Melissa Ludtke and the fight for locker room equality

I first heard of Melissa Ludtke in 2013 when I watched ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary, Let Them Wear Towels.  The documentary features Ludtke and other female sports journalists, documenting their fight for access to locker rooms after games in the 1970s. Ludtke filed a lawsuit against the MLB after being denied entry to the New York Yankees’ locker room during the World Series because of her gender. She won the case and is now considered one of the trailblazers in women’s sports media history in the fight for equality. I had the privilege of speaking with Ludtke, who provided me with tons of insight into the sports world then and now. Although Ludtke has since moved on from the sports media field, she still follows female sports journalists and says that the climate has improved, from what she can tell.

“Like most stories that we rarely hear about, we have to make the assumption that, by and large, it’s all working out, that women are not experiencing such challenges in this job and in going in locker rooms, having equal access,” she said. “We’ve had incidents that have come to light…We can all name them because we know them, and we know them because they are anomalies — they are not the usual, so I take that as a good sign that they are so few, that we can name on one hand.”

Ludtke considers sexist comments towards female journalists’ on Twitter to be “less heartening” (something I will get into in a later post), but said the backlash against sexism is stronger now.

“When you do see these things happen, mistreatment of women in the locker room, or through tweets of ball players or the rest, what you see happening now, which never happened back in the 70s, is that you see teams and leagues fining players for doing it, calling them out, punishing them, so that is a step forward, a step in the right direction, to call it out and call it what it is and say that there’s no place for it there. Of course during my time, we were battling the teams and the leagues…It was still that kind of early signs of misogyny, and again, sexual shaming and sexualizing women, and all of that was in play then.”

Ludtke went on to explain why she thinks we are still seeing so few female sports journalists, despite all of the advancements in the past few decades. The challenges they face go past sexist remarks and play into more subtle and traditional gender roles.

“A sports department newsroom is not a comfort zone for women, it’s not a place where many of them stay long or build their numbers because we find exceptionally small numbers of women who are populating today’s sports departments, and those numbers have gone down, not up,” she said. “From what I can tell, it’s a mixture of, probably, choices that women have to make that men often don’t in terms of their lifestyle issues, and travel versus family. Those are things that still fall differently on women and men in terms of those choices. But I also think that they probably are finding that it’s just not a place where they are treated with the same kind of respect that the men are.”

It was promising for me to hear about the positive changes that women have seen recently, but my conversation with Ludtke also demonstrates just how far women have to go in their quest for equality. Don’t worry, though — our conversation wasn’t all doom and gloom. Ludtke also gave me some excellent insight into why having more women in sports media helps the industry and what female journalists bring to the table that’s unique, which I will be sure to detail later. In the meantime, check out the Let Them Wear Towels. I would also highly recommend Richard Deitsch’s detailed piece and Kami Mattioli’s roundtable on the harassment female journalists face from coaches, athletes, etc. on a daily basis.

Photo by Mike Petrucci

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