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Women in the Media: From the Margins to the Mainstream (February 2020): Newspaper Journalism

by Camille McCutcheon

Newspaper Journalism

Though for the most part less known than their male counterparts, women were active in journalism in the nineteenth century, albeit often not as reporters covering hard news. Alice Fahs’s Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space provides an outstanding cultural history of women working in journalism for metropolitan newspapers in New York from the 1880s through the twentieth century. Fahs discusses the woman’s page (treated later on in this essay), other human-interest features, adventure writing (or stunt reporting), working-girl stories, and female foreign correspondents. One of the most valuable aspects of Out on Assignment is its introduction to long-forgotten women, many of whom were nationally syndicated in US newspapers. Barbara Onslow’s Women of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain provides a solid general overview, introduces Victorian women journalists, and discusses women’s roles in the nineteenth-century press. In addition to placing female journalists in the context of nineteenth-century journalism, Onslow examines women’s writing more broadly. A noteworthy feature of Onslow’s book is the select biographical appendix, which offers brief information on the hundred women journalists discussed in the book.

Anne Newport Royall (1769–1854) has the distinction of being the only woman in US history to be convicted of being a “common scold.” She was a travel writer, the first woman to edit and publish a newspaper in Washington, DC, and the first woman to cover the US Congress. During the 1830s, Royall established two newspapers, Paul Pry (1831–36) and The Huntress (1836–54), to expose and combat corruption. Elizabeth Clapp’s A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America, the first in-depth scholarly study of Royall, examines her life and career within the milieu of Jacksonian America. Sara Payson Willis Parton (1811–72), who wrote under the name “Fanny Fern,” was the first woman newspaper columnist to write regularly for a paper, and she became the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the nineteenth century, receiving $100 per week for her column. For the last sixteen years of her life Parton wrote a weekly column for The New-York Ledger. She advocated for women’s rights and social reform and wrote about women’s domestic lives, birth control, divorce, prostitution, venereal disease, and prison reform.1 Joyce Warren’s Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman is the best-researched biography to date of Parton. This biography is a companion to Warren’s edited collection of Parton’s writing, Ruth Hall and Other Writings, which includes (in addition to Parton’s novel Ruth Hall) a selection of Parton’s best columns, arranged chronologically by date of original publication.

Known for her classic work on American feminism, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and as the first editor of the transcendental magazine The Dial, Margaret Fuller (1810–50) worked, for several years, for the New-York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers of its day.2  In 1844, Fuller was hired by the Tribune’s editor, Horace Greeley, to serve as literary critic, and she thus became the first woman staff member of the paper. Fuller spent the next two years in this position before traveling to Europe to serve as correspondent for the Tribune—thus becoming the first female foreign correspondent. She ultimately became the first female war correspondent since she covered the Italian revolution of 1848–49 and sent first–hand accounts back to the Tribune.3 Many biographies of Fuller have been published, but by far the best is John Matteson’s The Lives of Margaret Fuller, which earned Matteson the 2012 Ann M. Sperber Prize for biography. Matteson provides a balanced account of Fuller’s life and includes two previously unpublished images of the writer. In researching his book, Matteson consulted the Fuller family papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library, along with unpublished materials housed at the Boston Public Library; he incorporates numerous primary sources in the biography, such as her letters, diaries, and published works. Another noteworthy resource on Fuller’s journalism career is Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism: A Biographical Essay and Key Writings, edited by Catherine Mitchell, an anthology of Fuller’s journalistic writings, which examines her contributions to the Tribune during her two years as literary critic. In her essays Fuller took up topics from class struggles and prison and asylum reform, to equality for women and African Americans.

Another first was African American Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893). Born free in Delaware, Cary immigrated to Canada, where she became the first African American woman to publish and edit a newspaper in North America. The Provincial Freeman (1853–57) was a Canadian newspaper for African Americans escaping from slavery in the United States, and Cary used the newspaper to advocate for emigration and black liberation. Jane Rhodes wrote the first full-length scholarly study of Cary, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. In it Rhodes documents this journalism pioneer’s life and work and at the same time provides a vivid picture of what life was like for free African Americans during the antebellum period. Rhodes’s noteworthy book is based on primary resources from libraries and archives in the United States and Canada.

Elizabeth Cochrane (1864–1922)—who used the byline Nellie Bly and is now widely known and referred to by that name—was one of the most famous journalists of the nineteenth century. Bly worked for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and was notorious for her stunt journalism and investigative reporting. Among her most famous stunts were having herself committed to Blackwell’s Island insane asylum to expose the mistreatment of patients and, in 1889, racing around the world to better Jules Verne’s record of eighty days as recorded in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). She succeeded, making the trip in seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes. Her accounts of these two undertakings—Ten Days in a Mad-House: Or, Nellie Bly’s Experience on Blackwell’s Island: Feigning Insanity in Order to Reveal Asylum Horrors and Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days—are worthy first-hand accounts. Brooke Kroeger’s Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist is the definitive scholarly study of Nellie Bly. Kroeger documented the book with Bly’s correspondence, court records, news articles, and other primary resources.

