Women in Journalism

Marsha Ducey. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

Women have been a part of journalism for centuries, although many of their names and faces might not be familiar to the average person. From newspaper printers in the seventeenth century to the anchors of television newscasts in the twenty-first, women journalists have climbed out of the print shops and on to the front pages and top broadcasts of journalism. The road was not always a smooth one. Many media scholars, journalism organizations, and newsroom executives maintain that having diverse representation of journalism staffs in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion is crucial to making certain the voices of all the public, not just a privileged few, are heard. Although great strides have been made by women in journalism, in 2009 women still were seeking equal representation in the highest newsroom ranks.


Some of the earliest women to enter journalism came from families operating printing presses. From the late seventeenth into the eighteenth centuries, men who worked as printers often trained their wives and daughters to help with the family business. Printing businesses sometimes involved publishing a small newspaper. Mary Katherine Goddard, who worked in her brother’s print shops, is among the most famous of these early printers. During the American Revolution, she became editor and publisher of Baltimore’s first newspaper, the Maryland Journal, and was the first to print the Declaration of Independence with the names of the signers.

Margaret Fuller is often cited as the first woman to work at a major newspaper. In the 1840s Fuller worked for the New York Tribune and is believed to be the first woman foreign and war correspondent. Among other events, she covered the Italian revolution for the Tribune. Most women journalists, however, didn’t find themselves overseas covering wars. Before the U.S. Civil War, magazines geared specifically to women began as a way to attract circulation revenue (and eventually advertising dollars), opening up new opportunities for women writers and editors. After the Civil War, technological production improvements and postal system changes lowered the cost of producing magazines and made them easier to distribute. About 40 magazines existed in the United States in 1800. By 1900, that number increased to 5,500. The Civil War itself also opened up new avenues for women journalists as they took on slavery and the right to vote for both blacks and women. In 1868, two of the most famous crusaders for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, published and edited The Revolution, a newspaper focused on equal rights for women. More newspapers focused on women’s rights followed, as did publications and stories aimed at social reform. In the 1890s, Ida Wells-Barnett risked her life calling for a stop to the lynching of black Americans. After her newspaper office was burned, she moved from Memphis to New York, where she continued writing.

By 1886 some 500 women worked on a regular basis in American newsrooms. They took their craft seriously and began to form press associations. Among the earliest were the Woman’s Press Club of New York and the Woman’s National Press Association. Such groups allowed women journalists to build solidarity, as they would not be allowed into male-dominated journalism clubs until the 1970s.

While the nineteenth century brought women journalists initial opportunities to lobby for social reform, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a period dominated by stunt journalists and “sob sisters.” Stunt journalists were those who did something sensational to get attention. Foremost among them was Nellie Bly, who traveled around the world in 72 days in order to beat the character in author Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in 80 Days. Sob sisters were women journalists covering crime and romance whose stories were meant to make the reader weep. A woman journalist might play both roles. Publishers employed stunt journalists and sob sisters to increase circulation.

Making Headway

Women journalists in the early twentieth century wanted to right wrongs and expose abuses of power. They were known as muckrakers, and among them was journalist Ida Tarbell. Through meticulous reporting, she exposed the unfair business practices used by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Her work, first featured in McClure’s Magazine, became a widely read book in 1904 and led to government prosecution of Standard Oil for violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The 1920s brought a new opportunity for women journalists with the advent of radio. But because of narrow male ideas about acceptable voices on the air, few were permitted to broadcast, let alone to provide news. Men’s voices were thought to have more “authority.” Other than singers and other entertainers, women who made it to radio’s airwaves found themselves on informational programs focused on home and domestic issues.

At about the same time, journalism schools were beginning to open their doors to women students. While women could attend, they often were encouraged to focus on marriage and family rather than on a career in journalism. Women students were often given lighter assignments such as a soft feature story instead of a hard-hitting headline story. Some of those who graduated found it difficult to get journalism jobs. By 1900, the number of full-time women journalists was 2,193. By 1910, the number of women writers and editors was estimated at more than 4,000. By 1930, that number grew to 12,000.

