M Leidholdt, Alexander S. (2009). Battling Nell: The Life of Southern Journalist Cornelia Battle Lewis, 1893-1956. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, pp. 331.
In the 1920s, Cornelia Battle Lewis wrote strident columns for the Raleigh (N. C.) News and Observer attacking the Ku Klux Klan, defending Communistbacked strikers at a regional textile mill, and supporting Al Smith's candidacy for president despite his Catholicism. By the time she died suddenly in 1956, Lewis was still writing strident columns for the News and Observer, Raleigh's leading newspaper, but these warned of the menace of Communism and urged defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate to desegregate schools. She even denounced her former self.
In Battling Nell, Alexander Leidholdt details the controversial life of the first woman columnist in the South and one of the first in the nation. While the book may offer more information about both Lewis and political controversies in North Carolina than readers outside the state care to know, it is a significant contribution to the literature of both women in journalism and regional journalism history.
Lewis, the daughter of a prominent Raleigh doctor, came of age when privileged North Carolina women "entered the public arena... to exercise their moral authority on behalf of temperance" and became involved in the suffrage movement, women's clubs, the YWCA, and public service. Other background influences included the older generation's memories of Civil War devastation (p. 5). Even at her most liberal, Lewis shared the area's nostalgia for the Confederacy. In later life, she flew the Confederate flag.
Lewis lost her mother when she was young and was raised by a stepmother. Several half brothers also figured in her turbulent life. A rebel from the start, she attended exclusive girls schools but was an indifferent student and rejected her high school's religious teachings. In later life, she became devout and taught religion at her high school during a hiatus from journalism.
Despite her academic shortcomings, Lewis graduated from Smith College and later earned a law degree from Columbia University. During World War I, while serving with the YMCA in France, she had her only serious romance but the relationship ended when her brothers seem to have warned the young officer that Lewis was mentally unstable.
Her journalistic career began almost by accident. In 1920, when she was out riding her horse past the News and Observer, she impulsively stopped in and asked for a job. Publisher Josephus Daniels announced to readers that he had appointed "Miss Nell Battle Lewis, a gifted young woman who has embraced the profession of journalism." Daniels, one of the South's leading progressive publishers, was eager to give women a chance. "Woman is to lose nothing of her grace and charm because she is to become an equal partner in governmental housekeeping" (pp. 59-60).
Lewis, an ardent suffragist, became the paper's only female reporter, covering that and other women's issues. She also wrote a children's page, features, and editorials and, after about a year, became society editor. In 1921, she began writing her column, "Incidentally." It would provide her with a forum for the rest of her life except for interludes, such as when she was ill or recovering from a breakdown.
In the early days, Lewis fiercely attacked the Ku Klux Klan, although she opposed racial integration. She battled for better conditions for women and girls at state asylums and other institutions. She defended free speech at the University of North Carolina and was mortified when North Carolina joined four other Southern states in backing a Republican rather than Al Smith. Her last great progressive cause was supporting textile mill strikers in 1929 even though Communists also backed them. The strike turned violent and culminated in strike leaders being convicted of second-degree murder. The outcome seems to have had a traumatic effect on Lewis. …