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09/25/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2015

37 Years Ago, A Female Journalist Won The Right To Do Her Job

Melissa Ludtke opens up about what she learned from her battle to get into MLB locker rooms.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Melissa Ludtke back in 1978, when she was a Sports Illustrated writer in New York. 

On Sept. 25, 1978, a federal judge in New York ruled that the New York Yankees could no longer enforce an MLB policy that banned female reporters the locker rooms on the grounds that it gave an unfair advantage to their male peers and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The case was brought forward by a young Sports Illustrated reporter by the name of Melissa Ludtke. The 20-something had been tasked with covering the 1977 World Series between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, only to be told by the commissioner's office that she was not allowed in the team's locker rooms after games because she was a woman. The policy unfairly put her at a competitive disadvantage -- locker room chatter is often a good source for story fodder -- because of her gender, so she sued, and she won.

Ludtke would go on to have a distinguished career in journalism, but it will always be that day in September in which her influence was most felt -- a declaration that female reporters belonged right there next to the men.

The Huffington Post spoke with Ludtke for the 37th anniversary of her victory about what that moment taught her, what she hopes young female journalists today can take away from it and whether things are better or worse in the industry today than they were back in 1978. 

Dave Pickoff/AP
Melissa Ludtke in New York, Jan. 23, 1978.

What did everything that happened in 1978 teach you, as a reporter, about how to deal with being a woman in a male-dominated field?

What I learned, as one of the only women covering baseball at the time, was that I better know damn well what I'm talking about when I open my mouth, because there are going to be a lot of people watching me, a lot of people ready to say that I don't know what I'm talking about, a lot of people running to the assumption that I have to be there for some other reason than that I actually think I can do this job. That's kind of my memory of that time -- putting pressure on myself to be as absolutely as prepared as I could possibly be whenever I opened my mouth to speak or ask a question. That might have meant me doing a lot more reading and research and knowing things a lot better than maybe lot of people around me did when they went up to ask questions. But it always gave me a feeling that at least I belonged.

What I learned, as one of the only women covering baseball at the time, was that I better know damn well what I'm talking about.

 

Unfortunately, that sounds like what I hear when I talk to female sports writers and reporters still today. Do you think things have changed that much since 1978? Or do you still feel like there's still just so much progress left to go?

There's a lot of progress left to go. [One thing that's worse is] the social media environment, [which] is clearly something that we did not have back then. When people wanted to say something about me or about my lawsuit or about women in general doing this job, they actually had to put their byline on top of it. A lot of critics and a lot of sports columnists who went after me and this legal action and are really present in their profession, they did it with a restraint that I don't see now, and this, of course, goes far wider than sports journalism. You see it across the board with much of what is out there [today]. If women come to express an opinion that someone doesn't like, often anonymously the criticism comes back in very sexist terms -- most people would also say misogynist, in many ways. So in some ways, I think that the women today who are out there doing this job, they [work in] an even more challenging environment than I did because of the anonymity, [because] of people's ability to say things about them and characterize them in ways that they couldn't do back then.

The women today who are out there doing this job, they [work in] an even more challenging environment than I did.

 

[Sexism in sports journalism] been discussed more in the weeks since Norwood Teague, the athletic director at the University of Minnesota, was dismissed over sexual harassment allegations, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Amelia Rayno subsequently wrote about all the harassment she faced [from him].

Her story led to other young sports reporters to talk about the harassment they still face today inside the locker room and outside of it. What kind of advice to you have for young female sports journalists, or young female journalists in general, to push back against this sort of harassment and do as well as you can in such a male-dominated environment?

I followed that story that you're referring to, and I read lots of the commentary about it. I read her piece that she wrote about that, and I have to say that I thought back to my own time. Taking this out of just the sports arena, this is a situation that faces many women in their workplaces, where they face, sometimes on a daily basis, things that they would regard as sexual harassment, either in comments or in treatment that they get, etc. But it is extremely difficult to voice that within that environment and feel that you are going to get an honest hearing.

