How Women Have Changed American Journalism


New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley was no fiery feminist. But he admired an essay published in 1843 in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quarterly magazine The Dial. Titled “The Great Lawsuit: Man Versus Men. Woman Versus Women,” the talked-about piece had called for equality in vocational and educational opportunity, stopping just short of appeal for the vote.

“The Great Lawsuit” was written by a woman, Margaret Fuller. So impressed was Greeley that he hired Fuller to write a column for the Tribune at a salary of $10 a week (on a par with the newspaper’s three staff members, all men.) Then he went farther. Persuaded by his wife, he brought Fuller into their home to live.

Fuller’s columns were customarily signed by an asterisk or sometimes merely the letter “F.”  In her first month on the staff, she critiqued social reform in France and added societal reform and the sufferings of the underclass to her menu of topics. She arranged to visit  Blackwell’s Island where convicted prostitutes were taken. She explained, “I have always felt great interest in those women who are trampled in the mud to gratify the brute appetites of men.”

Greeley gave Fuller free rein as an urban reporter, anchoring her columns to the left side of the Tribune’s front page. In his 1868 memoir, Greeley devoted an entire chapter to Fuller, who would spend four years as a foreign correspondent sending the Tribune dispatches from Europe. She and the spouse and infant son whom she had secretly acquired while reporting from Italy were tragically lost at sea on their voyage from the continent.

Although women as writers, editors, publishers, and printers stretch back to colonial days, Brooke Kroeber, the author of Undaunted: How Women Changed American Journalism,  begins her history of journalism’s women with the story of Margaret Fuller “who unstuck the gate that otherwise barred women from success achieved by male colleagues.” Kroeber, an eminent journalist and editor herself and a NYU professor emerita, has produced a comprehensive new book that follows women in journalism, decade by decade, and reports on conditions and the impact women journalists had on the nation.

In her research, Kroeber was surprised to discover how many of the women had been forgotten. Why were their accomplishments not better known? Likely it was because of the nature of print: here today, discarded tomorrow – “it’s only a newspaper.” Women journalists – called “the she lot” — were most often shunted into covering soft news, read mostly by other women. This was especially true for Black women who suffered the double bonds of race and sex.

It’s true that the world did hear about occasional breakouts like Nellie Bly and her around-the-world stunt, as well as muckraker Ida Tarbell, whose 19-part investigative series, “History of Standard Oil,” led to breakup of the 1890’s monopolies. There was less about another eminent muckraker, Black journalist Ida B. Wells. She edited Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, waging a crusade against white efforts to upend legal gains of Reconstruction and took on lynching with a vengeance.

What followed were stretches when women journalists almost disappeared, jammed down like jacks-into-boxes. Those who managed to find work at mainstream outlets would find it safer to stay in the drudge-filled jobs available to them. Far too standard was the male editor’s refrain, “We already have a woman.”

Yet there were exceptions like Anne O’Hare McCormick. As a stringer for the New York Times, McCormick reported on Benito Mussolini as a fascism-spouting young legislator. She interviewed Stalin, Hitler, and revolutionary leader Eamon de Valera. After 14 years, the Times finally put McCormick on the payroll and installed her on its editorial board. She’s shown in a boardroom photo with 15 white guys.

Also smashing high barriers were no-nonsense journalists like reporter Ethel L. Payne, who covered everything from civil rights to the Nigerian civil war for Chicago Defender, a Black paper rich in community and poor in resources. Payne, one of the first Black women in the White House press corps, was recently subject of a major biography, Eye on the Struggle.

Once again, it was progress, backlash, and repeat again. What occasioned some mid-century breakouts were two things: war – when men left, women flooded newsrooms – and money. One UPI vice president summed it up saying: “By hiring women you get a lot better talent for the money.” Women’s wages were almost always a fraction of salaries paid their male colleagues.

Hard as it was to get hired and assigned hard news, dozens of women persevered using wit and wiles to cover the news. Take Collier’s Martha Gellhorn. Although denied permission, Gellhorn snuck aboard a hospital ship headed for Omaha Beach on D-Day, armed with a flask of Scotch, a pen and a notebook. Colliers gave her a five-page spread, but the magazine’s cover line cited, not Gellhorn, but her husband Ernest Hemingway who arrived later.

Afterwards the military confiscated Gellhorn’s press credentials. Undeterred, she continued to report and went on to chronical every major conflict in the 20th Century.

