Elisabeth Coleman dies at 68; helped break journalism glass ceiling
After graduating from Vassar College in 1966, Elisabeth Coleman sought a job in journalism “as an assistant to a smart man.” She found such a position as a researcher at Newsweek magazine in New York.
In those “Mad Men” days of suffocating sexism, editing and reporting at the big newsweeklies were jobs done almost exclusively by men. Bright women like Coleman did the legwork, an arrangement she did not question — at first.
Four years later, however, the revolution was underway. Forty-six women at the lower levels of Newsweek’s staff lodged a sex discrimination complaint in 1970. It became the first class-action lawsuit by women in the media alleging their systematic exclusion from the choicest jobs. Coleman was one of the plaintiffs.
“She had no hesitation in joining,” said former Newsweek senior editor Lynn Povich, who wrote a book about the case. “She had this great sense that big things were about to happen.”
Coleman, one of the first women at Newsweek to rise from researcher to correspondent and who later served as press secretary to Gov. Jerry Brown during his first term in office, died June 20 in New York City after a short illness, according to her brother, Francis D.R. Coleman. She was 68.
“The Newsweek lawsuit played a huge role in my life,” she told Povich in the 2012 book “The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.”
Within months after joining the lawsuit, Coleman was promoted to correspondent and assigned to San Francisco, where she covered such major stories as the trial of Angela Davis, the black militant acquitted of providing guns used in a courtroom shooting that killed a judge.
In 1976 Coleman became the first woman in modern memory to serve as press secretary for a California governor.
“It was a real challenge to be his press secretary,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who was then Brown’s chief of staff. Brown was notorious for his spontaneity, which extended to the long, free-floating discussion with reporters late on a Friday afternoon in 1976 during which he decided to run for president.
Coleman “took all of the uncertainty and spontaneity that was part and parcel of the Brown administration in stride,” Davis recalled. “She was terrific.”
Born in Suffolk County, England, on May 26, 1945, she was the second of three children of David Coleman, a senior British intelligence officer, and his wife, the former Annelise Bojesen. She lived with her family in Germany until 1947, when one of her father’s spy operations went sour and they were forced to flee the country.
Relocated with her family to the United States, Coleman grew up on a ramshackle farm in Indiana. They struggled financially for many years, but Coleman worked hard and was admitted to Vassar at age 16. She graduated in 1966 with a degree in Russian.
When she announced that she wanted to work in journalism for “a smart man,” her parents asked if she had considered being a journalist herself. As told in the Povich book, she replied, “Oh my gosh, no — I couldn’t do that. That’s for men.”
But she quickly fell into reporting as an assistant to Bruce Porter, who had joined Newsweek in 1967 as television critic. He took her on assignments and “before long she was reporting whole stories,” he recalled in an interview last week. “Researchers, if they were lucky, could do reporting. If they were not lucky, they could just do fact checking. They were glorified secretaries. Elisabeth was doing the job of a full-scale reporter.”
Porter was more supportive of women in journalism than most of his male colleagues. According to Povich’s book, after Coleman was repeatedly told she could not apply for one of the magazine’s summer reporting internships, the male head of correspondents admitted that the reason was “men don’t want to work with women.”
In early 1970, when Povich asked her to join the lawsuit, she was ready. “I had this tightly wound feeling that we were changing history,” Coleman said, “that something was going to explode!”
The women were represented by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the civil rights advocate and future congresswoman, who described her clients as “pristine female brilliance, deliberately kept at ground level.”
Even though Newsweek answered to a woman — Katharine Graham was president of the Washington Post Co., which published the magazine — progress in the case was slow. The women filed two complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before the magazine finally agreed in 1973 to specific goals and timetables for moving women up the editorial ladder.
The successful legal battle changed Coleman’s life. She left Newsweek in 1973 to work as a reporter for KQED-TV in San Francisco and later for ABC News before going to work for Brown. A stunning redhead, she “carried herself with a New York, sophisticated elegance which was then unknown in Sacramento,” recalled Llew Werner, then a top Brown aide.
She left Sacramento after marrying Rock Brynner, the son of actor Yul Brynner, in 1978. “The governor stood up for Elisabeth at our wedding,” Brynner told The Times last week.
They were divorced in 1981. In addition to her brother Francis, of Bloomfield, N.Y., Coleman is survived by another brother Jack, of Philadelphia; a half sister, Sally Van Devanter, of Westport, Conn.; and her stepmother, Elisabeth Laperouse, of Themines, France.
After her marriage, she moved back to New York, where she ran her own public relations firm for several years. In 1990 she joined American Express, retiring in 2004 as vice president in charge of communications. A devoted Buddhist, she was working on a memoir at the time of her death.
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