Women in Journalism: Newspaper Milestones

Researched and Compiled by Bill Lucey, March 14, 2005

In 1981, a Joint Congressional Resolution declared the week of March 8 as National Women's History Week. Congress expanded it to a month long celebration in 1987.

Here is a brief timeline of some early female pioneers in American journalism.

January 4, 1739: Elizabeth Timothy becomes the first female in the American colonies to assume the role of publisher of a newspaper: the South Carolina Gazette, after her husband, Lewis Timothy, dies. She turned the role over to her son, Peter, in May 1746, and died in April 1757.

Anne Newport Royall, considered "The first American newspaper woman" was travel correspondent and Washington editor, didn't begin her newspaper career until she was 51, and at 62, she becomes publisher of the Paul Pry, later renamed The Huntress.

In her career as a reporter and editor, she had a pit bull style, campaigning against graft and corruption within the federal government; and in one story, she exposed a clerk of the House of Representatives, who was payroll padding and practicing nepotism. Royall became the first female reporter to interview a U.S. president: John Quincy Adams.

One unique feature she adopted as publisher of the Paul Pry was to publish a "Black List" of delinquent subscribers. Here's one such example: "If any one can inform us where a Mr. T Bell, late of Sparta Ga., at president resides, he will confer a favor on the editress of this paper. Mr. Bell went off in our debt and is said to be somewhere in the Creek (now Alabama) Nation."

Sarah Joseph Hale, who began her journalism career at age 40, impoverished and mothering five children, became the first female magazine editor of a nationally recognized publication, when she moved to Philadelphia in 1837, to became literary editor of Godey's Lady Book, a monthly magazine devoted to morality issues, literature, and fashions. It was at this magazine where Hale began to push for having Thanksgiving declared a national holiday, a cause that was realized in 1864 during Abraham Lincoln's administration. In a July 1872 editorial column, she admonished a majority of universities (with Oxford and Cambridge being the exceptions) for not offering advanced degrees to women.

Margaret Fuller became literary critic for a major daily newspaper at the New York Herald Tribune, when Horace Greeley hired her as the paper's first female staff member. In 1846, she became a foreign correspondent for the Tribune, when she traveled to Europe and reported on the Italian revolution of 1847. Fuller died tragically; on July 19, 1850, while setting sail for America with her husband and three children, their ship foundered off Fire Island and all were drowned. Fuller was traveling with her manuscript for a soon to be published book on the history of the Roman Republic.

Cornelia Walter was editor of the Boston Transcript and the considered to be the first woman to edit a major newspaper in the United States. One of her reporting highlights came on August 3, 1842, during a race riot in Philadelphia, in which she chronicled the plight of the black citizens who had been victimized and left homeless.

Jane Gray Swisshelm, one of the first female journalists on New York Herald Tribune, where she was remembered for being the first woman to sit in the press gallery in Washington D.C. on April 22, 1850, to cover a vote on slavery for the Mexican territory. Swisshelm launched her journalism career in 1842, at age 27, with the Dollar Newspaper and Neal Saturday Gazette, using the pen name Jennie Deans; and later wrote for an abolitionist newspaper in Pittsburgh, the Spirit of Liberty.

Jane Cunningham Croly, better known as "Jenny June," became the first woman to occupy a desk in a city room of a major newspaper, the New York Tribune. She founded the New York Women's Press Club in 1868 on West 14th Street and served as its first president.

During her reporting career, she advocated closer health inspections in stores and restaurants and improved city services of New York residential streets, which were becoming cluttered with garbage. Croly was hailed as one of the first women to teach college level journalism classes during a time when journalism schools were non-existent.

Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer is noted for being the first woman personal advice columnist as "Dorothy Dix Talks," from 1896 to 1951, beginning with the New York Evening Journal, offering advice and personal opinions tinged with humor and sarcasm on a broad range of topics. "Men are a selfish lot" was one of her more popular responses.

