The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Claudia Levy, Washington Post journalist and advocate for women in the newsroom, dies at 77

Claudia Levy in 2000. (Marie Marzi/For The Washington Post)
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Claudia Levy, a Washington Post journalist and union activist who battled successfully in the 1970s for the increased hiring of women in the newsroom as well as more equitable pay and opportunities for their advancement, died Dec. 3 at her home in the Bannockburn community of Bethesda, Md. She was 77.

The cause was complications of cervical-spine surgery, said her sister, Andrea Polk.

In a reporting and Newspaper Guild career spanning nearly 40 years, Ms. Levy was wholly unimpressed by power and wholly unintimidated by those who wielded it. “Her efforts to get women equal pay back in the day — that was like career suicide, and she didn’t care,” Polk said. “She did it anyway.”

Her intolerance for political jabberwocky and inflated ego was equaled by her seemingly boundless personal generosity, which often led her to help strangers in need. Once, her sister said, Ms. Levy was assigned to write a story about a homeless shelter. She brought a family she met there into her home for a year and helped support one of the children through college.

The daughter of a business journalist and a portrait painter, Ms. Levy grew up in suburban Maryland immersed in freewheeling conversations about politics, the labor movement and culture. She was barely 5 feet tall and had no college degree — she preferred real-world experience to the classroom — and arrived at The Post in 1965, a time when women quickly hit professional walls, not to mention being hit on. Female journalists could hope for few writing opportunities beyond light features. One woman at the paper recalled being told that the best jobs were reserved for those who “urinate standing up.”

Ms. Levy was hired as a “copy boy,” the archaic title used for staffers tasked with ferrying edited stories to the composing room and performing other menial tasks. She made a leap to the position of junior Metro reporter and reported on the aftermath of the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and, in the early 1970s, on court appearances by the Watergate burglars.

Later, she covered the Maryland suburbs and was editor of the Maryland Weekly section. She also was an assistant financial editor and real estate editor, devoting particular attention to issues of low-income housing.

Ms. Levy retired in 2003 from the obituaries desk, where she had spent about a dozen years as a dependable profiler of the beloved (child star Shirley Temple) and the reviled (Gestapo official Klaus Barbie). She often said she found the greatest fulfillment chronicling the lives of everyday Washington-area residents and figures who shaped the region, such as radio broadcaster Eddie Gallaher, newspaper publisher Calvin Rolark and Maryland politician Idamae Garrott.

Ms. Levy was a serious-minded, unflashy writer who allowed herself the occasional flourish of humor to capture her subject in humanizing detail. In an obituary of a well-regarded Post editor, she moved beyond the expected encomiums to note his reputation in the newsroom “for taking a correspondent’s dispatch or a piece of wire copy with him to read wherever he went, even into the men’s room.”

Beyond her hundreds of bylines, Ms. Levy was widely credited with fostering meaningful newsroom change. She was a stalwart of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and served on bargaining committees engaged in difficult contract negotiations.

In an outgrowth of her union work, she helped lead a group of more than 100 Post employees (men and women) in bringing a sex-discrimination complaint against the newspaper in 1972. Female journalists at Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, the Associated Press, the New York Times and many other news outlets also were beginning to seek legal redress over similar concerns involving promotion and pay.

When the group of Post employees filed its complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, eight of 51 Metro reporters were women, according to The Post. In an interview for this story, former Post reporter Karlyn Barker described the newspaper at the time as a “wasteland” for the hiring and promotion of women.

A settlement was reached in 1980, with The Post agreeing to launch a five-year plan guaranteeing that at least one-third of job vacancies in the editorial and commercial departments would go to women. The newspaper, which said it was also prioritizing the hiring of minorities, made no admission of discrimination.

As part of the settlement, women who worked at The Post between 1972 and 1974 received $50 to $250, depending on their length of service. “It’s strictly token back pay,” Ms. Levy said to The Post at the time. “But the affirmative action element is promising.”

Joanne Omang, who arrived at The Post in 1973, said in an interview on Tuesday that she was promoted within two years of her hiring from the Alexandria, Va., bureau to a posting in Buenos Aires because managers, worried by the EEOC complaint, “needed to send a woman somewhere.”

“Because of Claudia,” she added, “I got these really great breaks.” Omang left the paper in 1991 as assistant national editor.

Barker said Ms. Levy belonged to a small cadre of women who carefully monitored quarterly hiring reports and held regular meetings with Post newsroom leaders to ensure progress in the affirmative-action hiring plan.

“We watched all these ‘zeros’ in the newsroom change — to show either the women or the Blacks who had been hired,” Barker recalled, while underscoring that hiring did not guarantee promotion.

Of 957 newsroom employees at present, 506 are women, said managing editor Tracy Grant — just under 53 percent. Earlier this year, Sally Buzbee became the first female executive editor, the highest-ranking newsroom job.

Claudia Dale Levy was born in Galveston, Tex., on Dec. 24, 1943, and grew up in Chevy Chase, Md. Her father, Sid, was an editor with Kiplinger’s newsletters, and her mother, Virginia, was a painting instructor. In addition to her sister, survivors include her parents, of Washington.

Ms. Levy graduated in 1961 from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where she wrote for the student newspaper. She attended Penn State before joining The Post.

Ms. Levy was an accomplished textile artist and choral alto and transitioned harmoniously out of journalism into a life of art, music and volunteering. She was a former manager at the Potomac Fiber Arts Gallery in Alexandria, Va., and her paintings on silk (often of nature scenes) were shown at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery and other venues.

She sang in the Congressional Chorus as well as the Washington Performing Arts’s gospel choir. She was a founding volunteer at My Sister’s Place, a shelter in Washington for victims of domestic violence; a volunteer at Martha’s Outfitters, a community thrift store; and a volunteer tutor of English to immigrants.

Recalling the kindness that had led her sister to take in the homeless family, Polk added that Ms. Levy once met a blind man and agreed to shuttle him regularly from work to home. “That,” Polk said, “was emblematic of who she was.”

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