Kroeber tells dozens of stories like Gellhorn’s and names hundreds of women journalists. Undaunted is sometimes overwhelming, almost encyclopedic, but the 500-page book stands out as the first scholarly study of women in journalism.

Many of the later chapters introduce journalists that contemporary readers know and celebrate. Individuals who merit more than passing mention: Molly Ivins, Joan Didion, Cokie Roberts, Gwen Ifill, Katie Couric, Janet Malcolm, Jill Abramson, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd,  Gloria Steinem, Jane Mayer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Isabel Wilkerson. To name some is to miss dozens – we owe them biographers.

Those late chapters also cite journalists that I met, knew and admired. People like Marguerite Higgins, who in 1951 became the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. (McCormick won in 1937.) Higgins, heading to Japan and Korea, stopped to talk to a small group of us at Northwestern’s Medill School. Also hearing Higgins spin wartime tales, was another Medill student, Lois Kroeber, who would graduate, marry a fellow student (Wayne Wille) work for three Chicago dailies and win two Pulitzers, the first for public service. (Lois Wille told the story of a mother-of-seven who asked but was refused birth control. Her doctor told the woman: “You’re healthy enough for seven more.”)

Undaunted also touches on Joann Byrd’s impressive story. She worked as the Everett Herald executive editor, Washington Post ombudsman and editor of the P-I’s editorial page. She co-chaired the Pulitzer Committee before serving at the Poynter Institute. The author of Calamity: The Heppner Flood of 1903, is now retired and lives in Seattle.

In an epilogue, Brooke Kroeber tackles the book’s critical question: what women did to change journalism and what impact they’ve had over the past 180 years. She credits women with widening the topics journalism can cover. She pinpoints women journalists’ efforts at righting the nation’s wrongs and their success at focusing attention on the human toll of global crises. Finally she argues that women have proved essential to this vital, imperiled profession and the never-finished effort to make it better.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at


  1. The late, great, Mary McGrory was someone I knew a little bit, when I lived and worked in D.C. I thought she was a terrific journalist, whip-smart and an outstanding writer. I was very young and she radiated kindness to me.

    In her obit, she was quoted: “I always felt a little sorry for people who didn’t work for newspapers.”

  2. What a wonderful review of an essential and long overdue book!

    Your line at the end of the paragraph listing so many of my contemporary favorites (Ivins, Ifill, Collins, Steinem, Hannah-Jones, and Wilkerson) says it all: “To name some is to miss dozens – we owe them biographers.”

    Brooke Kroeber has made an impressive start. Let’s hope there’s more soon.

  3. Thanks Jean for your thoughtful review of Barbara Kroeber’s new book on the history of American Women journalists, “Undaunted.” It’s sure to become an important resource for scholars, students, and general readers. The stories of these determined and courageous women are moving and inspiring. For a look at how women changed journalism during the Vietnam War, readers may enjoy my recent interview with celebrated journalist Elizabeth Becker on her book “You Don’t Belong Here” that focuses on three daring women reporters: French photojournalist Catherine Leroy; American author Frances FitzGerald; and Australian Kate Webb. Here’s a link to our interview:
    Ms. Becker is a legendary reporter in her own right. She was one of the only reporters who covered the American bombing campaign in Cambodia as well as the civil war there and rise of Khmer Rouge. She also was the only American reporter to interview dictator Pol Pot. And she escaped a Khmer Rouge assassination plot that left another reporter dead. She later testified in a war crimes trial of Khmer Rouge leaders. I’m in awe of her courage and resilience. I highly recommend her book.

  4. Thanks, Ms. Godden, for your revelatory review, spotlighting a book on too-often-stymied/plagiarized women who brought important contributions to readers, via the craft of journalism.

    I would like to add to the list a talented woman working in our corner of the U.S. in the 1960s: Time, Inc. correspondent Dolly Connelly, based in Bellingham. The Pacific NW was uniquely blessed to have her reporting and writing in that rapidly transforming era for our state.

  5. One of the book’s flaws is one repeated by many East Coast writers
    : failure to realize that the known world doesn’t end at the Hudson River. That’s why the work of ground-breaking West Coast journalists was overlooked. Not only Dolly but others as well, including a certain Bobbie (did I spell it right?) Stenson. Pioneers in our midst: To name but a few: Ruth Howell, June Anderson Almquist, Solveig Torvik, Letty Gavin.

    • Thanks Jean for the added comment on women journalists out West. Maybe a project for an enterprising grad student or history-loving journalist or writer. Best wishes.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.