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100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists
By Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane -
January 23, 2006 Most of the world's great newspapers were established in the middle of the nineteenth century — or even before. In America, the New York Times was established in 1861, in Britain The Times started to thunder in 1785 with the Observer and Sunday Times and even the tabloids such as the News of the World and the People coming on stream by 1881. A century ago, many of the titles which are familiar to readers from news stands today were up and running, including many of the periodicals. The golden age of journalism in many respects is seen to be between about 1880 and 1910 when newspapers really had a stranglehold on the news market and the technology to make their grip count.
But since then newspapers have undergone a rather different kind of revolution. What has changed dramatically in the last 100 years is the inclusion of women's voices. They are still not as widespread as they should be (a recent survey by the Cneter for Media Literacy in the US discovered that female bylines on the front pages averaged only 27 percent of the stories there); but that is still nearly a third of all front page stories: a massive change in how things used to be.
I remember when I first became editor of the News Review section of the Sunday Times in London in 2001 having lunch with Godfrey Smith (the man who invented the first magazine supplement within a newspaper), who had worked for the paper for sixty years. 'When I first started,' he said, 'there was only one lady journalist on the staff: the women's editor. She used to sweep in on Thursdays to conference, tell us what she was going to write—always dresses, or children's behaviour, and then disappear. We were absolutely terrified of her. Amazing how things change.'
Ever since then I've been fascinated by how women make their way into newspapers and by the history of the women — particularly writer — who came before me. Despite the millions of articles written by women all over the world, there is no anthology of the best of their contributions. I hope this volume will remedy that and bring some of their writing to a wider audience.
Of course, there are all sorts of journalism anthologies out there, but mostly from particular publications, so you get for instance 'the best of the American Vogue or Cosmopolitan, but nothing that gives the general reader an overview of the incredibly diverse journalism that women have been producing for over a century.
No single volume could do justice to this vast amount of material: but what I have tried to do in this book is to bring together some of the very greats — the 'must know abouts', if you like, such as Martha Gellhorn or Rebecca West, whose reporting stands proud in any company — with some more obscure pieces which illustrate aspects of the female experience which still resonate today.
How does one define 'journalism'? The basic criteria for inclusion: the piece of writing should have been written for and first published in a newspaper or magazine. I wanted to reflect all the different sorts of articles in newspapers, so the anthology contains everything from first-hand accounts of battles, or events (such as Martha Gellhorn describing the horrors of Dachau or Ann Leslie witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall) to book and film reviews, comment pieces, interviews, pamphlets, fiction (Bridget Jones began in a newspaper as a fictional diary about a singleton's life) and more personal features. Although women can report 'objectively' as well as any man, what women have really brought to newspapers is a more confessional, intimate voice. The strong voices of clever women warming to their themes and giving up details of their own lives and experiences in order to do so, comes across very clearly in this book. I am proud to have included such groundbreaking articles as Ruth Picardie's column written as she was dying of cancer, which spawned a whole subspecies of confessionals in imitation.
As an editor myself, I know the delight of commissioning a really top-class wordsmith, whether professional journalist or novelist, to write on the issue of the moment; many such pieces by well-known women writers appear in this collection. Some of the best journalism comes when you get a brilliant writer on a subject they feel passionately about. It is amazing how such gems survive the years and thunder on down the decades; I'm glad to rescue some of them from decaying old stacks of paper for new readers.
My aim was to make the scope of the anthology as broad as possible to reflect the range and different styles of women who have written for newspapers overt the last 100 years. From the delights of making blackbird pie through the reality of birth to the ethics of the Nuremberg trials and the terrible tales of racism which led tot the civil rights struggles in America, this collection shows the vast range of female voices in newspapers over the last century.
What is striking to me is the passion of the women and how ahead of their time they were in what they wrote and believed. Take for instance the radical Emma Goldman's articles, who called for birth control for women and whose attacks on prostitution made her a pariah at the time. Many took great risks in the social sphere by saying what they did and caused outrage, while many are just funny, humane and enduringly insightful about their lives and those of the people around them. This is not just a women's collection, it reflects the great dilemmas and struggles of humanity in the last century from an often new point of view.
We have kicked off with a section on war as it most vividly encapsulates how women's roles have changed. Before and during the First World War activists such as Sylvia Pankhurst wrote of the effects, on the ground and for civilians, of air raids on the East End, while the anarchist Emma Goldman wrote against 'The promoters of war mania' — with the ongoing protests about the situation in Iraq, her argument feels very modern. But a campaigning woman's role then was very different to write diatribes from the home front against the war: how different to women like Nancy Cunard who reported from the front in the Spanish Civil War with thrilling dispatches in the late 1930s, or Martha Gellhorn's inspirational World War Two reporting where she squeezed herself on to whatever troop transports she could to tell the world what was really happening. Or Rebecca West at the Nuremberg Trials, who reports brilliantly on the trials of the Nazi elite. Or Mary McCarthy's vivid dispatches from Vietnam from 1967. Here women are truly doing jobs that were formerly a male preserve, but bringing to them a particular woman's eye for detail. And the sufferings of the local population. It is true that many of the women who wrote on war particularly early on, were pacifists, which is perhaps overly reflected in the collection, but then objecting to the horror and pity of war has always been a woman's prerogative.
