September 2, 2005

Backspace: Barbara Kantrowitz '71

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Backspace will appear biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column will feature a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Upcoming contributors include world-renowned journalists, academics, politicians and scientists, many of whom got their start at The Sun.

When I entered Cornell in the fall of 1967, the campus seemed stuck in the 1950s. Female students had a curfew; men weren’t allowed in our dorms and few women on my freshman corridor admitting to any ambition beyond finding a date for Saturday night. I was no exception. I chose Cornell because I’d heard that the male-female ratio was 3 to 1, guaranteeing me a good social life. That fall, Cornell lived up to its promise. I can’t recall much about classes, but I know that I wasn’t sitting alone in my room when weekends came around.

This staid world vanished almost overnight. We didn’t know it then, but we were on the cusp of a revolution in women’s roles. By the beginning of the next semester, we had no curfew, guys were regular overnight visitors in the dorms and many of us were seriously rethinking our life plans. We felt bolder, freed to try for things that had earlier seemed out of our reach. That year, 1968, now stands out in history as the year antiwar protests went mainstream and two heroes were assassinated. But I also remember it as the first time I heard the words “women’s liberation” and the year I joined The Sun.

The paper was dominated by guys then. During my [training] sessions, they seemed like gods from Olympus handing down rules that I meekly copied in my notebook: “Double-check spellings of names.” “Write the lede in your head on the way back to the office so you don’t have to face a blank sheet of paper on deadline.” (They’re still the rules I live by as a reporter.) But I also had a sense that their notion of what constituted news was very male-oriented, involving lots of conflict, stories whose arcs rose and fell quickly. I began to see that there was another kind of news, slowly developing stories about the seeds of social change, and being a woman helped me find them.

One fall weekend in 1968, I heard that a fellow sophomore on my corridor had gone “to Maryland” for the weekend. It took me a while to realize that was code for getting an abortion. It was illegal but there were hospitals that would perform the procedure if you claimed that pregnancy threatened your mental health. This classmate was the first person I knew who’d had to make that agonizing decision and I’ve thought about her often as I’ve covered the fierce debate over the years. She reminds me that contentious ideological wars are really about individuals trying to deal with crises in their lives.

Around that time, I also wrote about male and female students living together off campus. Living together was such an uncommon phenomenon that it actually merited a story in The Sun. At the time, it seemed fabulous, but now – having covered the rise in divorce, illegitimate births and single motherhood – I wonder about what we have wrought.

By my senior year, women I knew who started out intending to be teachers, a job that meshed well with motherhood, were heading for med school. Getting married was the last thing on our agendas. Our future was uncertain but exhilarating. After living through such dramatic changes in four years at Cornell, we were ready for anything. I didn’t know any female reporters until I became one myself but that didn’t stop me from sending my resume to dozens of newspapers and gleefully accepting the only job offer I got, as a copy editor in Hartford. I was on my way. And that fall, a woman took over The Sun.

Barbara Kantrowitz ’71 is a Senior Editor at Newsweek magazine and pays particular attention to the topics of education and the family. After Cornell, she studied at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was the Supplement Editor for The Sun during her senior year.

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