Those were turbulent times, the 60s and 70s. Civil rights. Vietnam. Assassinations. Woodstock. Watergate.
And then there were those pesky women. Feminists, second wavers, or – worst of all – libbers. They were gathering in consciousness raising groups across the country. They were reveling in the sexual options that came with the pill. They were working outside the home in unprecedented numbers. The liberal wing of the movement was organizing for action through groups such as NOW and the radical wing of the movement was publishing manifestos for the overthrow of patriarchy.
The titles of books describing the women’s movement during these decades speak to its power: The World Split Open (Ruth Rosen), When Everything Changed (Gail Collins), Tidal Wave (Sara M. Evans). There were groundswells in private and public life (“from the bedroom to the boardroom”) that were shifting the nature of women’s lives in America.
But there were also many who weren’t riding the wave, who didn’t want anything to change, and who would prefer the world in its pre-split open 1950s form. Many forces in business, government, and the media saw no need for change and mocked and castigated feminists. And there were also women who saw the feminist movement as an assault on all they held dear – family, home, PTA meetings, chivalry and romance. It was messy – as Beth Bailey summarizes in America in the 1970s: “The women’s movement influenced the ways Americans understood gender in this period, but its positions were not coherent enough to offer a firm foundation to sympathizers and were various enough to provide a multiplicity of targets for opponents.”
In the midst of this mess was a group of women both living in and writing about the feminist movement. If this was a time of the world being split open, these women were often trying to bridge the divide – one that must have felt Grand Canyon-esque at times. These were newspaperwomen – specifically the editors of the “women’s pages” that sometimes got relabeled with terms such as “Style,” “Life,” or “Day.” These editors were working women – so they were clearly living aspects of the movement – but they had the tricky job of representing both sides of the chasm. Stories about affordable daycare, abortion, displaced housewives, the ERA, and sexual harassment appeared on the same pages as wedding announcements, club notices, zucchini recipes, and ads for girdles.
Who were these editors? There are some “leading ladies” among them – women whose impact on journalism has been chronicled in archives at the University of Missouri, recounted in oral histories sponsored by the Washington Press Club, and described and analyzed in the excellent scholarship of Kimberly Wilmot Voss, the leading academic expert on these women’s editors. These especially well-known women include Dorothy Jurney, Vivian Castleberry, Marie Anderson, Carol Sutton, and Marjorie Paxson. There are other nationally-recognized women’s editors who won awards (especially the coveted Penney-Missouri Awards), spoke to seminars, and are noted in texts about women in journalism. These include Edee Green, Gloria Biggs, Betty Preston Oiler, Bobbi McCallum, Maggie Savoy, Anne Rowe Goldman, Colleen “Koky” Dishon, and Lois Hagen. And there are others who gained local attention for their work – people like Mary Ann Grossman or my mother, Margaret Miller.
I’ll be talking more about many details of these women’s lives and work in future blog posts. But, for now, a few thoughts on some pivotal experiences.
A number of the editors knew each other well. Dorothy, Marie, and Marjorie worked together for a time at the Miami Herald – and they remained close even after Dorothy moved on to the Detroit Free Press and Marjorie left for positions in St. Petersburg and then Philadelphia. There were other members of what might be called a “Florida mafia,” too: Edee Greene in Ft. Lauderdale and Anne Rowe Goldman in St. Petersburg.
Many of these women knew early in life that they wanted to work in the newspaper business. By the time Dorothy was a teenager, she was working for her father’s paper in Michigan City, Indiana. Carol put out her own newspaper in elementary school, and Marjorie “worked on the high school newspaper and suddenly that was it.” Many women report practically living in the offices of their college newspapers.
World War II played an important role in many of their careers. Margaret, Koky, and Marjorie all worked for the wire services during the war, taking jobs that would have undoubtedly be filled by men during peace time. Dorothy worked at the city desk on the Washington Daily News during the war – though she had to train her replacement when the soldiers returned.
Though some women stayed on the “women’s beat” throughout their careers, others saw their careers take them to management posts (e.g., Carol became the managing editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal) to advocacy positions for women in public life (e.g., Dorothy began a “head-hunting” project to match women with advanced jobs in journalism), or to new or renewed passions (e.g., Vivian began intensive work in global peace initiatives).
These women had varied personal lives. Though some had children (e.g., Margaret, Vivian, Edee, Lois, Carol) many were married without children (e.g., Gloria, Mary Ann, Koky) and others were single throughout their lives (e.g., Marjorie, Marie).
Though there were many ways in which the lives of these women diverged, I feel safe in saying that there were two overriding principles that joined them.
First, they loved – and believed in – newspapers. They saw the power of press in all of its mid-20th century glory to make a difference for individuals, for communities, and for institutions. They knew that they could serve a critical role in calling attention to issues of injustice. They could inform readers about what was happening locally, nationally, and even internationally in areas of politics, health, education, and the environment. But they could also make a mother cry as she clipped and preserved the few column inches describing her daughter “floating down the aisle” in a satin gown.
Second, they loved – and believed in – women. They didn’t all see themselves as feminists – at least at first – and their relationship to leaders in the women’s movement was often contentious. But the very nature of their jobs and their lives put them in a position to truly appreciate the complexity of the struggle. They fought for equal pay in the newsroom and against chauvinist treatment on their pages and in personal relationships. They realized the impossibility of having it all before we were told it was something we should strive for. Perhaps most important, though, they knew – perhaps more than those leaders in the “movement” knew – that being a woman is a complicated business. They bore witness to those times when everything changed, straddled the world split open, and kept their heads above water as the tidal wave came crashing in.
I’m thinking we can learn a lot from these editors.