When the 19th century first dawned upon the world, the “newspaper woman” was unknown; but in 1800 there were only one hundred and fifty publications of all kinds in America, and about one tenth were dailies. The best of them did not have a circulation of a thousand copies a day.
Today we have a little over 22,000 newspapers, weeklies, and magazines of all kinds. And something like 8,000 women are employed on them, principally on the newspapers; Some on salaries as editors of what are called “woman’s pages,” others as society reporters, others again who write what are known as “special” or occasional articles, and a goodly number on what are called “trade” papers. This alone is a small army, but just who is entitled to the definition of “general” or to whom belongs the credit of being the first newspaper woman in America is not accurately known.
Certainly among the pioneers, and perhaps very close to the top of the list, is the lady who, now in her eighties, still resides in Boston, we think — Mrs. Cornelia Walter Richards. Not only was she a journalist, but an editor — an editor- in-charge, for that matter, and of the present staid and dignified Boston Transcript. It has never been disputed, in fact, that she was the first editor of a daily newspaper in America. The Boston Transcript was started as a very small evening paper by Dutton and Wentworth, a firm of Boston printers who had the state printing. They engaged Lynde M. Walter, a cultivated gentleman, to edit it. His health soon failed and he became too ill to do much manual work. In this emergency, his niece, who was a mere girl of twenty-five years, Miss Cornelia Walter, acted as his amanuensis. During his fatal illness of two years, his niece not only watched at his bedside, but wrote leading articles for the paper, for which his praise was the more highly prized, as he tried in vain to discover the author’s identity. The secret was known to Mr. Dutton, the publisher, and he kept it faithfully, for in those days a young woman directing the conduct of a daily newspaper would have been regarded with disfavor.
When her uncle died, Miss Walter was engaged to take his place. This was before the time that woman’s rights were much talked of. The Transcript had a peculiar tea-table sphere, and Miss Walter successfully fitted into it. The paper had not a wide general scope, though there was something like a digest of the more important news of the day in it, which Miss Walter prepared, and she also provided what she thought necessary of the local news of Boston with the aid of one reporter, her sole assistant. She edited the Transcript in this way for a few years and constantly wrote for its columns, leaving the paper to marry a gentleman of pecuniary means.
The newspaper woman, as a factor in journalism, however, is a product of the last fifteen or twenty years, and even to say the last ten years, would be nearer the time when the majority of the present thousands were given admittance to the ranks of working journalists. In 1865, for example, about twenty-five women were known to be in journalistic work, and even in 1875 there were less than sixty. Then the number began to increase. Yet the most reliable statistics in 1880 failed to find more than one hundred and fifty, representing five years’ growth. She is, in short, a genus of recent growth begot principally by her need of employment, and further established by the usual feminine instinct of doing some work, if work she must, befitting “a lady.” Today she seems so natural a part of the journalistic plant, that one is liable to forget she was only grafted on and not a limb of the original growth.
This very shortness of time since she started must be considered when the question is asked, “What has woman accomplished in journalism?” She has supported herself, but little can be said of what she has actually done for she has not been “in the harness” long enough; she has not had a chance to give even a single great woman journalist to the world such as men have in James Gordon Bennett, Henry J. Raymond, Horace Greeley, Samuel Bowles, Charles A. Dana, Victor F. Lawson, Joseph Medill, Henry Watterson, and others.
Woman adopted newspaper work as a necessity; as a means of livelihood. She came to it without previous training, for she never dreamed she would be a part of the great institution in which she is now becoming a factor. It was a distinct innovation when the first newspaper added a woman to its corps of editors. And that was only a few years ago. Now there is scarcely a large daily that has not from one to twenty women on its staff, and a few of the largest metropolitan have a greater number. These women are learning the profession; what they will accomplish will rather be the history of the twentieth century than it is of the nineteenth century. For it must be well understood that journalism is not an art which one can be pick up in a moment or successfully master in a brief experience. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult of the professions, calling, as it does, for so much. Education, mental training; a goodly supply of vigorous health to give staying power; character and dignity — these are the essential parts of a woman’s necessary qualifications for newspaper work. For her work touches every phase of life and society and there education is .necessary; she must be alert and there mental training comes in; her hours are long and good health is required to withstand the physical and mental exhaustion, and she must win the respect of those among whom she works and those whom her lines touch in the great outer world. That means dignity and character. All this is not needed for the simple writing society personal.But society personals are neither very lucrative nor educative.
