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Woman in Journalism

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


That it should have been left for me to discuss women in journalism, after all the weeks of speech-making from this platform, is surprising; and that I should so readily have committed myself to the subject has since been to me a matter of regret. I don’t like the petticoat or trouser differentiation which my subject seems to imply. Women in journalism today in no way differ from men in journalism. Sex is neither a disqualification nor a recommendation. Much discussion of women in any particular line of usefulness, in these free and equal days, when they can hem ruffles or engineer locomotives equally without comment, is too much like discussing them as a species instead of a sex. There is no sex in brains, all difference in weight of the brains of the sexes to the contrary not withstanding, and brains and journalism are synonymous terms. Neither is there a royal road especially prepared or made smooth for either sex. A fair field and no favor must suffice for women in journalism. There is no claim to be set forward on the basis of sex. Women who have succeeded in journalism have succeeded as journalists and not as women, and this along the same lines on which men have succeeded.

We learn early in the work to expect nothing by virtue of the accident of our personality. Because we are women we must not imagine we therefore have a right to an engagement simply for the asking. Especially would this deprive us of a niche in journalism. We must not presume upon an editor’s chivalry and courtesy to judge our work more leniently than he would were it the work of a man. I regret to say these are weaknesses often charged to beginners, but which all who get on in journalism sooner or later outgrow. We must be proud that our work is received upon its merits alone, since any other plan would lower the standard of our efficiency, impair our earning capacity and spoil us both as women and as journalists. Women who come into journalism expecting to be excused any fault by reason of their sex lower by extent of that excuse the reputation and worth of women in the profession. We learn to trample under foot that most dishonoring conception of our work as mere woman’s work, and to know that such kindness on the part of editors as the indulgence of these weaknesses would in the end prove most unkind. However, if there ever was a time when women in journalism were so favored to their undoing, that day has gone by. Editors may be compared to builders; they build daily and their contract with the public is to build only of the best material. They care not so much which sex furnishes the timber, so it is of the best. If women supply material as good and suitable as that furnished by men they stand the same chance of making a sale as men do, and will receive the same price for it. Journalism is at least the profession where the sexes receive the same remuneration for the same work equally well done. Surely the whole duty to our sex has been discharged when this is true. We cannot expect editors, out of chivalry, or because their mothers were women, and we are women, to build their papers out of inferior timber simply because we furnish it. If we are so immature as to expect such indulgence, we are doomed to disappointment. 

It is the common experience of women in journalism that there is less sentiment about a newspaper office than anywhere else of which they have personal knowledge. It is not putting it too strongly to say that though a contributor or reporter were upon the verge of starvation, such confession would hinder rather than help her to space or assignment. The editor would at once suspect money to be her inspiration and of her having nothing to say that would either entertain or benefit the reading public. Writing only for the money there is in it is one of the unpardonable sins in journalism. 

I have heard women in journalism refer to the stern reprimands, often unjust, with much the same pride men sometimes refer to jacketings received during apprentice days, and, like the men, attribute their ultimate success to such stern discipline, on the assumption that sparing the metaphorical rod would have the same effect upon the woman as upon the child. 

But once a woman always a woman, and it is a matter of doubt whether any of us ever overcome the natural weakness, if weakness it be, of love of the approving pat. I can even see how mistaken kindness and undue consideration might encourage the timid woman to do her best, when being “treated exactly like a man,” which would be license to swear at her, might frighten her out of the wits she would stand most in need of. 

The story is told of one of our pioneer women in journalism that she was first refused a place on the staff because it would not do to swear at her. “What!” said the editor, “petticoats on this staff? Never while I am in control. Why, you could not swear at a woman!” That, in his opinion, settled the matter. Anyone that could not be sworn at when they deserved it had no business around a newspaper office. This same editor subsequently found out there were other ways to admonish women and develop genius besides swearing at them, for he lived to have several women on his staff. 