World War II brought many employment opportunities to women as newspaper and broadcast companies had to fill spaces when men left to serve or cover the war. Women took positions as reporters, editors, and newscasters. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt worked to help women journalists by holding women-only press conferences and providing stories to women reporters. CBS hired one of the first women broadcast news executives, Helen Sioussat, to take the place of legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow as director of talks when Murrow went to Europe to cover the war. Helen Thomas, a wire service reporter who covered U.S. Presidents for more than 40 years, got her start in journalism in 1943 because of vacancies left by men. Thanks to these and other wartime efforts, women’s journalistic work became more widely recognized. The first woman awarded a Pulitzer Prize, in 1937, was Anne O’Hare McCormick, who won for her foreign correspondence for The New York Times. Sigrid Schultz became one of the first women radio foreign correspondents and broadcast the bombing of Berlin.

Changing Work Conditions

As men returned from the war, many women lost their positions or ended up in different jobs. The 1950s brought a renewed interest in women-specific pages in newspapers and programs on radio and nascent television. While these topics did provide jobs to women, many yearned for something more. Marguerite Higgins, who had covered World War II for the New York Herald Tribune, went on to become the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1951 for her coverage of the Korean War. But even she could not escape smears that her success was based on her gender more than her talent. Higgins, like so many other women journalists, often faced discrimination or harassment. The civil and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s led to landmark legislation that aimed to change the work environment. Yet even in the 1970s, women journalists at Newsday, The New York Times, and other major news organizations complained that employers were discriminating based on gender. Complaints often led to action, with financial settlements and affirmative action plans to hire and promote women in the newsroom.

In broadcasting, a 1971 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission held that women should be given equal hiring opportunities. Building on the ruling, women pushed for increased hiring and promoting in broadcast news. But women still continued to face harsh criticism. Barbara Walters became the first woman to anchor a nightly network newscast in 1976 but faced criticism for her million dollar salary, her appearance, and her way of speaking. Though she left the newscast within two years, she remained a major figure at ABC for decades, becoming one of the medium’s top interviewers.

In the 1970s, while women were using the courts to increase hiring and promotion equality in newsrooms, women students increased to a majority of undergraduate journalism majors at American colleges. This created a growing pool of candidates for journalism jobs. But the fight for gender equality continued in the 1980s, centering on gender and age. Christine Craft, a 37-year-old woman television anchor in Kansas City, was fired in 1981 after a consultant’s report said viewers thought she was too old, not attractive enough, and not deferential enough to men. She initially won her 1983 sex discrimination suit but lost on appeal in 1985 and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 1986. Age discrimination was an issue that continued to trouble women broadcast journalists far more than males in the early twenty-first century. Yet in many markets, a woman co-anchor of evening station newscasts is now common.

The women’s rights movement and increased feminist activity in the 1970s and 1980s were accompanied by an examination of the role of and description of women in the media. Researchers including Donna Allen, H. Leslie Steeves, and Maurine Beasley began studying the absence of women in media portrayals and stories as well as their roles (or lack thereof) as makers of journalistic and media stories. For example, researchers studied (and continue to study) the number of male sources in stories compared to the number of female sources in stories.

In 1981, 1982, and 1992, Indiana University scholars conducted surveys that showed women made up a third of newsroom staffs. According to the U.S. Census, the workforce as a whole was made up of 42 to 45 percent women during the same time period. In the 1990s newspapers, for example, sought to increase readership by focusing on attracting women and realized their women staffers helped in the effort. A version of the “women’s” pages returned, now more broadly dubbed “life” or “style” with a focus on domestic issues and needs—indeed, anything of concern to women.

In 1993, the second woman co-anchor of a network evening news program, Connie Chung, joined the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Amidst criticism of some of her stories and style, she accused CBS of sexism and left in 1995. Only a decade later, the same CBS Evening News became the first network evening newscast to feature a solo woman anchor when Katie Couric moved over from a successful morning career at NBC’s Today show.

