Two years. That’s how long Geoffrey Stevens, then the managing editor of The Globe and Mail, told Jennifer Lewington she’d have to wait before he might make her the paper’s Washington bureau chief. That’s when the Globewould hold its next round of bureau hirings, and everyone—male or female—was subject to the wait. To Stevens’s credit, he would send out a wave of female journalists as foreign correspondents during the 1980s. But in 1984, three years into her tenure at the paper, Lewington was confused. Why did she have to wait? Hadn’t she already proven herself?
When she started at the Globe in 1981, she was assigned to cover Ottawa issues, including the National Energy Program. She travelled back and forth between the nation’s capital and Alberta where she gathered information to explain Canada’s oil price policy to its citizens, and became a legitimate authority. Her stories on the subject were analytical and comprehensive, and working outside the newsroom, she’d become accustomed to life without editors hovering over her. And now this? Two years?
Stevens did an about-face after Lewington pressed him. She was considering a move to Reuters after Stevens assigned the Washington bureau position to another reporter, but then a second position at the bureau opened up. The job was hers, no waiting period required. And a good thing, too: For the Globe, it was a chance to promote women and transcend the era’s prejudices. For Lewington and other female journalists of the time, working in foreign bureaus became a way to establish themselves and their talents in a field still marred by institutional sexism. The Washington posting went well enough that when she returned to
Toronto, she landed good beats; by 2002, she was city hall bureau chief. Lewington filed her final article in January, retiring to her home in Stratford, Ontario and what she calls the “big unknown” of freelancing. But in getting to that point, the 60-year-old navigated an unfamiliar path. Newsrooms may be friendlier to females these days, but there was a time when the best way to make it as a woman in journalism was to stay away from the office.
Lewington started her career fresh from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to work at the Financial Post’s Ottawa bureau in 1972, and two years later won a National Business Writing Award while working at Montreal’s The Gazette. When she moved to Canadian Press several years later to report on national economic issues, she discovered that working abroad came with its own prejudices. Lewington was in Europe in 1979 reporting on the Venice Economic Summit when she came up against the league of lecherous gentlemen.
A cadre of men, reporters from all over, often tried to use her material for their own stories. “She was pretty young and all these old farts who were drinking the night before would try to get her story,” says Patrick Gossage, the minister of public affairs for the Canadian Embassy in Washington while Lewington was in D.C. “She felt the well-pickled old guys treated her with disdain, but she often had the last laugh because she would come off with the best piece.”
For her part, she says, “They thought they could bully me because I was young and female. I decided I wasn’t going to be bullied.”
In Washington, while many of her female peers in Toronto were working at copy desks, Lewington helped unravel Canada-U.S. relations and won a National Newspaper Award in 1988. She left the D.C. bureau in 1990 to study at Harvard University as a Canadian Nieman Fellow, then moved back to the Globe, where she covered the national education beat for nearly a decade before becoming the national urban affairs reporter in 2001. Though she dismisses the significance of her role in earning a respectable place for women in the newsroom, Lewington was part of a movement of female journalists coming into their own as foreign correspondents in the ’80s.
Ann Rauhala, who started as a copy editor at the Globe‘s city desk in 1979 before moving on to the foreign news desk in the early ’80s, says the bias against female journalists wasn’t obvious. “We weren’t subjected to a lot of explicit sexism,” she says. Instead, it was more “subtle cultural forms of sexism, all the time.” Take a former senior editor who could only blush, stammer and giggle whenever she approached him for advice. “I don’t think he ever expected to have to treat a 25-year-old young woman subordinate respectfully.”
She admits this may seem petty in hindsight, but sometimes it was more serious—for example, the time a man in the office gave Rauhala a once-over “the way you would at a club.” In her mind, she denied that it happened. “I thought, this doesn’t happen at the Globe,” she reasoned. “Well, it was happening at the Globe.”
Jan Wong, who worked at the paper’s Beijing bureau in the ’80s and ’90s, was largely unmanaged and separated from Toronto’s newsroom politics while she was in China. “Once you’re overseas, they don’t see your gender anymore,” says Wong. “They just see your stories.”
To this day, Lewington isn’t sure why Stevens was reluctant to give her the Washington bureau, but she won’t play the gender card. “I regard myself as a small footnote,” she says. “I never wanted my gender to be the reason why they did or didn’t do anything with me. I never wanted it to be a crutch or excuse. I wanted them to send me to Washington because I was damn good at what I do.” Footnote or not, Lewington is an example of the audacity and energy that propelled women journalists throughout the ’80s.
Now, she has the unfamiliar path of freelancing ahead of her, but she’ll bring the old sass with her. And she’s never lacked sass. Over 30 years ago, while reporting on an auto show for The Gazette, she interviewed a Chrysler executive, who probably wasn’t expecting to field questions from a five-foot-two woman and started calling her “sweetheart.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t call me sweetheart,” she told him. It’s easy to bend to the restrictions of an era. It’s another thing entirely to beat them.