For all of Ruth Hale’s attempts to preserve her name, the journalistic prodigy and innovator has mostly been lost to history. Indeed, if Hale is remembered today at all, it is mostly as a footnote in the biography of her better-known husband, Heywood Broun, a fate against which she fought fiercely while she lived. As part of our series exploring the lives and professional experiences of women in media while our exhibition, Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO, is on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, the Center for Women’s History dives into Hale’s life story, uncovering how the first female movie critic and first female sports journalist fought against the stubborn gender barriers that ultimately undercut her ambitions in spite of her remarkable achievements.
Lillie Ruth Hale, born in Rogersville, TN, in 1886, began crafting her identity almost as soon as she could speak by rejecting the first name she termed “squashily feminine.” Besieged by the constraints of southern womanhood (she refused to ride sidesaddle), she left home at 13 to pursue her education. By 18, she took her first newspaper job in Washington, D.C.
Hale’s career began in the society pages, where the male publishers of newspapers tolerated, if not embraced, female journalists. In time, Hale moved on to write for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, where she became a drama critic—one of the first, if not the first, woman to hold this position. Always in pursuit of more and better opportunities, Hale moved to New York where, after a brief stint at Vogue, she landed a job at the New York Times.
At the Times, Hale met Marie Jenny Howe and began one of the closest and most consequential friendships of her life. Howe, who founded the women’s organization Heterodoxy, was Hale’s confidant and advisor, introducing her to the world of “unorthodox” women who were joyously self-sufficient. Heterodoxy was a veritable salon of America’s first feminists and inspired Hale to embrace Howe’s view that feminism was “women’s effort to break into the human race.” These women debated everything from modern art to socialism and demanded that their voices be heard.
In both her personal and professional life, Hale demanded to live on her own terms—including in her 1917 wedding to fellow journalist Heywood Broun. Their ceremony omitted the traditional “obey” from their vows, and Hale kept her last name. In a piece written for Vanity Fair, she explained that with marriage, conventional norms dictate that women “in effect [say]: ‘From this time on, I am primarily to be regarded as the woman this man has chosen to marry. What I was is no longer important. What I may be, I may be only as the wife of this man. A human being ceased to be, when I married, and a wife appeared in her place.’” Broun published a supporting piece In the same paper, insisting that “if we are to admit the existence of two persons within the union of marriage, it seems logical that there ought to be two names.”
The day after their wedding, the couple sailed for France for work, Broun as a war correspondent for the New York Tribune and Hale as a reporter for the fledgling Army Edition of the Chicago Tribune. Though originally intended to provide American soldiers news from back home, Hale’s paper became very popular with English speakers in France because it ran independent (and less censored) war reports. These were sourced by Hale herself, likely the paper’s only reporter as well as its primary editor.
Hale’s position required remarkable courage. As a friend in the army medical corps revealed in a letter, Hale “has been far nearer the front than I and can tell you many things I have never seen and may never see.” Despite her efforts, expectations about women’s roles made reporting the war challenging. In a 1917 New York Tribune article about her visit to French soldiers on the front lines with some other newspaper women, she sarcastically remarked, “we were to do the thing safely and calmly, as ladies should, and have no shocks and no alarms with which our hosts would have need to reproach themselves.”
Despite this coddling, Hale produced stirring accounts of the Great War for French and American readers, including first-hand accounts of the bombing of a German aircraft and her experiences in abandoned German trenches. Her description of French recovery from the ravages of war—one of a few such accounts to reach the States—gave Americans hope for the future of their French Allies, observing that “France will come back, not so much because she consciously wills as because she always has.”
In France, Hale established her voice and style. She had every reason to assert that she had just as much, if not more, professional success than her husband. However, she soon became pregnant and the couple returned home to the U.S. She gave birth to Heywood Broun III, who later changed his name to Heywood Hale Broun in her honor.
The couple had high hopes for both of their careers. Thanks in part to Hale’s help, Broun had become somewhat of a journalistic sensation for his own war reporting. He continued to thrive professionally (appearing in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who) and Hale took up a new position in 1923 at Judge—a satirical magazine which had nearly 250,000 readers. The couple were also founding members of the Algonquin Table, where Hale became best friends with Dorothy Parker.
But after 1923, Hale only published six more magazine articles, and her serial newspaper columns ended without public explanation within the decade. Her attentions had shifted away from reporting towards efforts to make the news. She founded and participated in some of the most radical and influential women’s organizations of the era. She advocated for an equal rights amendment with the National Women’s Party; she founded the economic and geopolitical reform group, the Women’s Committee for Political Action; and the Lucy Stone League was born from her protracted struggle to live under her own name.
Hale founded the League after the U.S. State Department refused to issue her a passport except as “Mrs. Heywood Broun.” The League’s motto was, “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.”
Accordingly, one of the League’s main campaigns was directed towards the State Department. It also pushed for women’s right to, among other things, own property (Hale was the first married woman to have her maiden name on a real estate deed in New York), register to vote, and receive paychecks under their own names.
Despite Hale’s activism to ensure that future generations of women could establish independent professional identities, she and Heywood became ever more entangled professionally and financially. Hale was every bit Haywood’s peer as a writer, but, as a man, Heywood was still offered more and better-paying jobs. Their family was financially dependent on Heywood’s earnings even as he increasingly relied on her to discuss, edit, and even ghostwrite his columns. To complicate matters further, Hale sometimes used her husband’s professional stature and platform to promote her own political stances and beliefs. While Hale took to the streets to protest the outcome of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Haywood penned column after column in defense of the pair. When asked by a fellow journalist why he was so fervent in his defense of the alleged anarchists, Broun answered that he wrote “at the request of his wife, Ruth Hale.” For his part, Heywood knew full well that much of his stature and professional success was attributable to her wit and intellect, and that something of Ruth Hale was lost in his shadow. Hale died in 1934 at the age of 47 after a brief illness. After her death, Heywood, though the couple had divorced shortly before his death, wrote in a heartfelt column, “A very considerable percentage of all newspaper columns, books, and magazine articles which appeared under the name ‘Heywood Broun’ were written by Ruth Hale. I mean, of course, the better columns … I suppose that for seventeen years, practically every word I wrote was set down with the feeling that Ruth Hale was looking over my shoulder … I still feel that she is looking over my shoulder.”
Hale was more than just a talented and successful female journalist in a male-dominated profession. She was a pathbreaker in the nascent feminist movement at the forefront of campaigns for women’s rights. Yet, her life and accomplishments were fundamentally circumscribed by the gender norms of her time. Despite her lifelong efforts to help women establish their own identities, Hale may have reached her largest audiences when ghostwriting for Broun. And as a consequence, Ruth Hale never received the full measure of recognition she deserves.
Written by Emma Finn, intern, Center for Women’s History