Noted Women in Print Journalism

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Bly was one of the earliest investigative reporters. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Bly wanted to report on how the mentally ill were treated and famously had herself committed to a mental institution in pursuit of a story. Her stories of abuse, neglect, and poor sanitation at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island led to reform in care for the mentally ill. She also became known as the first “stunt reporter,” and her feats included having herself arrested so she could reveal the inside of women’s prisons and pretending to be unemployed so she could show how employment agencies worked.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71)

Bourke-White was the first woman photographer to be hired by a major publication when she went to work for Fortune magazine in 1930. She was the first woman photojournalist at Life magazine in 1936 and one of her photos, of the construction of Fort Peck Dam in Montana, was featured on the inaugural cover. She worked there until the 1950s. She also made news as the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union. Her photographs of the Great Depression, World War II, and many foreign countries were widely distributed.

Katharine Graham (1917-2001)

Graham helped The Washington Post become one of the most respected U.S. newspapers. She served as publisher and chair of the board of the newspaper after the death of her husband in 1963. Graham was lauded for her 1970s decision to run the Pentagon Papers story—the story of a secret U.S. government study on Vietnam—after The New York Times’s publication of the same study was stopped by a court order. She also supported the 1972 to 1974 Watergate investigation of political scandals that lead to the downfall of President Richard Nixon and that made two of her reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, journalism legends.

Marguerite Higgins (1920-66)

Higgins earned her master’s degree at Columbia University’s journalism school. She became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1951 for her coverage of the Korean War. Higgins also covered World War II and was among the first journalists to report on the U.S. military’s seizure of the Dachau concentration camp, writing a haunting eyewitness account. In her final years, she reported the early Vietnam War.

Clare Boothe Luce (1903-87)

Luce, who worked as a magazine editor and writer in her early years, became known as a playwright and politician. Luce met her husband, Henry R. Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines, in 1935 after her four-year stint as an editor at Vogue and Vanity Fair. She wrote several plays that were turned into movies including The Women, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, and Margin for Error. After working as a war correspondent for Life from 1939 to 1940, Luce served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Connecticut from 1943 to 1947 and ambassador to Italy from 1953 to 1956.

Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson (1881-1948)

Patterson was part of one of the U.S. major newspaper families, the Medill family, and left her own mark on the newspaper industry as editor and owner of the Washington Times and Washington Herald, which she merged into the Washington Times-Herald. Among her famous family members were her grandfather, Joseph Medill, editor in chief of the Chicago Tribune, and her brother, Joseph Medill Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News. She was known for her wit and eccentricity. She went undercover to report her stories, fired employees on impulse, and carried a gun for protection. She published two novels under the pen name Eleanor Gizycka, Glass Houses (1926) and Fall Flight (1928).

Ethel L. Payne (1911-91)

Payne is known as “the First Lady of the black press.” Focusing on civil rights and international news, she spent much of her career working for the black press and was the first black woman to work as a commentator for a major broadcast network, CBS. Much of the award-winning journalist’s work appeared in the Chicago Defender.

Gloria Steinem (1934-)

Steinem co-founded Ms., a magazine aimed at telling stories from a feminist perspective, in 1971. At first, it was a one-time insert in New York magazine, for which Steinem was one of the original writers. In 1972 Ms. became its own publication. The feminist icon, author, and organizer has continued to work as a contributing editor at Ms. She also is co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, a group whose goals include ensuring that women and their experiences are shown in the media and that women media professionals have equal opportunities.

Ida Tarbell (1857-1944)

Tarbell, an early investigative journalist, was one of the “Muckrakers,” a group of journalists whose work ferreted out corruption and abuse of power in American society. Her most famous work, History of the Standard Oil Company, first appeared in McClure’s Magazine and was ranked the number five news story of the twentieth century by a group of 36 judges (journalists and journalism teachers) working under the auspices of New York University’s journalism department.

