Charlotte FitzHenry, Class of 1946

In his last lecture before retirement, the late Ralph Barton Perry, a favorite of all Nieman Fellows, said he could explain William James' philosophy in five minutes or five hours — depending on the time he had. I could write a book but I'll try for a five-minute version of 1946-46, when females became Fellows.

Of course we were apprehensive. Thirty-four years later Mary Ellen Leary and I have confessed to each other that we were scared to death. But apprehension was allayed fast, especially by Louis Lyons and the late Arthur Schlesinger Sr., and by our male counterparts and their wives.

Our arrival had been too well-publicized — our pictures in Time, fan mail; we became uncomfortable interviewees, not interviewers. But once we were in Cambridge, everyone made an extra effort to settle us into the non-routine of the Nieman year as quickly and comfortably as possible.

Discrimination was minimal. Widener Library wanted to hide us with the Radcliffe women, but somehow, without a placard or a march, we soon were sitting in the main reading room with Harvard men. The press box at the football stadium was off-limits to women — I didn't contest.

But as women, we had special chores, one being to address Mrs. Schlesinger's club at the Athenaeum, where she introduced us by saying, "Girls, here are our feminists!"

Those women really were feminists, some distinguished in battles won for us before we were born. I'm not sure either of us qualified. It's true we had broken several patches of new ground before we came to Harvard. Mary Ellen was the first woman political editor of the San Francisco News. The Daily Pantagraph hadn't previously employed a woman police reporter or assistant city editor, nor had the Associated Press in Chicago previously Put a woman editor on the state or trunk wires.

There were no female quotas then, and even though the war opened many jobs to women there still were men in our offices who could have filled the posts we were given. The assignments came because we had worked hard for them. The work left little time to pursue women's rights, which were not a high national priority at the time. We had started in this business when the eight-hour day was at the discussion stage and a five-day week (at the Pantagraph, anyway) was unheard of. My starting pay had been $14.10 a week and I was glad to get it.

Mary Ellen, however, has the feminist edge. A year before we were admitted as Niemans, she had written the Foundation asking to apply and was turned down. Obviously, she expedited the admission of women.

The real pioneer, however, was Harvard, willing to take a chance on us. The Nieman Foundation, endowed, after all, by a woman — Agnes Nieman — was less than ten years old when it opened its doors to us. The much older Rhodes Scholarships admitted women for the first time only two years ago — thirty-two years after we came to Harvard.

We came, like other Niemans to learn. My own study plan involved town and urban planning, and included two technical courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And like most other Fellows, I benefited from Schlesinger's social history and Fred Merk's history of the westward movement. Carleton Coon and Howard Mumford Jones took special pains with all of us. Alvin Harvey's economics course left me going down for the third time in a sea of imponderables (until the day he told us to tear up our notes from the previous lecture because he'd explained a complex formula dead backwards — then I decided that I drowned he'd probably go down with me). Yet Harvey was a frequent and favorite guest at our dinners and seminars.

That year we had a unique extra-curricular project — we wrote a book, Your Newspaper — Blueprint for a Better Press. The book dictated many of our dinner-speaker choices that year, and it also brought us together for meetings, endless meetings. Perhaps it was responsible for our unusual togetherness. Niemans, spouses and children, all of us, went off on excursions, saw plays, and heard concerts, together. We learned a lot from each other.

Much that we got from the year was prophetic. I can't read about Three Mile Island without an echo of Dr. Conant's atomic worries. A photo of the Boat People recalls Virginia Hewlett's rescue from a Japanese prison camp. The Israeli-Egyptian treaty requires special thanks to Jimmy Batal for introducing us to Arabs and the Balfour Declaration.

Planning studies and a fascination with local governments, well fortified by Schlesinger, ultimately led me into public relations for local and state governmental agencies, schools and non-profit institutions. I am so tremendously grateful to the Nieman Foundation for giving me the opportunity to gain depth, to open new horizons, and to learn to perceive good and bad, old and new, in the tide of ideas which rises around us.

Are women in journalism better off now than then? Of course. They are a thoughtful, well-trained, exciting group. Even so, there are still too few on editorial boards, writing science, politics or government. I think we've only got our toe in the door. But look to the future: If Chicago can elect a lady mayor (even if Illinois can't pass the ERA) anything can happen!

Charlotte FitzHenry Robling died on Feb. 27, 2008, at 94. Coincidently, her classmate Mary Ellen Leary Sherry died two days earlier.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1979 issue of Nieman Reports.