reporter and crusader for women’s rights
In 1976, Mary Lou Butcher, an 11-year veteran at The Detroit News and the sole woman reporter on the news desk, was banished to a suburban bureau after she complained about hours and assignments. Instead of grumbling, she took action.
“She charged the paper with sex discrimination, beginning what became a class-action lawsuit to eliminate sexual bias in hiring, promotions and the handling of reporting assignments,” recalls Barbara Hoover, retired Detroit News feature writer. In 1984, after an eight-year legal battle, The Detroit News paid $330,000 to 90 female employees to settle the lawsuit. Women reporters covering the story helped accelerate the women’s movement.
“There can be no doubt that Ms. Butcher’s lawsuit was the catalyst that sped up these improvements (women hired, promoted and honored) at a pace that would not have occurred without it,” Hoover says. “It’s also clear that these improvements have transformed the attitudes, culture and content of the paper to give readers a far richer and more diverse newspaper than ever before, one that more truly serves our community.”
Butcher took her portion of the settlement to the University of Michigan where she established an “Equality in Journalism” scholarship. Since 1986, it has been awarded 17 times to 16 students and carries a cash prize. She meets personally with many of the award winners, encouraging their careers.
Through the years Butcher has been inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and spoken at conferences about how The Detroit News case sparked other sex discrimination suits in newsrooms across the country. Butcher later became vice president of Carl Byoir and Associates and joined her husband, Jack Casey, at Casey Communications.
She notes The Detroit News in 2006 includes 54 women on its staff of 122 journalists, including the managing editor. “It took rare courage and determination and endurance for those who stuck it out, but each victory made it just a bit harder for blatant discrimination to continue,” recalls Marion Marzolf, retired University of Michigan journalism professor.