Helen Thomas (1920-)

Thomas became the “dean of the White House press corps” and “the First Lady of the press.” For more than 40 years, Thomas covered U.S. Presidents for United Press International. She was the first woman to close a U.S. presidential news conference by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President” while covering President John F. Kennedy. She was also the first woman officer of the White House Correspondents Association. Thomas was named one of the 25 most influential women in America by the World Almanac in 1976.

Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961)

Thompson was the first American woman to head a news bureau in Europe. After working on the suffrage movement and in publishing, Thompson headed to Europe where, after three years writing news stories, she became the Berlin bureau chief for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post in 1924. Thompson returned to New York in 1928 and continued to write for magazines and newspapers. She was expelled from Germany because of her opposition to the Nazi government. She became a syndicated columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and was a well-known political analyst in the 1930s and 1940s. She also wrote a nonpolitical column for Ladies Home Journal for 20 years.

Noted Women in Broadcast News

Christiane Amanpour (1958-)

Amanpour, chief international news correspondent for CNN, brought wars, international crises, and interviews with top world leaders to television screens from the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. One of a growing number of women foreign correspondents, Amanpour credited her experiences as the daughter of a privileged Iranian for her desire to be a journalist. Educated in England and the United States, Amanpour not only covered world events but explained the context and people behind those events. She has received numerous awards for her reporting efforts.

Katie Couric (1957-)

Couric became the first woman solo anchor of a weekday network evening news broadcast in 2006. She also worked as a correspondent for the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Couric was co-anchor of NBC’s morning Today show for 15 years, from 1991 to 2006. Before that, she worked as a TV journalist for more than a decade for ABC, NBC, and CNN, starting in local television news in her native Washington, D.C. Couric has won numerous awards.

Pauline Frederick (1906-90)

Frederick was a pioneering radio and later television news reporter for both ABC and then NBC when women were rare on the air. The award-winning reporter earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international law from American University. At the urging of one of her professors, she focused on journalism. Despite her educational qualifications, she had a difficult time breaking into political journalism early on because she was a woman, but she kept trying and eventually covered the Nuremberg trials for ABC radio. She built her final two decades on NBC television on her detailed knowledge of the United Nations.

Anne Garrels (1951-)

Garrels, senior foreign correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), has won numerous awards for her reporting, including the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation for her reporting from Iraq during the American invasion. During the early days of the Iraq war, she was one of only a few non-embedded U.S. journalists who stayed in Baghdad and reported live when the Americans invaded and Baghdad fell. She wrote Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent Anne Garrels, which mixed reportage with personal reflections and stories depicting her daily life of a war correspondent. Prior to joining NPR in 1988, Garrels reported for NBC and ABC News.

Gwen Ifill (1955-)

Ifill has worked as moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer since 1999. Ifill joined PBS after five years at NBC News as chief political and congressional correspondent. Before NBC, she was a journalist for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Baltimore Evening Sun, and Boston Herald American. She got her first full-time journalism job at the Boston Herald after a staff member left a racially derogatory note for her when she was an intern. The Herald’s editors hired her in response to the note.

Jane Pauley (1950-)

Pauley is best known as the longtime morning host of NBC’s Today Show, where she worked from 1976 to 1990, and as correspondent and host for Dateline NBC from 1992 to 2003. She left Today amid media rumors of ageism when she was replaced by the younger Deborah Norville. Pauley also anchored the weekend edition of NBC Nightly News, appeared as a regular substitute anchor on NBC Nightly News, and hosted Time and Again, a news program that delved into NBC’s news archives to highlight a particular moment in American history.

Cokie Roberts (1943-)

Roberts, born Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs, has served as a political analyst for ABC News and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio (NPR). During her more than 40 years in broadcasting, Roberts covered Congress for NPR for more than ten years, co-anchored the ABC program This Week with Sam Donaldson from 1996 to 2002, served as a substitute host for ABC’s Nightline, and authored four best-selling books including Ladies of Liberty in 2008.

