Rubin joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.