Even when women were given non-women’s pages assignments, the journalistic work that they did bordered on the exploitive (Fahs, 2005). This was the golden age of expose journalism, and women who wanted “real” reporting jobs were sent out by editors on so-called “stunt” assignments, in which they posed as beggars, prostitutes, and the like in order to get a “day in the life” perspective of women in these positions (Fahs, 2005 ). While such reporting was daring and the articles were often well-written and revealing, they also tended to exploit women’s desires to write real stories (Fahs, 2005 ). Women journalists received the message that in order to get a good assignment, they had to cheapen, sensationalize, or expose themselves or others—typically, other women, and they often received public approbation for doing so, as readers were both titillated by their stories and concerned that such content reflected the female journalist’s moral decline (Fahs 2005). At the same time, though, women journalists knew that their continuance in the position at a newspaper depended upon their capitulation to newspapers editors’ requests (Fahs 2005 ). Sensationalism sold newspapers, and as any contemporary reader knows, it still does.
The feminists of the 19th century certainly paved the way for demanding equal rights in all aspects of society, which were, in large part, secured through legislation. The feminists of the 20th century, however, especially during the second half of the century, were charged with the responsibility of attempting to institute practices that would realize the promise of equity-oriented legislation. As Jung (2000) has pointed out, laws may compel individuals to provide all Americans with rights, but laws do not necessarily change attitudes about the worthiness of people to receive those rights. This was the task and challenge of 20thcentury feminists. As Jung (2000) writes, it is “the state of women in the public sector [that] reflects the level of true gender equality” (p. 243). Jung goes on to say that “The social state of women is determined by the number of women holding major posts in the public sector and the kind of situation where women work” (Jung, 2000, p. 243).
Twentieth century feminists, then, were preoccupied with the work of changing perceptions and attitudes that would make it possible for women to enjoy the fullness of the rights that they had been promised in employment and in society. As the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (2005) has reported, women may have greater access to employment and a wider range of job opportunities now than they have ever had before; however, they spent the entire 20th century and have spent the first years of this century confronting the challenge of the glass ceiling and inequitable salaries for comparable experience, skills, and work.
Taking all of the preceding information, both historical and contemporary into account, one begins to see that while women have taken possession of their full political and social rights as American citizens, perceptions and attitudes have still not evolved in such a manner that true equity between men and women is possible. It is hardly surprising that in terms of the representation of women in newspapers and the media, then, both reflect and perpetuate the dynamics of gender inequality, even when they strive to do provide more fair and balanced coverage. In a 1997 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, it was determined that despite women’s social, political, and professional advances, women are still far “more likely than men to be shown engaged in appearance-related activities such as grooming or dressing” (p. 13). Women are also much “less likely to be shown wearing business clothes or a work uniform, and more likely to be shown wearing only undergarments” (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1997, p. 13). The kinds of stereotypes perpetuated by the media, then, only serve to further cloud the reality of working women.
Another problem is that women are underrepresented in newsrooms across the country, as has historically been the case in almost all forms of journalism. The fact that women are minorities in newsrooms means that the voice of women to shift the focus of the coverage of stories, to expand the inclusiveness of sources, and to redefine what real women’s issues is limited. As a result, the media, even if unconsciously, continue to portray women in limiting roles. Women are typically portrayed in stereotypical ways; they are rarely shown as competent and capable authority figures, or as active people with meaningful employment, or as people who are defined by their professional position. Despite women’s increasing participation in the professional workforce, women are far more likely than their male counterparts to be portrayed, both through text and accompanying images, in a non-work setting, as a support person, or in the domestic sphere.