From Big-S to Small-S Society

As I write, information sources ranging from NPR to cable news to my Facebook feed tell me about what was happening 50 years ago this week: Late August in 1963, the historic March on Washington culminating in the I Have a Dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a watershed event, and as we look back we can see how much things have changed … and haven’t.

That same week, about 400 miles to the northeast in Cleveland, Ohio, a group of women (and a few men) gathered for the Theta Sigma Phi Woman’s Page Seminar. This seminar consisted of workshops and speakers on topics ranging from nurturing cub reports to working with managing editors to page composition techniques.

I would not for a moment equate the events in Cleveland with the events in Washington, D.C. The march on Washington – attended by a quarter million people from around the nation – was about transforming our nation’s race relationships in profound ways. The seminar in Cleveland – attended by several dozen journalists from around the Midwest – was about transforming the look and content of newspaper women’s pages. No comparison, of course. But both gatherings were emblematic of the way the “times, they were a-changin’” in the early 60s.

In Washington, it was about a new kind of civil society. In Cleveland, it was about understanding that the women’s section of the newspaper should be about “society” and not “Society” – and that shift from capital to lower case was not always an easy thing to accomplish.

When these editors gathered in 1963, the change had been afoot at some major metropolitan papers for several years. Vivian Castleberry explained the shift that she instituted when she took the reins of the women’s section at the Dallas Times Herald. She told of the lady who had been writing and editing Society news for a number of years:

She was born into Dallas Society and she loved covering it and she was a beautiful, wonderful person that I just adored. But I never again hired a society editor that covered society like she did. … I looked at society with a small “s” instead of a capital “S” which didn’t always please my bosses.

So it had been happening, and the newspaper world was noticing. Earlier in 1963, The Bulletin, published by the American Society of Newspapers Editors, had an issue devoted to looking a decade forward at “Women’s Pages in 1973.” In the lead article, George Beebe, managing editor of The Miami Herald, argued that “those that still wallow in the unimaginative world of club-and-cupid notices will be forced by competitive and economic necessity to add some semblance of sparkle.” Not everyone agreed, though. In making predictions about what those women’s pages would look like ten years hence, observations about the need for “profile sketches of the women leaders in our communities” (Bruce B. Temple, Bloomington Herald-Telephone) were balanced by the comment that news for women wouldn’t change in the next decade because “the interims don’t bring a different breed of women” and that “homemakers are interested in the same basic things from one generation to the next” (Thomas J. Berrigan, Niagara Falls Gazette).

But back to Cleveland.

The presenters at the Woman’s Page Seminar stood strongly in favor of transforming the women’s pages. They spoke of moving from a strict coverage of capital-S Society – with its emphasis on club news, debutante balls, teas, fashion, and furnishings – to a consideration of the wider range of women’s issues – work and family, neighborhood integration, family health and education. These leaders did not advocate a wholesale rejection of traditional concerns but argued for a more encompassing focus on the interests of all women. As Edee Greene (Ft. Lauderdale News) said in her remarks:

 She’s a working girl. A working mother, a bride, a career girl, a grandmother, a teenager, a housewife, a scientist, a doctor, a policewoman, a pharmacist, a truck driver, a horsewoman, salesman, dog owner, cook, interior decorator, gardener, artist. She’s interested in everything that affects her home, her children, the school system, her family’s health, recreation, income, future. She’s your reader. IF you give her something to read.

Another speaker, Betty Jaycox (Akron Beacon Journal) made the case based on newspapers’ commitment to social justice:

There are other areas where we dig up, where we hold up the decaying carcasses of wrongs for all to see, where we espouse the causes of community good, or we write to influence women’s groups to accept greater and greater responsibilities in our towns and in our nation. For I am a feminist. I have a profound belief in the power of women when they work in organized groups.

So the calls to action were there. And the changes that had begun in the late 1950s at a few metropolitan dailies began to happen all over the country.

The first step was to downplay the coverage of capital-S Society. At the Miami Herald this process began with eliminating the “notices” of upcoming club meetings. Even in the small “agate type” used for these notices, they took up a lot of space. Marie Anderson recounts the battle she and her boss – Dorothy Jurney – fought with their managing editor:

The big battle then, you see, with Dorothy and me between us, is trying to get it through Hoke Welch to get rid of this agate type. We are no longer going to run these meetings … If you know that you’re going to the Mahi Shrine meeting every Wednesday night, why do you have to put it in the newspaper?

Or, as Dorothy Jurney summarized: “You can only write so many times about the same people doing the same things and maintain any interest in or significance – it had no significance – very little significance, let’s say that.”

The second half of the transformation was introducing small-s society onto the pages of the women’s section. I’ll write more about these negotiations and battles in future posts. Suffice to say for now that it happened in many ways. Through extended Sunday features on important social issues. Through reporting on what those women’s clubs were doing – not just the fact that they were meeting. Through columns commenting on a wide range of community concerns. Through profiles of women busy making a difference in their careers and with their families.

Even at my mother’s twice-a-week chain of suburban Detroit newspapers (the Observer-Eccentric newspapers) the transformation was apparent. Yes, there were still lots of furniture ads. Yes, there were still wedding and engagement announcements and reports on club activities. But there were also large scale stories on education, health, and politics. My mother wrote a regular column called “Woman on the Go” that highlighted influential women in the community. And even in her column about our own family life – “MM Memos” – she sometimes dealt with difficult issues such as school bussing, teenage marriage, and gun control.

On the alphabetical list of delegates to that Theta Sigma Phi Woman’s Page Seminar in August of 1963, the first name is “Mrs. Eleanor Adams,” the society editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Mrs. Adams died in 2002 at the age of 87, and her obituary clearly shows that she understood old school Society – the first line of the obituary reads “Eleanor Adams was a white-gloved lady who covered white-gloved ladies.” But Mrs. Adams also understood and participated in the transformation – she “got the paper out of the awkward business of dictating who was who in society” and “always got to the heart of the story.”

So even for a woman like Mrs. Adams who “knew the difference between a fish fork and a meat fork – and precisely when to turn her attention from one gentleman at the table to another,” the times were a-changin’ on the women’s pages.

And though I again risk criticism for any comparison to the civil rights movement, the change from Society to society is not complete today. Just a few months ago, a debate erupted about whether or not women’s magazines could do serious journalism. More about that conversation later, but its existence suggests that the Society and society still maintain a wary co-existence on paper and virtual pages. This transformation – like so many – is ongoing.

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable.

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