9 Groundbreaking Female Journalists You Don't Know — But Should
The history of journalism has had some pretty outstanding female contributors — and in recent years they've grabbed headlines all over the place, often for tragic reasons. From the death of war correspondent Marie Colin in the Battle Of Homs in Syria in 2012 to the suspicious killing of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and critic of the Putin government, in 2006, stories about women in journalism these days often involve death and destruction, or at the very least, controversy. But behind these news-grabbers there are female journalist pioneers who need to celebrated — both for breaking new ground and, frankly, for being deeply, inspiringly awesome.
We love our reporters brassy and take-no-prisoners these days, like Canadian reporter Shauna Hunt's recent takedown of male hecklers shouting obscenities in Toronto, or Lebanese television presenter Rima Karaki's decision to cut off a live interview with a sheikh who told her it was "beneath him" to be interviewed by her. These incidents make it clear that being a female journalist is sometimes an uphill battle against sexism — and that's very much the way it's been for generations. For the nine women on this list, carving a female niche in a male-dominated industry like journalism meant their lives were often rife with discrimination, challenges, and some pretty perverse obstacles.
These nine ladies deserve to better known. You probably know about Ida B. Wells, the famous suffragette journalist and civil rights activist, and the name Gloria Steinem likely rings a bell — but there's a lot more where that came from. These women had flaws (some of their views were, well, kind of terrible), but they were definitely breaking doors and taking names.
1. Nellie Bly
American journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922) basically invented "immersive journalism" as we know it— where journalists got down and dirty in the places and things they investigate. She took inspiration from Jules Verne's Around The World in 80 Days and took the same route to see if it could viably be done — and managed to do it in 72 days, because she wasn't f*cking around.
She also decided to reveal the treatment of patients in asylums, but instead of polite interviews with personable asylum owners, she pretended to be insane to get herself committed and make observations of the conditions. (She also patented several inventions including the modern milk can, like you do.)
2. Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was a ground-breaking woman in many ways. An open feminist who published the seminal work Women In The Nineteenth Century, she also worked as editor at Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal The Dial and was the first female editor of the New York Tribune.
Not content with restraining her awesomeness to America, she also traveled to Europe as the Tribune's first female overseas correspondent, and promptly shacked up with an Italian revolutionary and had a child out of wedlock. She's also supposed to have been the inspiration for the character of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter. Can you spell "baller"?
3. Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Like several women with journalism careers in 19th century America, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) had other things on her plate: she was a speaker, an author, and a lawyer. In 1853 she became the first female African American newspaper editor in American history when she edited the anti-slavery newspaper The Provincial Freeman, which was for American slaves who'd fled to Canada. She wrote widely on anti-slavery causes in newspapers, and also became the second African American woman in the U.S. to earn a law degree in 1883, at the age of 60.
4. Mary Katherine Goddard
Goddard's an interesting figure in the history of journalism because she wasn't technically a journalist in our modern sense of the word — she was a printer. Mary Goddard (1738-1816) has gone down in history as the first printer brave enough to print the Declaration of Independence with the names of all the signatories, revealing their identities as traitors to the British Crown. It was a radical act, but Goddard was no ordinary woman; she also took over the editorship of The Maryland Journal while her brother was away, and when he forced her to return it to him, she became Postmaster of Baltimore instead.
5. Ida Minerva Tarbell
Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) was one of the first investigative journalists in the world, and devoted her career to biographies and revealing investigations into contemporary scandals. Her serialized biographies in journals, on everybody from Napoleon to Lincoln (her series on him had 20 parts) were wildly popular, and she conducted a huge expose on the Standard Oil Company and the Rockerfeller family from 1902 to 1904.
6. Ethel Payne
Ethel Payne, who died in 1991, was commonly known as the First Lady Of The Black Press — and it was a title she seriously deserved. This was a woman who wrote for the Chicago Defender, a newspaper with the subtitle American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, and annoyed President Eisenhower so much with her persistent questions during White House press conferences that he stopped answering. Payne, a granddaughter of slaves, was also the first African American international correspondent, TV, and radio commentator.
7. Anne Newport Royall
Anne Royall (1769-1854) was a serious boundary-pusher. It's alleged that she once sat on President John Quincy Adams' clothes while he bathed until he answered her questions, which is probably untrue but completely in character. After an early career spent publishing books that excoriated political plots, (earning her an arrest as an "uncommon scold" at one point), she founded a newspaper called Paul Pry, which devoted itself to exposing political and religious fraud and graft.
Paul Pry was replaced by The Huntress in 1836, but it was along the same lines, and Royall developed some powerful enemies — not least some postmen, who occasionally refused to deliver it to subscribers.
8. Jane Grey Swisshelm
Like others on this list, Jane Swisshelm (1815-1884) doubled up journalism with other duties, including publishing and activism. She was an anti-death penalty, women's rights, and anti-slavery activist (although she also held horrible views on Native Americans), and she founded The Saturday Visiter after two other papers who had employed her went under.
Her indignant criticism of Sylvanus Lowry, a slave owner and politician, led to him destroying her office. She founded another paper, The Reconstructionist, whose attacks on President Johnson led to her losing a lucrative government job. Before she died, the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph described her as "Pittsburgh's most celebrated woman".
9. Sarah Josepha Hale
Hale (1788-1879) wrote "Mary Had A Little Lamb" — but she was also one of the most powerful editors in 19th century America. As editor first of the Ladies' Journal and, later, of Godey's Lady's Book , the most widely circulated magazine in America in the 1860s, she had huge influence. She included contributors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Catharine Beecher, and Washington Irving — and, as a testimony to her own principles about feminism, a regular section called "Women In The Workforce" to discuss life as a female worker in America. She also helped found Vassar College, presumably in her spare time.
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