Her mailbag, according to her obituary, averaged about 2,000 letters a week. By the time of her death in 1951 at age 90, the Bell Syndicate was publishing her column.

Dorothy Thompson, foreign affairs writer for the New York Herald Tribune beginning in 1936 is credited with being the first woman to establish a regular presence on the editorial page when her column "On the Record" made its debut on March 17, 1936. She reportedly was making over $100,000 in 1938. Prior to World War II, she wrote against the tide of American opinion, when she pushed for the U.S to snap out if its isolationist slumber and intervene in Europe. She wrote that the "National Socialist Revolution in Germany would prove to be the most world disturbing event of the century and perhaps of many centuries." Time Magazine ran a cover story on her on June 12, 1939, and described her and Eleanor Roosevelt as being two of the most influential women in the country.

February 1, 1937: The first woman in New York Times history to sit on the editorial board is Anne O'Hare McCormick. She begins a column: "Affairs in Europe," later re-named "Abroad." When she died on May 29, 1954, the New York Times blackened the border of the "Abroad Column." McCormick won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for foreign correspondence, becoming the first woman in journalism to claim the coveted prize.

Judith Crist is named drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune in 1958, the first woman to hold such a title for a major daily, and in 1960 becomes editor of the Arts. In 1963, her lifelong dream is fulfilled, when she's named editor film critic.

No woman covered World War I, but by World War II, 21 women were assigned to various fronts of the war.

Murguerit Higgins in 1951 became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for war correspondence for the New York Herald Tribune, when she fought her way to the front lines in Korea despite the objections of General Walton H. Walker, who told her "[t]his is not the type of war where women ought to be running around the front lines." After protesting, Gen. Douglas MacArthur rescinded the order the next day.

Higgins was hired in 1942 at the Herald while still a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, after landing an interview with Chiang Kai-shek, who was refusing interviews to all other reporters.

Miriam Ottenberg, became one of the first female police reporters when she joins the Washington Star in 1937; and in 1960, as an investigative reporter, she won a Pulitzer for her series "Buyer Beware" about unscrupulous used-car dealers and finance companies. Her series led to the introduction of federal legislation and the enactment of remedial laws.

February 2, 1976: The New York Times publishes a book review of their new style manual: "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage," which hadn't been updated since 1962. The book reveals for the first time the paper's policies on datelines and the importance of protecting the anonymity of news sources. Reflecting the rise of feminism, the manual notes changes in how women should be addressed but refuses to accept the words "chairwoman," "chairperson," "spokeswoman," and "Ms" as acceptable usage.

Mary McGrory first joined the staff of the Washington Star in 1947 as a book reviewer; and in 1975 became the first woman to win a Pulitzer for commentary for her series of columns about the Watergate scandal. McGrory suffered a stroke in March, 2003, and died on April 21, 2004.

June 20, 1986: In an Editor's Note, The New York Times acknowledge the term "Ms." had become common usage and accordingly will be adopted as an honorific in news columns and when an identity of a woman is unknown. Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal ordered the change.

NOTE: Joseph C. Goulden, in his book Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal And His Times wrote that when Gloria Steinem was alerted to The Times' policy change, she immediately sent Rosenthal flowers along with a thank-you note compliments of the Ms Magazine staff.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in 2004, women made up 37.23 percent of daily newspapers employees: 20, 177 out of a total workforce of 54, 164. ASNE estimates 4,471 women are in supervisory or upper management positions.

The Census Bureau reports there are 147.8 million females in the United States as of July 1, 2003, outnumbering the male population, which stands at 143 million.

Sources:

  • Brilliant Bylines by Barbara Belford
  • Great Women of the Press by Madelon Golden Schilpp and Sharon M. Murphy
  • Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism edited by Joseph P. McKerns
  • The New York Times : A Chronology: 1851-2001 compiled by Bill Lucey
  • various newspaper reports
Last Updated: April 16, 2013