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It was a story that shook the world. At 11 p.m. on April 12, 1936, the Moose River gold mine collapsed in Nova Scotia, trapping three men. For 10 days, the public scoured newspapers and tuned into radio broadcasts hoping to learn more about efforts to free the men.
You won’t find it in the history books, but an intrepid young reporter named Ruth Macauley was one of the first reporters on the scene, filing a front-page story for The Halifax Chronicle.
I’m Tavia Grant, a reporter with The Globe and Mail, and Ruth Macauley was my grandmother. A talented journalist, she had also filed dispatches to the Chronicle from Paris, Berlin and Moscow in the mid-1930s (many of them exploring women’s roles in Russia at the time). Later in life, she also wrote wonderful columns for a weekly paper that she and my grandfather founded, called The Dartmouth Free Press.
I mention this because I follow, with honour, in her footsteps in the news business – I’ve been with The Globe for 13 years. I tell her story because I think she ought to be remembered – though it was her lifelong regret that she couldn’t have more of a career at a time when women were expected to stay at home. She gave up a prestigious reporting job in Ottawa to marry my grandpa, and instead took on a supporting role joining him as he travelled the world as a war correspondent and bureau chief for The Associated Press.
As for Moose River, after leading the pack, she was abruptly pulled off the story. My grandfather later asked her why. “Those damn male chauvinists considered the assignment too rough for a girl and made me a desk editor,” she fumed, in my grandpa’s memoir, Behind the Headlines. “Everybody and his brother took off for Moose River and left me to handle the copy.”
It makes me wonder what more she might have written if she’d remained a reporter. Her letters were clever, lyrical and funny; she was a fine writer with a curious mind and sharp wit.
I often cover women and work, and have been thinking a lot lately about untapped career potential in the present day. I recently worked, with Report on Business Magazine senior editor Dawn Calleja, on a story about sexism and sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces. The piece, titled “Us Too,” had eight women in sectors such as mining, finance and tech give powerful accounts of their own experiences.
I’ve learned volumes from reading and reporting on the #MeToo movement. I’ve discovered how tough these stories are to cover – there are many reasons why a woman may be reluctant to come forward publicly, be it because of trauma, fear of stigma, fear of a social media backlash or legal restrictions. Those who bravely do come forward often do so because they want this to stop.
I’ve also learned of the devastation that discrimination and harassment can wreak on women’s career trajectories – some lose their confidence or quit or change industries entirely. In some cases the damage is long term.
As my grandmother found, a male-dominated working environment (be it reporting in the field in the 1930s or working on a mine site in 2018) can be especially tough place for women. Harassment “flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power,” noted a recent Harvard Business Review article, adding that a simple solution to reducing workplace sexual harassment is to hire and promote more women.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But we’re not there yet. Women in Canada still earn 74 cents for every dollar a man makes, a gap that has a massive cumulative effect on their ability to save for retirement. Of the top 100 largest companies in Canada, just four are run by women. And a recent Angus Reid survey found that one in two Canadian women have experienced harassment at work.
#MeToo was popularized by Hollywood examples. But it’s morphed and iterated in so many ways, offering people a different lens with which to view both the past and the present. I’ve been appreciating, for example, how The New York Times is sticking with the movement in all its facets – from the working conditions of cheerleaders to harassment at two Ford plants and what the movement means to teenagers. It’s clear that the movement has nudged us to think about pay inequities, power imbalances and representation. And, the story is still unfolding.
I wish I could chat about these things with my brilliant, chain-smoking, rum-drinking granny (“smoked and pickled,” she used to say, to explain her longevity; she died in 2002 at the age of 91). I wish she, too, had written a memoir about what it was like being a young female reporter from Halifax, filing dispatches from Europe just before war broke out. History has so many as-yet-untold stories of plucky women who broke barriers and blazed trails.
I’d love to hear what she thinks about current events. I suspect she would have enjoyed covering the revolution under way.
What else we’re reading:
In the spirit of my granny, I’ve been curious about other female reporters through history. I am reading about Nellie Bly, a pioneering, New York-based investigative journalist who went undercover on assignment. In 1887, at the age of 23, she feigned a mental illness to gain admission to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, where she reported on the abuses women experienced, from choking and harassment to horrific living conditions. Her exposé triggered reforms and funding increases for the asylum.
In present-day Canada, a nod to the CBC’s Benjamin Shingler, who wrote this in-depth piece about refugee claimants in Montreal – in particular, the story of a single mother named Modupe Idowu Agnes who arrived with her three children this year from Nigeria. His piece humanizes and contextualizes what is often a story about just numbers.
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