Dorothy Townsend wasn’t happy working for the “Women’s section” of the L.A. Times, so in 1964 she demanded to cover the local news beat. She moved into the city room, populated my all male journalists, and two years later, the team won a Pulitzer Prize. Coincidence? We don’t think so. However, we’re sad to report this well-respected and talented woman has died at the age of 88.
The L.A. Times themselves had the news. They write, “Townsend, who wrote for The Times from 1954 to 1986, died March 5 of cancer at her Sherman Oaks home, said her cousin, Louise Hagan.”
The journalist certainly paved a path, not just for herself, but for other women in the field. Yet interestingly enough, another woman didn’t make it into the news room until the early 70s. “I don’t think any of us at that time realized what she had accomplished merely by making it to the newsroom,” Noel Greenwood, a former Times senior editor, told them. “This was during an era when women were thought to be such delicate creatures that they were not fit for the challenges of hard news reporting, and were consigned to the features section. I always remembered Dorothy as a heroine.”
“She complained that her editors tried to keep her from going into the worst areas,” said Myrna Oliver, who joined the staff in 1972. “She said, ‘I can run faster than any of those men in the city room.’ She was a tough, petite little lady — and an excellent reporter.”
One of the stories they likely tried to steer her clear of was the Watts riots, which were the worst California had seen until the L.A. riots in 1992 (oddly enough, the inception of both mirror each other a great deal). The LA Times writes, “Months after chronicling the ‘Sad Saga of Bimbo, the Psychotic Whale’ at Marineland, she helped document the aftermath of the riots. She interviewed religious leaders who expressed guilt over being ‘blinded’ to economic conditions in Watts and analyzed the ‘desperate’ youths who took part in the riots.”
And it was their coverage of the Watts riots that earned the news team their Pulitzer.
“Upon joining The Times as a ‘Women’s staff reporter,’ she regularly covered society events. But as feature sections evolved, so did her subjects,” writes the LA Times. “By 1960, she was interviewing future First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and profiling teenage mountaineers who climbed the Matterhorn for ‘what probably is the strangest summer job at Disneyland.’” That last quote according to Townsend herself.
“Dorothy was what we would have called back then very ladylike,” former Times columnist Steve Harvey said in an email. “She wore dresses. She didn’t smoke or curse…. But she was tough.”
Like we said, a pioneering woman, and we’re very sad to hear of her passing.
(via LA Times, image AP Photo/Los Angels Times)