How were the women’s pages “enormously revolutionary”? That’s how the New York Public Library’s Julie Golia put it during a virtual panel hosted earlier this year as part of our 2021 Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History virtual conference, Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Women in American Journalism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers and magazines turned their gaze towards a new and potentially lucrative body of readers—women. A rising cadre of talented women journalists influenced generations of readers with popular new genres, from stunt reporting to celebrity gossip to advice columns. Our panel explored the evolution of “soft news” journalism and the “women’s page” and examined both its remarkable potential and its problematic legacies.
The panelists discussed how the prominent graphics that we see in newspapers today were foundational to this form of journalism starting in the early 20th century. English-language and foreign-language women’s pages quickly embraced large, centralized images paired with bold headlines to create an eye-catching design. Largely focusing on domestic issues, mainstream women’s pages were written for a white, female audience and had a complex racial history. Golia noted that they were “a site of pernicious textual and visual racism” since the mainstream newspapers that printed them “explicitly and implicitly embodied the values of white supremacy.” This blend of ideology and domestic life was a major theme of the discussion.
Women’s pages were crucial political spaces in the 20th century. Jean M. Lutes, professor of English at Villanova University, described the women’s pages as “miscellany” on the surface, printing articles about housekeeping, beauty hints, and fashion. Delving deeper, she explained, the women’s pages “cultivated bonds of affinity between white women” through advertising, content, and graphics. Ayelet Brinn, a historian of American Jewish culture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Katz Center, added that Yiddish women’s pages had their own ideological agendas. “They had to figure out how to fuse normal women’s content,” she said, “with either socialism or religious orthodoxy.” The women’s pages provided an important outlet for women entering the journalism industry, added Kathleen Feeley, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of history at the University of Redlands. She stated that they were “the hub where women are able to enter a profession that is hostile and closed to them in many ways.” Recognizing that their male editors saw the women’s pages as trivial, women writers used these pages to cover pressing political issues of their day, including suffrage and workplace sexual harassment. Golia added that African American women produced politicized women’s pages, as well. “The advice that’s being given out in the [Chicago] Defender was actually the most stridently feminist by far, pro-women content, as compared to what we would have seen in the mainstream,” she said.
Much is known about the writers who brought the women’s pages to life. Less is known about their audience. This is partially an archival problem. Lute stated that while “women were increasingly important readers” in the early 20th century, the archives don’t contain enough to definitively state whether the women’s pages writers responded to real or invented letters. What is known, however, is that the audience was not exclusively female. Scholars know men read the women’s pages, too, said Feeley. Golia reinforced this point, adding that men wrote into the women’s pages for advice.
A community of readers emerged through the consumption of women’s pages content, and this remained true across racial and ethnic audiences. Yiddish-language women’s pages worked to create connections between young people through “letter exchanges and local community clubs,” said Brinn. Lute raised the point that mainstream white women’s pages built community through the idea that “Life is always manageable.” Comparatively, writers for African American women’s pages, like Princess Mysteria at the Chicago Defender, also built community by addressing trauma, printing letters from rape survivors and women abandoned by their husbands. Women regardless of background faced these challenging circumstances. While these subjects were virtually absent from mainstream white pages, they formed another layer of community among African American readers. Feeley added that this community extended not only to the readers, but to the women writers themselves. They were “supporting each other in old age across a lifetime,” she said.
The panel concluded with a discussion about the legacy of the women’s pages. Feeley stated that the timeline between women’s pages and women’s press clubs lined up seamlessly — newspapers began phasing out women’s pages in the 1970s into the 1990s, and women’s press clubs disappeared along with them. Brinn added that Yiddish newspapers began consolidating in the 1920s, transforming the women’s pages into “family pages” well before mainstream newspapers. With the recent Center for Women’s History exhibition Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO in mind, Lute told audiences that Graham was a firm proponent of the women’s pages. She resisted their elimination in the Washington Post, pushing editor-in-chief Benjamin Bradlee to keep them without success. The loss of the women’s pages impacted women’s access to journalism, as Feeley pointed out, and the gender disparity of coverage for topics about women remains. Brinn stated that much of the labor that women performed in newspapers was obscured or uncredited, “It siloed our understanding of what these women were actually contributing to publications.” Lute added to this sentiment, telling audiences that the women’s pages only made some forms of women’s labor visible. Golia wrapped up the panel with a powerful comment about the paradoxical message communicated about women’s labor within the women’s pages: “You must be both modern and old fashioned, that you must be beautiful and efficient, but not care too much about your looks, and then above all of that—the racial and ethnic implications in mainstream newspapers—essentially, that you must also be white.”
All of the recordings from this year’s Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History, Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Women in American Journalism can be found online, held in conjunction with the exhibition Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO. Our virtual 2021 conference featured a mix of pre-recorded “keynote conversations” and live panels held via Zoom on the vital contributions women have made to American journalism. Many extraordinary practitioners made their marks on the profession while fighting against persistent, systemic sexism and racism.
Written by Allison Robinson, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History
Top image: The Omaha Morning Bee, Omaha, NE November 22, 1923. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.