(Editor’s Note: Prof. Candi Carter Olson presented her paper, “Because of the places she had to go: Changing women’s roles through the Women’s Press Club of Pittsburgh,” at the 2016 AJHA Convention in St. Petersburg. The Intelligencer asked Prof. Olson how she started researching the Press Club, what her research means and why it’s important.)
By Candi Carter Olson
Utah State University
Like most journalism historians, I’m regularly asked to tell people why they should care about my topic, which is women’s press clubs and their members. After all, women’s press clubs seem like something that should be relegated to the past, even though some still exist. Women’s press clubs sprang up in the late nineteenth century in response to a growing need for professionalized women to organize in a way that they could educate other women and promote women’s literary accomplishments.
Many of women’s press clubs lasted only a few decades, and those that made it to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s integrated men into their membership in response to changing societal norms. For example, the Women’s National Press Club voted to allow men in membership in 1970 and changed its name to the Washington Press Club.
While women’s press clubs were at their height, we newswomen seemingly made a lot of progress. Due to a number of factors, there was a drastic increase in women on news staffs throughout the United States during the early-to-mid twentieth century. Even though most newswomen reported for women’s and society pages, many also took on formerly masculine-bastion roles as war reporters, political reporters, and leaders across the newsroom. The changes seemed so large that the women’s movement’s push to drop women’s and society’s pages in the 1970s seemed logical: Women were conquering newsrooms. Their stories needed to be seen in all sections of the newspaper as well.
Statistics show us that after the 1970s, women’s progress into newsrooms stagnated. This happened for various reasons, although my interest, obviously, is in whether the drop in newswomen’s organizations affected these numbers.
The 2015 Status of Women in the U.S. Media report drives this point home: Today, women produce only 37 percent of the bylines in newspapers, and they’re only 32 percent of the on-air faces that we see on our nightly news. Wires and internet news sources have the best representation, with 38 percent of wire bylines and 42 percent of digital news being produced by newswomen. This, by the way, was the first year in several that this survey found an increase in women’s representation. The percentage of women in supervisory positions in newsrooms is no better. A 2016 American Society of Newspaper Editors Diversity survey found just 37 percent of supervisory positions were occupied by women.
By researching women’s press clubs, I am finding stories and strategies of newswomen that made a difference in women’s stories becoming a mainstream part of the news industry and in women’s faces becoming more common across the newsroom.
The Women’s Press Club of Pittsburgh, whose earliest years I presented at AJHA in October, is the second oldest women’s press club extant in the United States. It was organized by seven so-called newshens in 1891 ostensibly for “friendly intercourse and the advancement of women’s interests in journalism.” Throughout its 125 years, the group has strategically used its organization to grow numbers of women journalists.
One of my favorite stories from this club’s first decade involves the club getting around male newsroom leaders by inviting in their wives, training them to be writers, then deploying them to become professional writers themselves. Because they were married to the editors, these women also had the ear of the person in charge of hiring and used it to get women reporting jobs. Janey Coard Smith, who at 15 was the youngest charter member, recalled,
"Several of the papers did not at that time approve of women writers on the staff, so we cunningly conceived of inviting into the fold, as associate members, wives of outstanding editors. Many of these were marvelous women in more ways than one, and ere long every paper had two or three women in editorial rooms. Those associate members were very helpful, inspiring, several of them later developing into writers."
Through organizing, the WPCP found strength in numbers.
The group also used stereotypical ideas of feminine behavior—such as the image of the perfect hostess and homemaker—to reassure the public that newswomen were not challenging men’s roles. They held an annual banquet, where they showed off their performance skills through music and plays they wrote themselves, and hosted the public to the height of the time’s fashion.
The 1895 banquet excluded men; however, Pittsburg Times Managing Editor Morgan E. Gable sent a congratulatory note to the women’s press club on the event. This letter sums up the importance of women’s press club in advancing the cause of newswomen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:
"Though you have not sent me an invitation to your banquet, you will find that the Times will tomorrow say editorially that the time is not long past when a woman in a newspaper office was a curiosity. …They crowded out no man. They have made a distinct field of usefulness for themselves, which grows steadily as time rolls on. That is to say, they have come to stay."