In 1968, Gloria Biggs was the executive women’s editor at TODAY, a Gannett newspaper in Coco, Florida. She wrote a column headlined “To Catch a Woman” for a trade publication in which she provided advice about how women’s newspaper sections could cater more successfully to target readers. In the penultimate paragraph she noted:
I’d like to emphasize that I’m not a feminist. I’m not like that early 20th Century suffragette leader who gave a discouraged follower some advice: “Call on God, my dear! She will help you!” I’m not a feminist. I’m glad to have men run the show.
Years later, when Gloria donated her papers to the Women and Journalism archive at the University of Missouri, she affixed a post-it note to this page that read, “Nancy – I wince when I read the lines above on not being a feminist but then realize that in 1968 that’s the way it was and that’s the way I was or thought I ought to say I was.”
The F-word was as controversial then as it is now.
Less than two years after Gloria’s disavowal of feminism, she corresponded with Al Neuharth to congratulate him on his appointment as president of Gannett. She used the opportunity, though, to press her case for changes in the both the content and operation of its newspapers, noting that “Women’s Liberation is no passing fad. As the movement grows, it will affect the newspaper industry in two sensitive areas—the woman reader and the woman employee.” She continued:
The activists in Women’s Lib are very few in numbers compared to the placids. But the passionate arguments of the activists inevitably will seep into the consciousness of American women at all levels.
Why wait until the rumblings of discontent come from women employees imprisoned in a dreary world of mediocre pages and second class status? Why wait until the newspapers’ own “Silent Majority” of women readers expresses its disapproval of reading material that is not oriented to changing values, simply by not reading that material?
I recognize there are obstacles. But obstacles, after all, are designed to be overcome. Nobody has proven that better than you.
Three years after that, Gloria Biggs was named editor and publisher of the Melbourne Times – the first woman to achieve this pinnacle in the Gannett chain and the congratulations poured in. One note from a bank news bureau director noted that “We have a couple of top vice presidents in our member banks in Orlando, very lovely, very chic, and very very smart girls.” In responding to a letter from Florida governor Reubin Askew, Gloria downplayed the gender angle of her accomplishment:
Although it is, of course, a thrill to be the first woman promoted to publisher of Gannett’s 53 newspapers, I find now that I have been the job for a while that the fact of being a woman or a man isn’t very significant. Professional competence is what really counts.
So what are we to make of all this? Gloria Biggs was an incredibly accomplished journalist. She broke an important glass ceiling. She pushed for the importance of the rights of women in the newsroom and for the publication of socially relevant content on the women’s pages. Why wait, she asked? But she also eschewed the feminist label. She also discounted her groundbreaking position as publisher because competence is what really matters.
One thing I make of this is that Gloria could comfortably join a host of contemporary debates about feminism that are reignited whenever another celebrity woman states that she’s not a feminist. Katy Perry says, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” Taylor Swift says, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Marissa Mayer says, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.”
And then there are the rejoinders. Lena Dunham says, “The idea of being a feminist—so many women have come to this idea of it being anti-male and not able to connect with the opposite sex—but what feminism is about is equality and human rights. For me that is just an essential part of my identity.” Ellen Page says, “I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” Sheryl Sandberg says she is “proud to be a feminist.”
Now, I’m a communication scholar. I get that words make a difference. Labels matter – they structure our identities and our interaction in important ways.
I’m a feminist. I can give you the short answer for why – because I believe men and women should have equal rights and opportunities – or I could talk about the “why” for many hours. I embrace this label. But I also understand that words and labels matter not because they sort people into discrete categories but because they provide an opening for dialogue about our values and our actions. There is not a singular or correct definition of the F-word, in spite of the myriad flowcharts available on the internet. So when anyone says they’re not a feminist, we should see it not as an opportunity for derision but as an opening for dialogue.
I think my mom nailed it almost 40 years ago in a column written in the midst of second wave feminism’s crusade for gender neutral language. In commenting on terms such as “committee person” and “chairwoman” she wrote:
I really have no quarrel with the terms, although they get a little confusing and unpronounceable, and I understand the feeling that brings them into being. But I think sometimes insisting upon their use is missing the point of the whole issue.
What the women’s movement really wants to do is change the stereotypes of thinking rather than language. I really don’t care whether I’m a newsman or a newswoman or a newsperson so long as my employer accepts me on an equal basis with my male colleagues in terms of respect, responsibility and salary. And I find it far more important to have a capable woman as head of the committee than to worry about whether she’s called the chairman or chairperson.
Language changes probably will come, but the substance of women’s liberation is more important than its semantics.
True then, and true now. So rather than arguing about the F-word, let’s talk. About the accomplishments of women. About all the amazing ways to be a woman today. About our goals in the workplace, in relationships, and in families. About the ways in which the world is still a sometimes unjust – and sometimes scary – place for women. And after we talk, let’s get to work.
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 materials are invaluable.