In the news today is my former employer, The Anniston Star, once one of the best small newspapers in the United States. It is making headlines not for breaking news but for being news. It turns out, the publisher had a little problem with spanking the women.
Spoiler alert: Inquiring minds want to know if I was spanked. Yes and no. I wasn’t hit on the ass by anyone, ever, without my permission because I would probably haul out a two by four and kill the person dead in their tracks. But I was spanked by the Star all the same.
Let me take you back to a time when men ruled the world and editors and publishers felt like they could do most anything they wanted, also known as not too long ago. In the eighties, Time Magazine named The Anniston Star one of the best dailies in the country, which created a kind of magnet for top-notch reporters and wanna-be writers. They poured down to this tiny Southern town in Alabama hoping to discover their voice and learn the trade. I was one of them.
I was pursuing the dream of learning from the best of the best, but in truth, it was also about a man. So much in life comes down to this. I loved a man and so I followed him to Alabama. But I did not go lightly. I had weight in my heels.
I had just won a prestigious writing award from UPI for best business story of a small daily in New York. I had a fancy Master’s degree from a fancy journalism school. I had been in major contention for the editor’s job of the foreign desk at Macleans in Toronto. I was, in journalistic terms, very, very hot.
So, I followed this man to a small newspaper in the hopes of fame and fortune, and most of all for love, with some swagger in my step. I was an award-winning, Ivy-trained business writer. I had foreign desk experience. I could drive a stick-shift and talk Southern, which is known to charm to disarm. I was fearless.
The job offer was for the city desk, but when I arrived and met with the managing editor he told me this:
Editor: “Little lady, Ah think Ah’m gonna put you on the wimmen’s desk where you can write about dem wimmen things.”
Editor: “You heard me. You don’t think Ah give two shits about yo’ fancy degree or yo’ fancy awards. You gonna go to the wimmen’s desk and report about wimmen things until I say so.”
Me: Pretty much speechless.
At night, I lay in the arms of my boyfriend who was on the city desk reporting about politics, and murders and civil rights issues. During the day I went to the Women’s Desk, also known as the Lifestyle Pages, to cover the flower show, and the chili-cook off and the Junior League. Not that there’s anything wrong with lifestyle! It just wasn’t where I saw myself when I left my award-winning business and international career for The Anniston Star.
And then along came Puff the cat. Puff, it turned out, changed my life.
There was a day when there was a really big story in town and I wanted it. Every reporter in the newsroom was assigned an angle, so when I went into the editor’s office, I was hoping for some kind of tidbit, a morsel of real news.
Editor: “Ah, little lady,” he began. “Ah think Ah’m gonna give you Puff the cat.”
Editor: “Yasss, you heard me. You gonna report on Puff the cat. It seems that ole Puff needs to be adopted, and if he cain’t git adopted he’s gonna git hisself kilt. Now you run along and put some color on that story and if it’s any good, I’ll see about moving it up. Don’t say I never did you no favors.”
I did write about Puff the cat, but then I called every newspaper in 20 miles and I had other offers in two days. So, I went back into the editor’s office to see what I could negotiate.
Editor: “Don’t be telling me you want out of the wimmen’s desk, because that ain’t gonna happen.”
Me: “No sir. I’m here to tell you I have offers to be on the city desk for every other newspaper in this state. However, I’m going to do you a favor, and I’ll stay here if you move me to the city desk. You don’t even have to match the money. You just need to move me, now.”
Editor: Pretty much speechless.
He got up, turned beet red and started shaking. I thought he was going to hit me right across the face. He grabbed for something on the desk and slammed it down. I was, for the first time in my life, truly frightened for my safety in the workplace. Then he shouted this, which I have never forgotten in more than 40 years:
“You better pack yo’ purse and git outta my sight right now, because Ah’m gonna ruin you. You hear me? Ah’m gonna make sure you never work in this business again. You’re finished. Do you hear me? Finished. As long as I live, your name is gonna mean shit in this business.”
I’ll be honest, he scared me badly. It may not have been a physical spanking over a desk, as we have learned happened to my colleagues. But it was a vicious, threatening attack on a young reporter. I had to call every one of my professors, and all the editors I had ever worked for, and even some newspaper union representatives to find out if he could do such a thing.
Sometimes a spanking can knock some sense into you, as the publisher reasoned why he hit the women in the newsroom. Neither the publisher, nor the editor ever physically hit me, Lord no. But this experience knocked some sense into me like none other. I’ll be honest: I wondered about the women in that newsroom and how they put up with a culture of utter bullshit that was going on. How did any of us put up with this for so many years, and how did it take so long to come to the surface?
I packed my purse and left the Star, pulling into the Birmingham Post-Herald. My editors there encouraged me, sent me into the fires, the shootings, civil rights issues and every major business story in the state. I won state and national awards. Thanks to Puff the cat, I had arrived. It seems like we both found a home that day. I’m just thankful I didn’t git myself kilt in the process.
Michelle Marchildon is The Yogi Muse. She’s an award-winning journalist and the co-author of most recently, “Fearless After Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga.” She’s a long-time professional writer and an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find her in Yoga International, Yoga Journal, Mantra Yoga and Health Magazine and Sports Illustrated.