Interview: Alice Fahs on the roles and work of early female journalists

Today is the publication day of Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space, by Alice Fahs. In the book, Fahs illuminates the lives and writings of a lost world of women who wrote for major metropolitan newspapers at the start of the twentieth century. She argues that, as observers and actors in a new drama of independent urban life, newspaper women used the simultaneously liberating and exploitative nature of their work to demonstrate the power of a public voice, both individually and collectively.

In this interview, Fahs discusses the day-to-day realities faced and the legacy left by early female journalists.

Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space, by Alice FahsQ: You state that we know more about a few mid-nineteenth century women journalists than we do about the hundreds of female journalists writing at the turn of the century, despite the amount of published writing they left behind. Why is this the case?

A: Many of the newspaper women I write about were well known in their day—some were even syndicated nationally—so I imagine they would have been pretty surprised that they have been so thoroughly forgotten. But there is a perfect storm of reasons why they have been neglected.  Not only do we tend to undervalue the types of newspapers they often worked for (so-called “yellow” or sensational newspapers), but we undervalue the kinds of work newspaper women did—especially if their stories appeared on the much-maligned woman’s page. So we simply haven’t looked for these women’s writings.

By the way, even newspaper women themselves often undervalued their work (one of the reasons there are so few collections of their papers or letters in archives). Women journalists who aspired to political reporting or police reporting were understandably resentful that they were often forced to work for the woman’s page instead. They talked scornfully of being stuck in the “hen coop.” But a big surprise for me was how lively their writings were for the woman’s page—how much fun they were to read.

Q: Out on Assignment mentions many “stunts” or “adventures” performed by female journalists. What are some examples, and what caused these stunts to be simultaneously popular and controversial?

A: Lots of people remember that Nellie Bly made a newspaper sensation by going around the world in a mere 72 days, thus beating Jules Verne’s fictional record. But newspaper women also dangled from bridges, rode on top of speeding trains, plunged underwater in submarines, and made balloon ascensions. This could be dangerous work—we know that a newspaper woman named Lottie Germaine was injured when she fell from a balloon, for instance. To literally add insult to injury, she lost her job—and of course received no compensation in an era before workman’s comp.

Newspaper stunts made for thrilling reading—they were part of an exciting new urban culture of entertainment. And they were all the more exciting when they involved women, who were new to such adventurous public roles. But the public exposure of women made newspaper stunts controversial, too. Many male critics called such stunts degraded, vicious, and shockingly unwomanly. Many newspaper women criticized stunt work, too—they understood just how exploitative stunt work could be, and they were afraid it would delay women’s progress in “respectable” journalism. What intrigues me, though, is how many newspaper women found this work appealing and exciting—they were definitely drawn both to the physical adventure and to the publicity it brought.

Q: In what ways did the spread of “yellow” or “sensational” journalism affect female journalists?

A: Sensational newspapers were the greatest mass entertainment of their day: you might say that they were today’s Internet, radio, and TV all rolled into one. In its heyday the New York World reached over a million readers in New York alone—and it was constantly hungry for new sensations and new features to entice its readers. To some extent this gave women new opportunities. Newspapers like the World added comics, sports sections, and women’s sections: this was the period when the modern newspaper really emerged. And many newspaper editors decided that they needed women to write articles about “women’s subjects.” Some newspaper women—like Nixola Greeley-Smith, the granddaughter of Horace Greeley—became popular public figures through their nightly columns. So sensational newspapers made some women celebrities.

But there were only a handful of women actually on the staffs of sensational newspapers—and only one or two on more “sober” newspapers like the New York Evening Post or the New York Times. Most women were what we would now call freelancers: they shopped story ideas or articles from newspaper to newspaper, sitting for hours day after day in drafty waiting rooms, hoping that some editor would accept one. It was a tough life that took what newspaper women called “pluck” and “push.” Still, in a world where there weren’t that many opportunities for women, sensational newspapers offered a possibility of making a living through writing that drew many women to New York.