I think many women rightfully, sadly, feel that if they do voice this and try to express it even within the channels that may have been set up for this, that they are going to find that their workplaces become an even more challenging place for them. The easiest solution may be for your boss to say, "Well, OK, we’re just going to move you out of there." That's the easy way. The harder way is to continue to do the day-to-day work to change the attitudes and the practices and the treatment patterns that are still sadly prevalent for us.

Anyone who faces that sort of harassment or challenging situation has to really work within herself to balance off the risk that goes with voicing what has happened. But if you love your job and you just want to be out there doing it, you just keep believing that if you keep doing it, these things will go away, that somehow the path will clear itself out. And I certainly can relate to that. I think there were many incidents where I felt that way back in the '70s. 

One of the last things [women] want to do is go into an environment where they might end up trying to conduct an interview with a man who is naked.

While I was doing research for this interview, I came across a quote of yours in which you said, "Most people understood [the lawsuit] as girls wanting to go into a locker room and see men naked." I also read a Richard Deitsch column in Sports Illustrated that talked extensively about the harassment that women still face in the locker room. I’ve asked you what you think young women can take away from this, but what about people in the sports world who aren't young female journalists, the men who make up those locker rooms? Is there anything you wish they understood that they don't maybe hear day-to-day?

The characterization you give that quote was, in fact, the way that our case and my interest in having this equal access was characterized by Major League Baseball -- in the way that they conducted themselves in the interviews about it, but also in the arguments that were made before judge [Constance Baker] Motley in the courtroom.

That was the intonation, that there was something inside of me, as a woman, that wanted to be around men who were naked. I think what that is is men putting themselves in the position of women and thinking that women see the world through the same eyes as they do. Because during that time, many, many columnists made the comparison that if women could go into the men's locker room, then clearly they should be able to go in and see Chrissie Evert naked or they should be able to go in and interview the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. So there was, I think, this kind of putting on to women what might be men's own fantasies. I think that if they ever talked to women, they would find that one of the last things they want to do is go into an environment where they might end up trying to conduct an interview with a man who is naked in front of them. That is not something that any woman would choose to do. 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Melissa Ludtke in New York, Jan. 23, 1978.

So I would say to the athletes that if they want to provoke this kind of circumstance, then continue to do it in that way. They both embarrass themselves and they make the whole situation much less conducive to working for everyone. It just doesn't make sense. It just doesn't make sense. You do not have to be naked. It is only difficult if you want to make it difficult. If you understand why its important to make it work, it can work. And it did work well in many instances, even back in the 1970s, when athletes were getting used to it. There were many times that I ended up in locker rooms whether it was in the NBA or in baseball, the two major sports I covered, where there wasn't any incident. It wasn't a major thing.

This was not about the issue of nakedness. This was about the issue of exclusion.

[In fact,] the major time that most beat writers and magazine writers did their interviews [in the locker room] was actually before the game, between the batting practice and when the game started. There would be roughly half an hour, and during that time, there was not one naked athlete in there. They had their uniforms on for batting practice and they kept their uniforms on. [Yet] we were not permitted there either during that time. So this was not about the issue of nakedness. This was about the issue of exclusion, of not wanting women to come into a clubhouse. This was sort of a place that was supposed to be for men only. It was really perceived in the '70s to be the last bastion where men could be men.

Do you think that culture still exists today?

I'm not around it, but I think it has probably gotten better because there have been more women around, and you know people have gotten more used to it. The numbers are out there more. Women have proven themselves over and over and over again of being enormously capable of doing this job.

And there were always, among these athletes, those who would stand up for understanding that women deserve to have equal access to do this job. ... I don't want to forget that there were and are some terrific, terrific people who really get this and have been leaders both in the clubhouse and in this issue. That should not be forgotten.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

 

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