It may be that the sharp edge of the employer’s reproof does keep the apprentice up to the work, but there are reproofs and reproofs, and while an editor need not overpraise or give space to woman’s work simply because it is the work of a woman, neither need he condemn it with words that cause her to have a “good cry” over the brutality of men in general and her editor in particular. Tears are not a factor in journalism. While we may believe it possible to cry and cry and be a journalist still, yet let us rejoice that tears have so nearly gone out of fashion. It is noticeable that even heroines in novels do not cry as much as they used to, and perhaps the reason for this may be found in the fact that the heroine in present day fiction, like the heroine in real life, is so commonly a bread-winner. 

The great rough work-a-day world is a place to dry up the tear glands, and that part of the world occupied by journalism may be as rough as any other. Especially will it be rough for the conventional woman. It is said among editors that the giant foe with which women have to contend in journalistic work is their own conventionality, and we find this quite true. 

Particularly is it true of that conventionality which causes us to rebel against disagreeable assignments for no better reason than because we are women, or, to make our case stronger because we are ladies; that such and such a duty is not the thing to ask of a “lady”–sending her to the police court, or about late at night, for instance, or that she must not be told of it if she has done her work unsatisfactorily. It is not likely she would be sent out late or to the police court if there were a man available who could be relied upon to do the work equally well, therefore the assignment is in the nature of a compliment. But for whatever motive sent she should go, and the old adage about women carrying chips on their shoulders is applicable here. 

It would be a good deal more humiliating to the aspiring woman to be kept in the office cutting out fashion pictures for the woman’s page than to be given a man’s assignment. Human prejudice nowhere counts for more than in journalism, and there are editors still to be found, who, other things being equal, will give a journalistic commission to a man rather than to a woman. That good friend to all deserving woman, Mr. W. T. Stead, of the “Review of Reviews,” is the only editor I have ever heard plead guilty to the opposite prejudice. He declares it his policy to never employ a man when he can employ a woman to do the work as well. 

The most successful writer is the one who is never caught napping concerning any topic of immediate public interest. As women in journalism we must not be behind the times in current matters of art, religion and politics unless we would be ranked veritable stupids, and though we have all the great authors and poets at our pen’s end, such culture will not insure success in journalism. Likewise the natural gifts of sympathy, tact and originality of expression, while they all tend to stamp the writer with characteristics peculiarly her own and add to the charm of her work, yet natural gifts alone will not make a good journalist. 

Knowledge precise and sound may be said to be the grand fundamental principle of journalistic work. First to know something to write, and then to know how to write it, is the never-failing advice from editors. We are enjoined to be original, and this according to Carlyle meant simply to be sincere. 

The most cruel, as it seemed to me then in my “salad days,” the most senseless advice I ever received from an editor was this: “After you have finished your copy take a blue pencil and go over it from beginning to end, killing off every adverb and adjective and quotation there is in it. Read it over twice without them and you will probably never put them in again.” 

I wondered then why he should have recommended a blue pencil in preference to any other for the killing off process. Alas! I have since learned that of all weapons used in journalistic warfare, the blue pencil is the most deadly. And I have learned the method in the madness of killing off adjectives and adverbs was to break up all tendency to the “composition” style of writing, which we unconsciously bring from school with us and which is such “bad form” in journalism. 

But after all cut-and-dried rules and regulations have been observed, still will the manuscript sometimes be returned, as often without thanks as with, or, worse yet, basketed. But this need discourage no one. It may mean anything rather than that the writer can not write. It may only mean that the subject was a week too late or too early for the paper to which it was sent. It may be just in time for some other paper. What one editor refuses another will accept. This return of manuscript as unavailable is one of the trials of women in journalism, and if the truth be told, only one of many. 

But in the end, those who have weathered the discouragements readily declare the game to be well worth the candle. The newspaper is the educator of the public, and men and women who write in newspapers have the best opportunities for creating public opinion. Earnest workers among women journalists realize they are always on trial before the public, and that they have the honor of their sex, which means the regulation of one half the human race, more in their keeping than any other women of equal numbers. They have asked the public to take them at their own higher appraisement, and to judge of their work as work, and not merely as the work of women. They know their colleagues of the other sex watch them with an attention naturally critical, but not always sympathetic; therefore, for the sake of all they hold dear, they are endeavoring to give the enemy no occasion to blaspheme by pointing to either their work or their behavior as conclusive reasons why there should be no women in journalism.



Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 435-437.