Q: You argue that despite the barriers and hardships female journalists faced, the occupation still held a great deal of appeal to many. What are some of the ways in which the job became a “blessing too great for easy measuring”?

A: By its very nature, newspaper work took women out into the public spaces of the city—it gave them experiences that over and over again they talked of as “broadening.” Even women who were “stuck” on the woman’s page gained a new fund of experience when they crisscrossed the city to do interviews of society women or write about women’s clubs. For women whose worlds had been circumscribed, newspaper work was a revelation. It gave many women a new sense of self as public actors. But not that many women stayed with newspaper work for the long haul: there was no chance of advancement for women to senior editorial positions, for instance. Instead, they often used newspaper work as a springboard into magazine work or the emerging field of publicity.

Q: In your book, you talk about the ironies of writing a history of female journalists at a time when many metropolitan papers are under threat. What do you feel is the most interesting of such paradoxes?

A: Obviously the rise of the Internet has posed an ongoing crisis for newspapers, forcing them to re-invent themselves. But ironically the same technology that threatens the survival of today’s newspapers has recently brought back from the dead a host of old newspapers that seemed long extinct. I would never have found many of the female journalists I write about without digitization: in fact my whole mode of doing research for this book changed dramatically once newspaper databases became available. I went from scrolling through reels of microfilm, hoping to find mentions of women journalists in a sort of needle-in-the-haystack quest, to suddenly being able to find all of a newspaper woman’s signed articles in one fell swoop. I find it ironic that the very technology that may mark the end of newspapers—at least as we once knew them—made my newspaper women suddenly visible.

Q: Is there a parallel to be drawn between the space women have carved out in the blog world and the space women carved out in newspapers at the turn of the century?

A: Definitely. Newspaper work allowed at least some women to become entrepreneurs of the self: they created enticing personalities in print, and were able to sell weekly columns of their reflections. Some bloggers have had a similar trajectory as they have created distinct blogging personalities, building enough of a following to attract advertising and perhaps make a living. Blogging has also allowed women to reflect on their lives in a relatively free-form way—just as newspaper feature writing at the turn of the century allowed women to reflect on a variety of miscellaneous topics.

So there are some positive similarities. But there are some negative similarities, as well. Many bloggers obviously struggle to create a following, and find that the demands of blogging are never-ending and surprisingly arduous. Like newspaper writing at the turn of the century, blogging has primarily been a freelance activity, with all the rewards and risks involved.

Q: Out on Assignment mentions several examples of “bohemian pathways” women could take in becoming journalists. What are some examples, and do you see a continuation of any of these in modern times?

A: Some newspaper women toured the country in acting companies before they decided to take up newspaper work. In fact, there was a strong link between acting and the public drama of newspaper work at the turn of the century, when some newspaper jobs required women to go “undercover” and pose as a factory girl, a beggar, or an insane woman. Those links are less clear today, although I’m intrigued by the ways in which newspaper work can sometimes lead to a form of acting. I think it’s interesting to see newspaper writers more and more become visible public figures—for instance, in posting brief videos of their commentary on newspaper websites.

Q: This book focuses on women working for major metropolitan newspapers (especially in New York).  In what ways might these women’s experiences have differed from those of women who worked for smaller publications or niche publications?

A: Women working on small-town newspapers often yearned to come to New York, the center of American newspaper publishing. The irony is that women working on a small-town newspaper sometimes had a wider variety of responsibilities than their sisters on metropolitan publications: they could be “all-round reporters” more frequently than in New York, for instance, weren’t necessarily stuck on the woman’s page, and sometimes had more opportunities for political reporting. But many women opted anyway for the bright lights of the big city, where there were many more papers to work for and a wider range of experiences.

Q: Were there any parallels between the challenges faced by white newspaper women at the turn of the century, and those faced by minorities trying to gain exposure in mainstream publications?

A: It was virtually impossible for African American newspaper women to break into mainstream metropolitan journalism: the newspaper world was completely closed to them during the long era of Jim Crow. This did not mean they were silent or acquiescent, of course. African American newspaper women not only published articles in race newspapers, but established an active presence in mainstream white newspapers by writing letters to the editor on such subjects as lynching, and by mounting protests that were covered by white newspaper women—such as their protests against the “color line” in women’s clubs.

