Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Nan Robertson Is Dead at 83

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009; 6:40 PM

Nan Robertson, 83, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who chronicled her nearly fatal struggle with toxic shock syndrome and wrote a book about gender discrimination at the New York Times that has become a standard text in journalism, died Oct. 13 of heart disease at Collingswood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rockville. She lived in Bethesda.

Ms. Robertson, a New York Times reporter, wrote in the newspaper's Sunday magazine that just hours after a family Thanksgiving dinner in 1981, she lay near death in a hospital, her limbs paralyzed and her fingers and toes blackening with gangrene.

The rare but potentially fatal disease had just been in the news because its occurrence had been linked to the use of super-absorbent tampons, although Ms. Robertson was one of the few who contracted the disease from an unrelated infection. Her Sept. 19, 1982, article on toxic shock prompted 2,000 letters to the magazine.

She lost the tips of eight fingers, but otherwise managed a full, if arduous, recovery.

"My deepest fear did not materialize," she wrote. "I have typed the thousands of words of this article, slowly and with difficulty, once again able to practice my craft as a reporter. I have written it -- at last -- with my own hands."

Ms. Robertson was the third woman on the Times' staff to win a Pulitzer, journalism's highest honor, taking the 1983 prize for feature writing. Her 1992 book, "The Girls in the Balcony," an account of the history of sex discrimination at the Times, told the story of the women's caucus at the paper and the seven women who sued the newspaper over unequal pay, a lack of promotions and discriminatory treatment.

The book's title referred to the perch above the auditorium at the National Press Club in Washington, which, until 1955, barred women from entering even on business, and barred them as members until 1971. The lawsuit, later expanded to include all 550 women at the Times, was settled for $350,000 and an agreement to equalize salaries and promotions. The court record was sealed at settlement.

"Nan's book, published 17 years after the suit was settled, provides the only record of what we considered an important step for women in the most visible part of journalism at the time," said Betsy Wade, who under her married name, Boylan, was the lead plaintiff in the suit, Elizabeth Boylan et al. v. the New York Times. "But what other papers saw in this settlement was much more important: that if the Times can't win [a sex discrimination lawsuit], we'd better clean up our act."

Although she was not one of the seven women who put their reputations on the line for the groundbreaking lawsuit, Ms. Robertson was a bit of a rabble-rouser. She said in a PBS documentary in 1993 that her former editor, James Reston, the paper's longtime Washington bureau chief, "believed that women belonged at home and that they should raise the children and be helpmates to their husbands, and he ran the Washington bureau like a men's club."

She pushed her editors for years to allow the use of Ms. as a courtesy title, along with Mr., Mrs. and Miss. In 1986, the Times finally acknowledged that the honorific had become a standard part of the language and changed its style.

"Jubilant is the word for the way people feel around here," she told The Washington Post about the style change. "Everybody feels it should have happened a long time ago, but that's the Times. It has a sort of glacial way of moving. . . . It may have been late in coming, but it's here."

A gifted writer, she once described an oversized gem worn by a socialite as "about the weight of a chocolate chip cookie," said Wade, the former head copy editor of the Times' foreign news desk.

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