One of the very best and bravest of the modern female war reporters is Marie Colvin, whom I have had the honour to work with on the Sunday Times. She befriended the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, over several decades and her article about his life is reprinted here. Even after losing an eye covering the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka, she has continued to report from hot spots around the world. What changes a century brings: wehre once all women could do was protest from the home front, or write letters to their husbands, it is now normal for women to report from war zones, bringing a new kind of sensibility to the writing of the first draft of history.
Journalism is by its nature ephemeral; today's newspapers are tomorrow's rubbish. So it is perhaps not surprising that many of us who come after have so little idea of what has been written on issues in newspapers before. But what has struck me most during the reading for this collection is how so many dilemmas that we think of as 'modern' are really no such thing. Take Maddy Vegtel's piece on having a baby at forty (first printed in the 1930s in American Vogue) — people's reactions to her being an 'old' mother and her own thoughts about it resonate just as strongly today. In fact when I first read it, I assumed it said 1980 and did a double take when I realized the true date.
This pattern was repeated over and over, particularly with regard to the great home v. work dilemma which still haunts so many of us working mothers today. In 1924 Good Housekeeping magazine published an article called 'Should Married Women Work?' The essential problem Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick describes of how to spend enough time with children while carrying on a career outside the home and the broader social pressures women feel with regard to juggling a career and family has barely changed in the ninety years since. Over lunch with the columnist Melanie Phillips, I said how surprised I was that such 'having it all' dilemmas were being written about so long ago. 'That's because the problems have still not been resolved,' she said matter-of-factly, 'so they go on feeling new to every generation who encounters them.' I felt strangely comforted by the thought that women had been grappling with this one for a century.
From this cri de coeur in the 1920s, to Erica Jong's brilliant piece 'The Post-feminist Woman ר is she Perhaps More Oppressed than Ever?' (Seattle Times, 1984) which describes hilariously the exhaustion of the working mother. I seem to wade through more articles on this subject than any other, but none surpassed Erica's from the early Eighties. Women are endlessly reinventing the wheel on these arguments so there is much to learn from what has been said before.
The struggle for emancipation and feminism has spawned some of the very best women's journalism. Every young woman who takes her vote for granted should read Djuna Barnes' account (from 1914) of how it feels to be forcibly fed. In one of the first instances of female 'gonzo' journalism, Barnes joined the women on hunger strike for female suffrage so she could write about what they were going through. She was not the first to use the technique of 'stunt' journalism to draw attention to a big issue; in 1888, the American journalist Nellie Bly describes a classically modern stunt of going undercover into an insane asylum in New York, which led to the authorities radically changing their provision for the mentally ill.
Women form the suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst to the black writer, Alice Walker are represented in this anthology using journalism to campaign passionately on issues from votes for women to racism.
One aspect of this book that I found particularly frustrating was politics in its day-to-day sense: women have written extensively about the struggles of the women's movement, but certainly in Britain — and to some extent in America too — the scrum of domestic politics and the lobby in the House of Commons has been very much a man's world. There are notable exceptions: fro instance Elizabeth Drew wrote brilliantly about the ins and outs of Washington and Watergate in the 1970s.
Over lunch with Julia Langdon, the first woman to be political editor of a national newspaper in Britain, I asked if I was missing some crucial women who had been key to British political coverage. 'No,' she said. 'It really was a gentleman's club.' She described how as recently as the 1980s she had been one of only two women in the press lobby at parliament. 'The men would come up to me and say, "Did you get that letter I was talking to you about yesterday?" I'd look blank and they'd insist they'd given it to me. And then I'd realize that they'd given it to Eleanor (Goodman), the other woman in the lobby. We looked totally different but to the men wee were interchangeable. It was extraordinary.'
Fortunately things are beginning to change and there is now a host of feisty young female lobby reporters and political columnists on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately much of it needs so much contextualization that many articles I liked, I decided, ultimately, not to include.
There are some articles which once read have haunted me: particularly Audre Lorde's piece, 'That Summer I Left Childhood was White'. Her description of a Washington where a black family couldn't be served an ice cream in a diner is a chilling reminder of what the civil rights struggles of the Sixties in the U.S. were all about. Angela Carter's 'Notes from a Maternity Ward' should be read by every expectant mother and Mary Stott's 'Learning to be a Widow' with its mixture of practical advice and raw grief still brings tears to the eyes.
The book can be read all the way through, or dipped into. One of the key criteria for inclusion was that it passed a very high threshold of excitement: the test was, could an article keep me reading late at night, after a full day juggling the demands of my two-year-old, a tricky pregnancy and the Sunday Times?
There are a few pieces that I would have liked to have included but which were just too long: Lillian Ross's New Yorker interview with Ernest Hemingway was the main one, along with Isabel Hilton's 'The General,' an amazing account of trying to track down and finally meeting General Stroessner, Paraguay's fallen dictator. We also decided that rather than printing a small extract, we would exclude Gloria Steinem's 'I was a Playboy Bunny' as it is readily available elsewhere. I would have liked to include the moralist, Hannah Arendt, but much of her work was in German and this is a collection of journalism in English. Some pieces have been abridged; I hope readers will be encouraged to seek out the fuller versions themselves.
What kept me away at night was the thought that there was someone totally brilliant we hadn't included; of course there are hundreds of other pieces we could have chosen. A collection like this can only ever be a starting point and some pieces were excluded to keep the anthology in balance. All I hope is that it opens as many windows into other times, lives and thinking for you as it has for me.
London, April 2005