Academic journal article Journalism History

Gender at Work: Early Accounts by Women Journalists

Academic journal article Journalism History

Gender at Work: Early Accounts by Women Journalists

Article excerpt

n the late 1890s, not long after she graduated from a Milwaukee women's college, Elizabeth Banks applied for a reporting job at a St. Paul newspaper that had published her article describing her unhappy experiences as a "typewriter girl."

The publisher told her, "Don't think of it, my poor child. Be anything, but don't be a newspaper girl."' Finally yielding to her threats and pleading, he agreed to hire Banks as a part-time secretary. Every afternoon, he would help her write articles. Banks worked hard at her career and she went on to enjoy considerable success as a feature writer. With her 1902 Autobiography of a `Newspaper Girl,' she became the first female reporter to publish her autobiography. Since then, the other women who published books about their journalism careers have generally echoed Banks's point that women intent on journalism careers need to persist in the face of men's reluctance to hire women or treat them as competent professionals. The research reported here examines autobiographies by six women who wrote for generalinterest newspapers in 1900-1938, to see how these women defined themselves and what factors they chose to highlight in explaining the course of their careers.

The history of women's role in the newsroom has already received close attention.2 For example, Ishbel Ross's Ladies of the Press, which remains an excellent description of women's invasion into newsrooms, correctly emphasized that most women were "steered into the quieter by-waters of the newspaper plant" while those who managed to insinuate themselves into city rooms faced continuing suspicion.3 The question here is whether, at a time when notions of gender differences in the work sphere were in flux, women reporters were self-conscious about their status as women. This article examines the extent to which these autobiographers used gender to explain their difficulties getting and keeping jobs as reporters.

The women studied had different ideas about precisely how a female standpoint might affect professional practices, ethical decision-making, and so forth. Yet, close readings of their autobiographies show that they worried about similar issues. Themes common to all six include a self-mockery of their initial ignorance about journalism and naivete about the struggles they would eventually face on account of gender. More importantly, they consistently attributed the long-term barriers to success to gender, as opposed to, for example, marital status, race, religion, or to their level of education, skill, or commitment to hard work. They all insisted that they needed and deserved good salaries, but were often underpaid because of gender. Above all, they agonized over the potential conflict between the sensibilities of journalists and women. Even in their own minds, these two sensibilities directly collided in the ethical arena. They wanted to see themselves as journalists.

Nonetheless, these women said, often with some bitterness, their employers and colleagues defined them exclusively as female. These autobiographies also suggest an awareness of the long-term penalty they would pay for accommodating other people's notions of gender.

Scholars are beginning to call for histories of media work that heed the voices of workers and that address major changes affecting professional practices.4 Newspaper articles, however, offer no evidence of how reporters understood their status or how they responded to changing conditions in the workplace. News processes are typically anonymous and bureaucratically mediated; they disappear into the product.5 Even the most careful, systematic reading of newspapers cannot provide insights into stories suggested but never assigned, assigned but not written, written but not published. In contrast, autobiographies, read as a group, reveal how people account for their work experiences. Yet, as a valuable resource for addressing precisely such issues, autobiography is largely ignored. …

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