Skip to comments.A Toast To Groundbreaking Female Journalists (Unfortunately This Gave Us Helen T.)
Posted on 09/12/2002 10:18:20 AM PDT by Lance Romance
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women journalists fought uphill battles for the opportunity to write "hard news" -- the breaking stories of the day -- for their papers. Usually, they were hired for the old society sections or women's pages.
But four women who broke the mold were Nellie Bly, Ida M. Tarbell, Marguerite Higgins and Ethel L. Payne. They are being honored posthumously in commemorative, 37-cent stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service. A special ceremony marking the first-day issue will be held Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas, at a national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Once the men saw women on the news beat, they began, reluctantly for some time, to accept them. But not until the last third of the 20th century did men promote them to high positions or let them join their press clubs.
The women on the postage stamps were real trailblazers, and the first among them was Nellie Bly, who was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864. She took her pen name from a popular song by Stephen Foster. A letter she wrote to the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885 intrigued the editor, who let her write a piece on "a woman's place in the world."
Ultimately, he hired her full-time, and she also wrote about such subjects as divorce and life in the slums.
In 1887, as a reporter for the New York World, she became famous for her graphic accounts about feigning insanity to get inside the Women's Lunatic Asylum and discovering the miserable conditions and inhumane treatment of patients there.
In 1889 she traveled around the world in 72 days, beating the record of Jules Verne's fictional character Phileas Fogg, famed for circling the globe in a hot-air balloon in 80 days. Bly made her journey by boat, train, rickshaw and burro.
Tarbell, born in 1957, was one of journalism's original muckrakers. She won acclaim for her monumental investigation of political and corporate corruption at the Standard Oil Co., run by John D. Rockefeller Sr. Her articles for McClure's Magazine from 1902 to 1904 helped trigger a federal probe that led to the breakup of Standard Oil several years later.
New York University's journalism department ranked Tarbell's two-volume "History of the Standard Oil Company" fifth on its list of the top 100 works of American journalism in the 20th century.
Payne was known as the first lady of the black press. Born in 1911, she began her journalism career while serving as a hostess at an Army Special Services Club in Japan in 1948. She kept a journal on her experiences and those of African-American servicemen there.
She let a correspondent for the Chicago Defender use the diary to write about her observations.
The Defender, a black newspaper with a national circulation, hired her full-time in the early 1950s. After two years in Chicago, she became the paper's Washington correspondent and covered key civil rights events -- the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, desegregation of the University of Alabama, and the "I-have-a-dream" speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.
Payne was an aggressive reporter who asked tough questions. Once she asked President Dwight Eisenhower when he planned to ban segregation in interstate travel. Ike's angry response -- that he refused to support special interests -- made headlines and helped push civil rights issues to the forefront.
Higgins, born in 1920, covered World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War from the front lines.
Writing for the old New York Herald Tribune, she covered the liberation of two notorious Nazi death camps, Buchenwald and Dachau. Later she covered the Nuremberg war trials and the Berlin blockade by the Soviet Union. In 1951, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, sharing the award with five male war correspondents.
In a great coup, she had hopped aboard Gen. Douglas MacArthur's personal plane in Tokyo and was one of the first correspondents on the spot when the Korean fighting broke out in 1950.
She moved with the Army, gaining the respect of the soldiers when she hit the dirt just as they did under bombardment. When she first arrived, a U.S. military commander ordered her out of the country, arguing that women did not belong at the front. But MacArthur, the U.N. supreme commander, reversed the order, a major breakthrough for female reporters.
In 1963 Higgins joined Newsday, which assigned her to cover Vietnam. Two years later she contracted a tropical disease that led to her death in January 1966. I stand in awe of these journalists who braved the obstacles and prejudices of their time to prove that great journalism has nothing to do with gender.
(Helen Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
And here we thought it was Karl Marx, Arafat and Bill Clinton.