What she has done, therefore, so far, is rather in the line of promise than of achievement: in giving assurance that the next century will see her beyond the experimental stage, out of the amateur ranks, and in line with the professional journalists. In actual achievement, she has, by interjecting her femininity into the newspaper through articles or departments, made woman-at-large take up the newspaper more than she did in the past, and read it. The woman’s page, so prevalent in the newspaper through articles and departments, made woman-at-large take up the newspaper more than she did in the past, and read it. The woman’s page, so prevalent in the newspaper today, can hardly be spoken of as successful. For the most part, it is an insult rather than a credit to woman’s intelligence. But the introduction of the woman’s page led thousands of women who had never taken up the newspaper to glance at it, and from their reading, pleasant or otherwise, of the “woman’s page” their interests were led into the more legitimate parts of the newspaper. And thus the woman of today has become far more than her ancestors were, a reader of the newspaper. This is an advantage, a growth; for while it does not sweeten a woman to be en rapport with the suicides, murders, and foul politics with which the papers of today teem, it is important that woman as a sex should have an intelligent knowledge of the national questions which are shaping the history of the country and which find their newsiest and often their truest exposition in the newspaper. And this is undoubtedly what the newspaper woman has done; she has begun to accomplish for her sex more, perhaps, than she has actually accomplished for herself, although, she has helped her sex, she has helped herself.
That is not saying, by any means, that she has done nothing beyond this, or in actual achievement as a journalist. No one knows the virile, clear, and logical style of Margaret Sullivan in the Chicago Press, can say with any truthfulness that such work is not to the highest credit of a woman, or a distinct accomplishment. Few editorial writers in the country, even among the male sex, have influenced men so much or so unerringly as has Mrs. Sullivan, who, perhaps, in point of sheer ability, stands easily at the head of American woman journalists. No one knew Isabel A. Mallon could say that in her was, by one iota, a lesser embodiment of a clever journalist than any versatile newspaper man that can be named. In executive ability, we have Miss Elizabeth G. Jordan, who, at the head of the army of women who work for The New York World, has made a signal success. Some of the best newspaper writing in point of even merit, wholesome sense, and a command of good English, is done in the Saturday issue of The New York Evening Post, by a woman who signs herself “C.” When Helen Watterson Moody wrote “A Woman about Town” in The New York Evening Son, men and women alike read it, and recognized the touch of an able writer true to every canon of good taste and faultless construction of the language. Many a cattle-rancher envied the intimate knowledge of stock of all kinds which Miss Mary Morgan, or “Middy Morgan,” as she was known in every stock yard in America, had. And these are but a few single instances. There are others which simply slip the ind as one writes.
Women have not yet absolutely succeeded as newspaper editors simply because they have not had the training. As yet they are better workers than they are directors. This finds its best proof in the fact that in all of the woman’s periodicals published in America, and for that matter in England, there is not a single case where the editor-in-chief is a woman. Harper’s Bazaar was for many years the only exception to this rule, and now, with the retirement of Mrs. Margaret E. Sangster, the only exception has become part of the general rule. In fact the only instance where a woman at present presides over the editorial responsibility of a periodical of any kind — speaking now of periodicals of standing — is that of Mrs. Mary Mapes Dodge of St. Nicholas, and even Mrs. Dodge is gradually allowing the active and responsible work to drift into masculine hands.
This may change as time goes on, but as Oliver Wendell Holmes very wisely said that the training of a child should begin two hundred years before its birth, so the training of an editor is a matter not of the individual but often of his or her ancestry. The editorship of a periodical of any kind, whether it be daily, weekly, or monthly, has, in these keen, competitive days, become as much a matter of the surest executive ability as of journalistic capacity; and the able editor today is he who combines business judgment with journalistic acumen. This requires training, and this woman has not had. Therefore, to say that she has failed of success as editor is not in any sense to reflect upon her ability; it is merely a plain statement of fact. Had woman during the past century received the business training that it is likely she will receive in the century to come, the condition of affairs would unquestionably have been different, and there would have been a different story to tell.
The earnings of newspaper women have increased since her entrance into journalism, and these reverses will, of course, continue to advance as the workers demonstrate the value of their work. No accurate figures can be given, since salaries vary with each paper. For an occasional or “special” editorial article, for instance, one daily may pay the beggarly rate of two, three, and three dollars and a half for a full column of fifteen or eighteen hundred words; other papers will pay as high as eight and ten dollars for the same number of words. It varies largely. The editor of a “woman’s page” may receive ten dollars a week, as is the case of one woman I know who receives that pitiful sum for her work of filling three columns each day of original matter and extracts. Another woman doing the same work on another paper will receive twenty-five, thirty, and sometimes forty dollars. One woman receives three thousand dollars per year, but probably she is the only one in the entire profession of America journalism. So the pay is not yet very generous in proportion to the word expected and done. But this is destined to change as fast as women further demonstrate their abilities as journalists.
The chief value of newspaper work for women lies precisely in the value it has for men: in that it prepares a woman in a way for literary work of higher grade. It does not give her style; for that comes from within, out of one’s self. The newspaper can give a woman practice in that respect, but that is all. It is in the inexperience which she receives; the training; the knowledge of human nature; the sharpening of the faculties. In this way of many of the famous literary women of the present century began with newspaper work. Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, for example, was attached to what was in her day The New York Evening Express. Mrs. Lydia Maria Child wrote for the papers. Margaret Fuller was one of the literary editors of The New York Tribune in Horace Greeley’s day, and Grace Greenwood’s Washington letters to the same paper are still fresh in the minds of those who can remember as far back as the sixties. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote for a Washington paper. Rebecca Harding Davis found her way to public favor through the newspaper, as did Louise Chandler Moulton. Kate Field did the same. And in this sense is the newspaper most valuable and productive for man or woman.