Q: This book is heavily footnoted, drawing content from primary and secondary sources, including many anecdotes and conversational quotes. How does this content serve to augment your argument?

A: One of the most delightful aspects of working on this book was reading the writings of these opinionated, talented, sometimes scathingly funny women. They were such vivid personalities! I think one of my main goals was to showcase the voices of these talented newspaper women who developed such strong identities as writers. It was a pleasure to work on a book about women who thought about writing on a daily basis.

Q: You devote a chapter of the book to the concept of “human interest.” Why was this concept so important in the history of journalism, and in what ways did it affect newspaper women?

A: “Human interest” journalism really expanded the terrain of the newspaper. As articulated by Charles A. Dana (of the New York Sun) and others, “human interest” meant that not just “news,” but all of ordinary daily life, was fair game for newspaper writing.  After all, any corner of human experience might yield up some tidbit of interest. The development of “human interest” gave newspaper women new freedom to reflect on daily life in their stories and to develop new styles of writing. The interview, for instance, came into its own at this time as a form of feature writing. The witty caricaturist Kate Carew did wonderfully funny interviews accompanied by drawings of both her subjects and herself. Her interview of Mark Twain is slyly hilarious. And then there were the new advice columns, including advice to the “lovelorn” by “Beatrice Fairfax”—the alter-ego of newspaper woman Marie Manning. Not to mention the witty satires of Jessie Wood, another gifted caricaturist. I could go on! These were talented women.

Q: You devote a chapter to a discussion of “bachelor girls.” What made these women’s lives so interesting to newspaper readers?

A: Hundreds of “bachelor girl” articles portrayed single women who were having a wonderful time in their own apartments, whether serving afternoon tea to friends or cooking suppers of welsh rarebit over chafing dishes. Freedom! Clearly there was a real appeal to living independently, without being married. Bachelor girl articles remind us that thousands of women were moving to cities to take up work at the turn of the century—and were interested in hearing about the experiences of other independent women. They also remind us that single women were interested in creating their own comfortable homes—it’s just that they wanted to create a home away from family, which was a new development for women. Many bachelor girl articles—which appeared on the woman’s page, by the way—even offered a kind of how-to guide for decorating the bachelor-girl apartment: which pillows to use, how to make a “cozy corner,” etc. Let me hasten to say that this was as much fantasy as reality: making do in a typical hall bedroom apartment (much smaller than most of today’s studios) cannot always have been pleasant.

Q: You document many women who traveled beyond the United States, sending correspondence back to American newspapers. In what ways were newspaper women able to shape and support American expansionism, and why might these roles have been appealing to newspaper women?

A: One of the great frustrations for newspaper women was the refusal of male editors to allow them to do political reporting, or to cover foreign affairs. But nothing necessarily prevented women from traveling on their own dime to other countries and selling their “correspondence” to newspapers. Some adventurous and entrepreneurial newspaper women managed just this feat, even becoming self-styled war correspondents. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their own desires to travel abroad, they almost always enthusiastically and uncritically supported American expansionist aims. Only rarely, I’m afraid, did they see American imperialism as anything but a simple triumph of “civilization” over “barbarism.” In this they were very much women of their time.

Q: Were newspaper women connected to the suffrage movement in any way?

A: A major strategy of the suffrage movement at the turn of the century was publicity—making the public aware of the fight for, and reasons for, suffrage. Given that the major vehicle of publicity at the turn of the century was the newspaper, it is surprising that so few people have examined the role of newspaper women in working to provide that publicity. In fact, most newspaper women were ardent suffragists and later feminists—and were also central agents in providing newspaper publicity for suffrage, even when their editors were vehemently against votes for women. We know that suffrage leaders valued the skills of these newspaper women because they often plucked them to become press agents or publicity agents for the movement. Newspaper women are an unacknowledged but important part of the suffrage movement.

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Alice Fahs is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Her previous books include The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 and The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture.