The First Woman Senior Editor at a Major Newspaper Worked in Louisville. It Didn’t End Well, Either.

When the bulletin crossed my cellphone Wednesday evening announcing that Jill Abramson, the first woman to be executive editor of The New York Times, had been fired, I couldn’t help thinking of another editor at another newspaper, one from here in Louisville.

Carol Sutton had come to The Courier-Journal right out of college in 1955. She had been a top journalism student at the University of Missouri, and her professors there encouraged her to read the Louisville newspaper, then considered one of the best in the nation and a rare beacon of liberal philosophy in what remained a very segregated South.

When she applied to the newspaper, in spite of her stellar grades and recommendations from one of the nation’s best journalism schools, the executive editor James Pope Sr. turned her down for a reporting job, but, he added, if she wanted to be his secretary she would have a job. (Pope would tell her that she “looked damn good,” which she found beside the point.)

Carol was so anxious to get on the staff in Louisville that she took the job, and in short order she was well known for her determined ambition. Mr. Pope recommended her to the city editor, a kindly misogynist named John Herchenroeder, who gave her feature assignments to do on weekends and evenings.

A Quick Rise

And before long, she not only was promoted to the city reporting staff but quickly became one of its stars. Mind you, Herch (as he was called) once said he would give two “girl” reporters for one decent wastepaper basket. So it couldn’t have been easy for young Miss Sutton to work for him. It didn’t hurt that her work gained the favor of the top executives at the newspaper—Barry Bingham Sr. and Mark Ethridge—both legends in 20th century journalism known for their innovations and passion for excellence. When Carol married another top reporter, Charles Whaley, in 1957, it was Mark Ethridge who was elected to give the bride away. And Barry Sr. was nearby enjoying the festivities.

Change was coming quickly to Louisville and to the nation by the early 1960s. Carol became something novel at the time: a working mother after her first child, Carrie, was born in 1960. And three years later, when she was expecting her second one, Kate, she was promoted to editor of what had long been the women’s and society section. Ethridge retired at roughly the same time, and his successor, Norman Isaacs, was modern thinking and shared Carol’s interest in turning the fusty society section into a progressive, issue-driven features page.

Re-christened “Women’s World,” and shortly thereafter “Today’s Living,” Carol’s reporters tackled important social issues and changing mores. Abortion, biracial marriage and adoption, segregated country clubs, shameless “freebies” given to fashion reporters at the big press showings, hunger in Louisville (after a toddler was found dead of starvation one Thanksgiving), and so forth. The topics continued to surprise and challenge Louisville readers.

By 1969, George Gill had become the newspaper’s managing editor, and he, Carol and publisher Bingham agreed that it was time to democratize the engagement announcements that appeared in the Sunday sections. For years the photos that illustrated the brides’ announcement were different sizes. The larger the photo, and the closer to “page two” the more socially prominent was her family. Of course, the girls were all white. Black engagements ran separately. (As did the group shots of black and white debutantes. By 1973 Louisville’s social world had changed so dramatically that the white debutantes disbanded.)

One Sunday, all the engagement photos were the same size. And they appeared in alphabetical order, based on the bride’s last name. Black and white, all together. There were some phone calls, but the world was changing so rapidly that before long nobody even remembered the old system.

I got to know Carol beginning in the summer of 1972, when I finished my summer internship and was offered a job as a reporter on her staff. As such, I would become the first male in the woman’s department—one of the first young men in America to have that distinction. The year that would follow was among the happiest of my career, and Carol—the tough-minded but warm-hearted editor—became one of my principal mentors.

Ours was a closely-knit staff, mostly young and either single or newly married. I got to travel all over the country doing feature stories. No young writer could have hoped for a better launch. Carol and her staff won a number of big awards, and she gained a reputation as one of America’s best features editors.

In The Top Ranks

Then, in the summer of 1974, the executive ranks were shaken when a new publisher, Barry Bingham Jr., elevated Gill from the newsroom to the administrative suite as general manager (in time he would become president and publisher). The same man who had encouraged Carol’s crusading reporting and integration of the engagement columns now was a key factor in her selection for his old job—as managing editor.

It was headline news across America: the first woman to hold a top newsroom job at a major newspaper. Later that year, Carol joined Rep. Barbara Jordan, First Lady Betty Ford, and tennis star Billie Jean King on the cover of Time, the newsmagazine’s first “Women of the Year.” She was invited all over the nation to address press organizations; she became a Pulitzer Prize juror and a Nieman Fellowship judge at Harvard.

Back home in Louisville, she presided over some of the toughest days in the newspaper’s history. The month she was selected, Richard Nixon resigned. The nation careened toward recession. Louisville’s economy was especially hard hit and the blue-collar workforce helped the city gain a reputation as “strike city.” In the fall of 1975, a federal court ordered school desegregation through countywide busing, which the newspaper supported editorially and covered thoroughly. I know. I was on the streets covering the demonstrations and was tear-gassed on Preston Highway and had a brick thrown at my phone booth in Fern Creek. Unhappy readers marched down Broadway—10,000 strong—and broke out thousands of dollars worth of windows. The publisher was hanged in effigy. Not a happy time.

Although her appointment was greeted with publicity and praise in many quarters, back in Louisville there was considerable grousing. A lot of the staff—most of them white males, many of them jealous—undercut Carol’s management. They said she was not home to run the shop (the fact was that she was encouraged to make many trips and to promote The Courier-Journal elsewhere). She was accused of making the newspaper too “light” (meaning feminine) by encouraging feature projects rather than hard news. And her passion for international affairs led some to complain that the newspaper suffered from “Afghanistanism,” meaning a preoccupation with stories about far away places that didn’t matter to “the Shively housewife,” as a typical C-J reader was nicknamed.

Backstabbing, and a Demotion

As writers have observed since that time, Carol’s predicament was similar to other career women of the day. Change had come rapidly but resistance was great, and often invidious backstabbing led to Carol’s demotion in the late spring of 1976. We were both in New York City at the time (for different reasons) but she chose to give me the news over an otherwise festive lunch at “21.” In retrospect, it was like a scene out of “Mad Men.” She was being moved to the publisher’s office, to work as his assistant on “tailored products.” It would be good, she said, because she had spent too much time away from her girls and her husband, Charles. What I also knew was that the stress of the job had led her to smoke—and sometimes to drink—more than she should.

Carol’s departure from the newsroom happened while I was on a vacation in Europe, and by the time I returned, she was already ensconced in an executive floor office, one below the newsroom. Meanwhile, the white men were all back in charge in the news department. There was even a man in her old job as features editor. Sexism (sometimes in the most extreme form) and racism (even at the vaunted Courier-Journal) emerged too. One editor was notorious for having a standing reservation at the downtown Stouffer’s Inn. Another told a black reporter that he had a problem with his “white wife.”

Carol continued to do good work. She worked closely with Paul Janensch, a former city editor who was called back to Louisville to clean up the news operations a few years later. He deputized her to find and recruit the best minority journalists in America, and for her efforts she became the first white member of the National Association of Black Journalists. Then, in 1984, only 10 years after she was chosen for the managing editor’s job, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died within a few months.

Although her light had dimmed a bit at Sixth and Broadway, her death again gained national headlines, including an obituary with a photo in The New York Times. Her story was a key element in Alex Jones and Susan Tifft’s critically acclaimed history of the Binghams and the Louisville newspapers, “The Patriarch.” In the years since she has been elected to the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. She is honored in the women’s hall of fame in the state capital in Frankfort and in Louisville Metro Hall. Early this month, a poster hailing her as a “Louisville first” was fastened to a new gallery on the façade of the city’s historic Molee Building, which is being renovated by local philanthropist Christina Lee Brown. There she is with D.W. Griffith, Louis Brandeis, Miss Jennie Benedict and others. A graduate student in Illinois not long ago published a major scholarly work about Carol’s life and career.

In time, I expect, she will became one of the best remembered figures of the Bingham era at The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. Certainly she was among the most talented, and her love and understanding for Kentucky, her adopted state, was deep and real. Her commitment to equal rights for all came at a time when it really made a difference.

Whether Jill Abramson’s story will be similarly remembered, I cannot say. It is unclear exactly how she ran afoul of the Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger. But her unceremonial dumping, not long after she reportedly raised issues about being paid less than her predecessor—a white male—sounds like an old story.

A final note: One day in 1978, after I had gone to work on the editorial page and was on a staff of white men, my editor, Van Cavett, came in to tell me that there would be a big boost in my next paycheck. It wasn’t because I had done anything extraordinary, he was quick to say (since it wasn’t evaluation time). It seems that I was part of a newspaper-wide settlement that followed a lawsuit by some of the female reporters a few years earlier. Even though I was a white male, when I joined the staff of the women’s department, I was paid at the “female level,” and my compensation had remained lower than the other men on the staff ever since. I was only 27, but it was a vivid lesson in discrimination. So was the treatment that my friend and mentor Carol had received, in a rather public and unceremonial fashion.

Less than a year after Carol died, Barry Bingham Sr. sold his family’s media empire; there is a side of me that is glad that Carol missed the pain we all experienced during that sad time, and the changes in the newspaper business that have occurred in the nearly three decades since.

A little over a year after the sale, Irene Nolan, another protégée of Carol, became managing editor. And today, The Courier-Journal’s managing editor is again a woman—Jean Porter.

Maybe times have really changed in the news industry. Or maybe they haven’t.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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