Diane Sawyer (1945-)

Sawyer, award-winning reporter and co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, ranked 65 on Forbes magazine’s list of “The 100 Most Powerful Women in the World” in 2008. Sawyer, who started out as a weather reporter in Kentucky, worked in U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration as part of the Nixon-Ford transition team and assisted Nixon with writing his memoirs. She worked for CBS as a reporter and co-anchor from 1978 to 1989 and became the first woman correspondent on 60 Minutes in 1984. Sawyer left CBS to co-anchor Primetime Live in 1989. She began co-anchoring Good Morning America in 1999.

Carole Simpson (1940-)

Simpson, the first African American woman to anchor a major broadcast evening newscast, brought the news to American audiences as weekend anchor on ABC for 15 years from 1988 to 2003. During her career, she won every major broadcast award, and in 1992 she was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists. She founded the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Helen Sioussat (1902-95)

Sioussat was an early woman network news executive. She served as director of talks and public affairs for CBS from 1937 to 1958. Sioussat replaced famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow in the role when he left it to cover World War II. She oversaw hundreds of broadcasts a year and created the first program to focus on talking about television.

Sigrid Schultz (1893-1980)

Schultz was the first woman radio foreign correspondent, and she made her mark with the Mutual Broadcasting System during World War II. In 1926, Schultz was named correspondent-in-chief in Central Europe for the Chicago Tribune, a position that is believed to have made her the highest ranking woman journalist in Europe at the time. She spoke three languages, including English and German. Because she was known as an anti-Nazi, she often had to leave Germany to file her stories.

Nina Totenberg (1944-)

Totenberg, National Public Radio’s (NPR) legal affairs correspondent, has explained legal issues and Supreme Court rulings to Americans for decades. Her award-winning coverage has been lauded by media organizations and the American Bar Association. Totenberg, who joined NPR in 1975, gained national attention in 1991 with her stories about Oklahoma Law Professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment by then – Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas.

Barbara Walters (1929-)

Walters was the first woman to anchor a weekday U.S. network newscast and became known for her interviews with heads of states and celebrities. After more than a decade at the Today show on NBC, Walters headed to ABC in 1976 to co-host the nightly news. She faced criticism for the way she spoke, the questions she asked, and the money she made. After being released from the newscast within two years, she rebuilt her career with interviews with heads of states and celebrities. She became known for getting her interview subjects to talk about things they wouldn’t talk about with other journalists. She also started The View in 1997, a weekday TV show that focuses on women’s views of current events and issues.

Linda Wertheimer (1943-)

Wertheimer has reported stories on National Public Radio (NPR) for more than 30 years. She was the director of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered when it debuted in 1971. From 1974 to 1989 the award-winning reporter covered national politics. She became one of the first women to anchor network coverage of a presidential convention and election night in 1976. Wertheimer hosted All Things Considered from 1989 to 2002 and then became NPR’s first senior national correspondent.


Research indicated in 2002 that women were less likely than men to stay in journalism throughout their careers. Some reasons that women left the field included a desire for more time with their families; a need for a different, more flexible, or more lucrative career; and a feeling that they had hit a “glass ceiling,” meaning they had gone as far as they could.

In 2006, women made up two-thirds of students graduating from American journalism and mass communication college programs, a fact that had not changed since the late 1970s. About the same percentage (68 percent) of master’s degrees in the field were granted to women, along with 58 percent of doctoral degrees in 2006.

Yet women journalists, in the early twenty-first century, still had not yet reached true equality in newsrooms, particularly in the highest ranks of management and in prestige reporting positions. Surveys by organizations such as American Society of Newspaper Editors continued to show most high ranking positions were still held by men in 2008.

While it was clear in 2008 that women had come a long way in journalism, it was also clear they still faced many obstacles on their journey into positions of power. For women in journalism, the fight to reach the top in equal numbers continues.