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`GIRLS' DETAILS STRUGGLE AT N.Y. TIMES

The low point for Nan Robertson came two years after the wom-en of the New York Times won a class-action sex discrimination suit against their employer.

Robertson, a veteran reporter, was eating lunch in the Times cafeteria with a new young female reporter from the business section. Robertson records the conversation this way:"There is no sex discrimination at the Times," she declared to me in 1980. "I got here on my own merits and I'm going to get ahead on my own merits." She had no notion of what the women who came before her had done that made it possible for her to get a job in a section of the newspaper that had been virtually closed to women of my generation. . . .

I said to myself, "Is it for this that we laid our careers on the line? Is it for this that we struggled for six long years? This kid doesn't even remember there was a lawsuit."

Robertson helps the world remember in her book, "The Girls in the Balcony - Women, Men and the New York Times."

This book is a must for women, for journalists, for employers, for anyone interested in the media or its history. In it, Robertson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, tells the inside story of one of America's great institutions - and along the way details the lives of some of the country's best journalists.

Take Anne McCormick. Robertson's book introduces her to a new generation.

As a free-lance foreign correspondent, McCormick covered the events in Europe as they built into World War II. She had contacts no one else had. She knew Adolf Hitler. Benito Mussolini granted her private interviews.

James Reston knew her during the 1930s and says McCormick got access through "her sheer gift of personality" and because she was so intelligent.

McCormick began free-lancing for the New York Times in 1921. Publisher Adolph Ochs always said what a good writer she was, but he wouldn't hire her full time. He didn't hire women.

In 1936, a year after Ochs died, his son-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, finally put McCormick on the payroll. She won a Pulitzer Prize the next year.

McCormick's story typifies women at the New York Times. They have to be brilliant to get hired in the first place. And up until the lawsuit, the few stars who did land a job weren't paid as much as their male counterparts.

Women were either banished to the women's section or - if they worked on the city desk, in accounting, or in advertising - they could expect to sit by and watch less competent men be promoted over them.

Robertson takes us through the inside story of the lawsuit, an incredibly painful time for the men in management but even more painful for the women who had thought their bosses respected their work, if not their sex. She chronicles the belated decision to allow the title "Ms." in news stories, and the recent uproar after the Times not only named the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape but detailed her drinking habits and her mother's love life.

"Girls in the Balcony" refers to the fact that, until 1971, women weren't allowed to join the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Since every dignitary who came to town choose the press club for the site of a speech, women reporters were wont to protest their exclusion.

So in 1955 the club built a balcony around the dining room. That's where the women stood, for more than 15 years, while the male reporters, seated at the tables below, ate lunch and asked questions of the speaker.

Times are changing and the Times is changing, too - but not completely.

"Girls in the Balcony" is scary for journalists to read. Journalists are supposedly seekers of truth. Nan Robertson makes it clear that there are many truths, and truth in journalism today is white, male, liberal truth. Still.