Elizabeth L. Banks (1870–1938) is another woman reporter celebrated for stunt journalism. Banks worked as a stunt journalist for newspapers first in the United States and then in England. She carried out undercover assignments, for example, working as a servant or as a laundress, and then wrote about her experiences from the perspective of an “American girl” in the “Campaigns of Curiosity” series, which was published in London newspapers. This series made Banks a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, and she became the subject of poems, songs, and parodies. In 1894 Banks published Campaigns of Curiosity: Journalistic Adventures of an American Girl in Late Victorian London. A century later, University of Wisconsin Press reprinted that book under the same title. The recent edition collects pieces that originally appeared in various London periodicals, and it includes an excellent introductory essay, by Mary Suzanne Schriber and Abbey Zink, on Banks’s career.

Renowned for her crusade against lynching, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) became part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper in 1889. After three local men, one a friend of Wells-Barnett, were lynched in 1892, Wells embarked on an anti-lynching crusade in the United States and Great Britain. Toward the end of her life, she purchased the Chicago Conservator newspaper and became its editor for two years. Although several biographies of Wells-Barnett have been published, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay is the best. Not only does May offer a comprehensive, balanced account of the life and times of her subject, who was one the most outspoken women of the nineteenth century, she also discusses the sexism, classism, and racism that Wells-Barnett faced during her lifetime. Companion volumes to Bay’s biography are Wells-Barnett’s memoir Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, which was edited by her daughter, Alfreda Duster, and The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis. The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, edited by Mia Bay, is a comprehensive collection of Wells-Barnett’s writings.

Moving into the twentieth century, one of course finds myriad examples of successful newspaper women, many of them associated with light fare and many of them celebrities in their own right—though no less noteworthy for that. For nearly forty years (1915–60), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (1881–1972) was the most powerful woman in Hollywood. She worked for William Randolph Hearst and his news syndicate, writing about the Hollywood scene, including the lives and romances of actors. Her column appeared in more than 400 newspapers. She also hosted several radio programs, including Hollywood Hotel (which she hosted from 1934 to 1938). Samantha Barbas was the first scholar to take on Parsons. Barbas’s The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons is an outstanding scholarly biography of Parson’s life and career. Parsons herself wrote two memoirs, The Gay Illiterate and Tell It to Louella.

Hope Ridings Miller (1906–2005) was the society editor for the Washington Post from 1938 to 1944. Her beat included cocktail parties, embassy receptions, and formal dinners. Miller went on to become a syndicated columnist and publicist for the Post (1945–53) and then contributor and editor in chief of Diplomat magazine (1954–66). Joseph Dalton, a distant cousin of Miller, chronicles her life and career in his well-researched Washington’s Golden Age: Hope Ridings Miller, the Society Beat, and the Rise of Women Journalists. Dalton uses primary resources—including correspondence, diaries, memoirs, and photographs—to tell Miller’s story. He also provides excerpts from her Washington Post columns and writings from Diplomat magazine. Washington’s Golden Age is a valuable contribution to the literature on journalism history because it discusses society editorship, an area within journalism that has received scant attention.

Dorothy Butler Gilliam (1936– ) was the first African American reporter hired at the Washington Post, and she later served as an editor and a columnist for the paper. In 1976, she cofounded the Institute for Journalism Education, now the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE), the mission of which is to educate and promote minority journalists. Gilliam continues to work with MIJE, recruiting young people of color to work in the media. In her memoir, Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More like America, she chronicles her career during the Vietnam War era, the civil rights era, and the women’s movement. Gilliam’s important book includes several appendixes; offering valuable information on media diversity, these include an overview of media diversity during the past fifty years, a chronology of the African American press, and listings of current African American newspapers and African American columnists working at daily newspapers.

Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography, Personal History is the candid memoir of one of the most prominent newspaper publishers in journalism history, Katharine Meyer Graham (1917–2001). Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, Jr., purchased the Washington Post in 1933 and later named Katharine’s husband, Phillip Graham, as his successor. In 1963, Phillip Graham committed suicide, and Katherine Graham took over the role as publisher of the Washington Post. In Personal History, Graham writes about her life and her career, and she provides a history of the Washington Post Company and discusses significant milestones, including the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers and coverage of the Watergate scandal.


1. Parton also wrote novels under the name Fanny Fern, and one of the most popular was Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (1855).

2. The preface of Woman in the Nineteenth Century states that it is “a reproduction, modified and expanded, of an article published in ‘The Dial, Boston, July, 1843’, under the title of ‘The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men: and Woman versus Women.’”

3. In 1850, Fuller died in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island as she was returning to the US. She was forty years old.

Works Cited