It is when we approach the magazine field that we can more clearly determine what woman has done with her pen during the nineteenth century. There she has done much and done it so well that the question of sex no longer enters into the problem, and the term author is applied equally to man or woman.
One reason for the good work done by woman in this field lies unquestionably in the fact that in the higher grade of literary work she is not confronted with the obstacles which she meets in the field of daily journalism. Unless she occupies a desk position, she need never leave her home to further her literary interests except when she wishes to consult her editor. She is her own master: to work as she will, as the spirit moves her and in the privacy of her own den or in chamber. She does good work because she remains within her most natural environments and she is not subjected to the thousand and one inconveniences which the newspaper woman cannot escape. She is where she should be — in her home, carefully and in her best moods shaping and evolving those thoughts which come to her and are closest to her heart and mind. And there she has done and is doing today great work.
In point of remuneration it pays her better, too, for the magazine rates of pay are, and naturally can be, much higher than those of the newspaper, and she need write much less, and yet earn as much more. Her signature appears to her work, which naturally makes her work more careful, recognizing as she does that her reputation is a greater part of her capital, and by what appears over that name she is judged, and succeeds or not as her abilities deserve.
To the few have come, of course, the particularly luscious plums of literature, in a financial way. And no set of male writers are better paid or receive more lucrative offers for their work, than such American women as Mary E. Wilkins, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Octave Thanet, Mrs. A.D.T. Whitney, Mrs. Burton Harrison, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Ruth McEnery Stuart, Grace King, Rebecca Harding Davis, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Amelia E. Bar, Mary Hallock Foote, Anna Katharine Green, Mrs. Lew Wallace, Margaret Deland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and a score or more women who are equally talented and have made names for themselves in literature by reason of their unquestioned talent. To several of these women the publication of a single novel in a magazine, and its subsequent issuance in a book, will mean as high as ten and fifteen thousand dollars and sometimes more. And in this enumeration of names it will be noticed that we do not cross the ocean, but confine ourselves entirely to American writers.
One need only glance at the magazine literature of the day, however, to see how well women are doing their work, and the undoubted place of honor which they have earned and received. And so versatile is their talent, and so varied their style, that an entire issue of a magazine has been made, confined to the products of the pens of women and with most excellent results. Here is where women have made their greatest and deepest impression upon the literature and the literary thought of the nineteenth century, and it is within every bound of reason to say that they have by no means reached the zenith of meritorious production. On the other hand woman has practically just begun. In the early part of the century she had, in a measure, to overcome the prejudice of sex which existed; today nothing of that sort is felt and the pages of the magazine are as wide open to a woman as to a man, so long as she has a message for the world and can deliver it, and ofttimes the ability of deliverance is not necessary where the message is pregnant and apparent. Her work is eagerly sought, in fact, and quite as assiduously as that of men. As an example, I know of a single instance where woman has received offers during the past year for five times the amount of work she could possibly produce, even were she to work regardless of quality.
It is easily apparent, therefore, that woman’s greatest success with her pen is destined to be made in the future, as it has already in the past, in the higher grades of literature. And this is vastly to her credit. Frankness, however, compels the belief that woman will never make a signal success as a journalist in connection with the daily press of our country. The obstacles to be overcome are too great, and the chief obstacle is her sex. Among certain lines she an always make a living, but it is a curious fact that the journalistic lines for which her instinct has best adapted her, as, for instance, the reporting of functions into which the dress of women or any other distinctly feminine element enters largely, are the lines most distasteful to her. But in great political, economic, or national excitements, an editor rightfully hesitates to send a woman, for he feels the hindrance of sex; and so the dominating features which are the essential part of successful journalism must, of the very necessity of things, be withheld from her. Some women have considered this an injustice to their sex until their experiment has been made and the opportunity given them, and then, invariably, they have been quite as willing to retire and not repeat the experience as the editor has been that the experiment should remain such. Journalism in its truest and largest sense was never intended for women; it is distinctly a profession for men.
But all this does not in any way apply to the higher grades of literary work, and there woman has the same opportunity as man with no physical or other hindrance of sex to be considered. And she has proven this to be true by what she has already accomplished, and she will make that proof more convincing in years to come. Her past as author is already creditable; yea, more commanding. What her future will be no one can foretell, for she must unfold it to herself and to the world. But it is a conservative prediction to make, from the present outlook, that the part she has taken in the literature of the nineteenth century will be completely dimmed by the higher position which her ripening powers will command in the twentieth century.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.