While it is beyond the scope of this review of the role of women in the history of newspapers and journalism in this form of media, it is part of the aim of this present study to embark upon a detailed historical analysis of the political, educational, employment, economic, and familial factors that have influenced women’s increased participation in the American workforce, the writer reminds the reader that the interrelatedness of these factors, both as cause and as effect of women’s increased professional engagement, is a critical consideration. While volumes of books have been written on each of these subjects, a summary of the key points of major phases in the women’s movement must be documented in order to support the need for the proposed study. The review and analysis of this information and its significance are also relevant to the discussion of women in journalism, which will be discussed in a subsequent section.
By the mid-1840s, the earliest wave of the women’s movement was in full force. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’sDeclaration of Sentiments, written in 1848, documented the inequality that early American feminists identified between men and women in American society; more importantly, Stanton’s declaration articulated the changes that women demanded to ensure equality. Stanton’s declaration, made at the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, called for women’s full participation in political life through the right of voting, the option for women to participate in the workplace should they choose to do so, and, if choosing to pursue work, for fair, not “scanty" compensation (Stanton, 1848, para. 13). In addition, Stanton advocated full participation in social life, which she said would be evidenced when women had attained complete and inalienable rights to education, an equal say in the affairs and life of the church, a fair and equivalent code of morals and values by which women and men alike should live, and basic respect (Stanton, 1848). Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments is often marked as the first seminal document of the women’s movement, and it paved way for other orators and activists to succeed her.
The early women’s movement, defined roughly as beginning with Stanton’s declaration and ending around 1875, was characterized by women’s increasing exercise of voice and agency in all areas of American life. One of the most critical ways in which women disseminated and defended their views was in writing. In addition to advocating for their own rights, women played significant, if marginalized, roles in the temperance and abolition movements. Women during this period staunchly defended their right to participate in these movements and to exercise their voice and political and social agency; in fact, it was this activity that was as important, if not more so, than their participation and successes in these movements. Because women’s actions were upsetting the traditional social order, many men felt threatened by women’s calls for equality, but one important exception to the trend was William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, a leading abolitionist newspaper (Garrison Villard, 1923). Garrison called for the complete extension of voting rights and other political and social rights to women and to African Americans that had previously been conceptualized as exclusive privileges of white men. According to Garrison’s argument, all Americans were guaranteed the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. His defense of this position, particularly through the medium of his newspaper, helped further the women’s movement and their call for parity significantly.
The suffrage movement, spanning 1890 to 1925, was the next wave in the women’s movement, and saw significant political gains that culminated in women’s right to vote (Frost & Cullen-Dupont, 1992). As women became emboldened by the increase in their political rights, they began to agitate for social parity, as well. At the same time, the social conditions precipitated by war made it necessary for women to enter the formal workplace in greater numbers than at any time in previous history. Around this time, other significant social actions were exerting their influence as well, including the formation of organizations such as the National Consumers’ League (NCL) and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Both the NCL and the WTUL were comprised primarily of white, middle-class women who sought to improve the working conditions of less fortunate children and women. Over time, these organizations and similar interest groups would play a prominent role in agitating for women’s workplace rights, not only for the right to work and for safe and fair working conditions, but also for fair wages. While most women working outside of the home were employed in factory-based work, an increasing number of women were also begin to take on jobs that were not decidedly blue collar, including the profession of newspaper journalism. It is this development that is examined in the following section.
At the end of the 19th century, women were entering the journalist profession in record numbers (Fahs, 2005 ). As Fahs notes that whereas the 1870 census reported only 35 women employed as editors and reporters, in 1880 it reported 288 women engaged in such work; in 1890 it reported 888; and in 1900 it reported 2,193 out of a total of 30,098 journalists. In twenty years women had moved from being 2.3 percent of the journalism workforce to 7.3 percent. (p. 308) Fahs goes on to explain that the actual number of female journalists was even higher than the census-reported statistics, as many women were not salaried newspaper staff members; instead, they were paid per-piece rates as freelancers. Most women who were salaried journalists were writers for the women’s pages, and few held posts of editorial or publishing power (Fahs, 2005). One female reporter sarcastically commented that she and her colleagues were confined to writing about “‘currant jam and current gossip’"
At this juncture in history, female journalists had little power at this point to make inroads with respect to determining content and what kind of impact they had for future generations of reporters and readers. In fact, as Fahs ( 2005 ) points out, newspaper work tended to serve not as a long-term career path, but as a stepping stone to literary writing. She explains that the typical trajectory for the female reporter at this juncture in history was that of “newspaper work enabl[ing] women to move from smaller cities or towns all over America to a larger metropolis, where newspaper writing…provided a means of obtaining literary work," which was often the female reporter’s true goal (Fahs, p. 305). Most female journalists at the turn of the century were assigned fluff articles on the subjects that were deemed important and interesting to women but of limited value to a wider audience.