One little story of what it was like to be a woman reporter 40 years ago (a pregnant one)

One little story of what it was like to be a woman reporter 40 years ago (a pregnant one)
Marilyn, Dave, Mike, me and Marian at WGN

A couple of years ago when my good friend–writer, editor and publisher Pat Colander died, I wrote a memoir about our friendship.

Pat’s–and my–good friend Dave Hoekstra read the piece and invited me–and Pat’s sister, Marian O’Quinn and Pat’s best childhood friend, Marilyn Lenti Joyce and Pat’s one time Chicago Reader editor, Mike Lenehan to talk about Pat on his WGN radio show on a Saturday night.

Early in the interview, Dave asked me a question I wasn’t prepared for: what was it like to be a woman journalist back then?

I had to think fast. It was pretty much like being a male reporter, I thought. We had to go to crummy neighborhoods in the middle of the night, and we had to hang out in police stations and we had to cover violent murders, slimy politicians and boring press conferences of all kinds.

But what was different for women? Pregnancy, I suddenly thought. We could get pregnant. No one talked about it, no one thought about it and as far as I knew it wasn’t allowed. Too dangerous? No one was ever pregnant at CNB.

Except me.

When Pat became pregnant in 1981, she worked on her book , “Thin Air,” about Helen Brach, the candy heiress who had disappeared mysteriously–and she was doing it in the comfort of her own home.

It just didn’t happen, I explained. At least I didn’t think it did. I seem to remember pregnancy being “too risky” for a reporter on the streets–at least at the City News Bureau of Chicago–where we covered the most violent murders, the slimiest politicians and the most excruciatingly boring press conferences.

Was it too dangerous for a pregnant woman?

I didn’t give any other details because the program was supposed to be about Pat and her very distinguished career. Otherwise, I would have talked about the couple of months I was pregnant at CNB.

I found out I was pregnant in January of 1982. It was cold out and I was glad I didn’t have to galavant around Chicago on freezing winter nights visiting police stations and murder scenes in my condition; because I was working in the office as the night broadcast editor by then. Which meant I had to write up all the stories of the day (and night) in broadcast style so all the radio and TV stations around town could “rip and read” them. And they had to be perfect when they ripped them off the teletype machines on the other end for imminent reading to their audience. (I think the copy that went to the print media got there via pneumatic tubes, office to office, if memory serves me.)

I walked down Randolph Street every night to get to work (Paul and I lived at Randolph and Michigan in a small one-bedroom apartment) and when Entertainment Tonight came on in the late afternoon/early evening, just as a wave of morning sickness began (my morning sickness came at night), I knew it was time to walk the few blocks to 188 W. Randolph.

(And btw, to this day, whenever I hear that ET theme song, I still get nauseous by association.)

I worked a lot of weekends, as well, and the morning (night) sickness) really got bad for some reason on the weekends. Maybe not enough distractions like there were during the week with a full staff running around.

My good friend Tim Novak (now a veteran and very renowned award-winning investigative reporter at the Sun-Times) was the managing editor on weekends. And he started noticing I just wasn’t myself.

I wanted to tell him the truth. But instead, I just told him–at least at the outset–that I had an upset stomach or a sore throat and that’s why I was under the weather. But I kept running to the bathroom to throw up, and I got very behind in my work more than once. Tim got concerned. To the extent that the broadcasters were getting nervous and calling Tim to find out what was going on. Where was their copy?

Tim decided one night when I didn’t feel good, that to save time, he’d just dictate the stories off the top of his head. And I could type them as he did so. As the managing editor he knew the stories of the day backwards and forwards. If I could just type them the way he dictated them (so I wouldn’t have to think too much), they would go over the wires live and we’d be on track. And we continued to do that when we had to during my pregnant days.

Tim and I were very close because he was the reporter CNB sent to relieve me at police headquarters when I was assigned there for the night shift–before I became a rewrite and then broadcast editor. And before he became weekend managing editor.

He started at 1 AM, and he worked all night covering crime stories and also finishing up whatever stories I didn’t finish (now that I think about it, he had experience doing clean up for me even then) and we talked a lot about a lot of things as we transitioned from my shift to his. Sometimes I’d stay past 1 AM and we’d talk and talk if there was a slow night.

So we knew each other and liked each other and he was there to help when the nausea got the best of me a few months later–and I was glad it was him who was there offering the help. God only knows what could have happened if it was anyone else.

At one point in our dictating/typing dance around, I told him the truth, that I was expecting. I had to. It was either that, or he would have probably called an ambulance at some point, fearing that my frequent bouts of taking ill would kill me.

And so, after I overreacted one night when an ammonia smell was emanating from the bathroom in the hallway, and I freaked out because I thought it would harm my baby, I spilled the beans. I knew he’d keep my secret. And he did. And he was more accommodating than ever.

I stuck it out until March and one of the last stories I wrote in broadcast-style was the one about the death of John Belushi (he’d been a Chicagoan before he hit the big time). I’d been at CNB a year–which was a good run at this famous training ground that so many of Chicago’s greatest journalists had come through.

I decided to leave as my pregnancy progressed, and that was that. And everyone found out and wished me well and came to my baby showers. And after Molly was born, my friends from CNB would come over to our now-2-bedroom apartment for my Tupperware parties or for lunch. Or just to visit. Including Tim.

I freelanced. And that worked well for me. There was plenty of work and I did it at home at any time of night or day. Sans police, murders and press conferences.

But with my little baby.

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