February 3, 2023
There are significant omissions in Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in the Press by an Insider. The author, Ishbel Ross did not include the formidable likes of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Gertrude Mossell, Susette Le Flesche (who covered Wounded Knee for the Omaha World Herald), or Ida B. Wells. Nonetheless, Ross’s 1936 tome has long been considered a, if not the key secondary resource on the earliest American women in journalism up to 1936, at least among books published by a respected trade press, in this case Harper & Brothers.
Ross’s book begins at the end with an account of the “Front Page Girls” of the 1920s and early 1930s, which was Ross’s own career track. She was one of two women in that period—Emma Bugbee was the other—who the New York Herald Tribune employed as city reporters. Ross in this role was nonpareil. Her editor, the legendary Stanley Walker, included her in his own memoir among the twelve best New York City journalists, the others all men, of course, of his day. This is how he described Ross in the foreword he provided for Ladies of the Press:
her lack of giddiness, her clear and forthright mind, her amazing and unfailing stamina on the toughest assignments, and her calm judgment, seemed to come closer than any of the others to the man’s idea of what a newspaper woman should be. She could, as nearly as that can be said of anyone, handle any sort of assignment superbly.
Ross left daily journalism to write Ladies of the Press, the best known of the twenty-five biographies and group biographies like Ladies that she wrote before her death in 1975.
In size and heft, Ladies of the Press, at 622 pages, is similar to Undaunted’s 592 pages. Ladies, however, has 600 pages of text, a 22-page index, but no endnotes or bibliographic sources. Undaunted is a tight 389 pages of text with a similar 24-page index, but the rest of the book’s bulk is in Notes and Sources, some 140 pages worth.
Ross meant her book to be a comprehensive account of (let’s say it, white) women in newspaperdom up to her date of publication. She structured her sections and chapters in a variety of ways: by the early mass media coverage interests where women found place, or, as the cover explains, by “the stunt era, the sob era, the suffrage era, and the tabloid era, to the people and problems of the present day.” She organized one part by region to showcase the women who worked at papers in major cities beyond New York. Other sections focus on the women who covered big beats, like the workings of the nation’s capital.
She left out the anti-slavery movement, which, I’ve learned, was key via the abolition press in the opening of opportunity for women journalists beyond the oh-so-confining “women’s sphere,” where most women reporters found themselves stuck for nearly a century and a half. She calls “marginal” the contributions of women who reported in armed conflict situations from the Civil War through World War I. “There have been no great women war correspondents,” she states flatly. She does, however, pay due homage to the international affairs columnists Anne O’Hare McCormick and Dorothy Thompson, neither of whom covered the bang-bang.
By contrast, Undaunted is organized by decades in strict chronology with allowances for careers and initiatives that spanned several decades. It moves along a continuum of all mass media from 1840 to 2000 with an epilogue (“Me, Too; You, Too”) that considers the race and gender downbeats of the early 2020s, up to when I turned in the last updates and changes. In a representative way, informed by each decade’s real-time record, Undaunted charts the presence and place of women in the wider field and how the best of them fared against the social and cultural currents of their times and the impact they have had on the profession. It includes plenty of American women who distinguished themselves as journalists on the battlefields of this country and around the world as far back as the 1840s, along with a few who did not.
It surprised me that Ross devoted only one short collective paragraph of her third chapter to Margaret Fuller, Grace Greenwood, and Gail Hamilton. To me, for the period from the 1840s to the mid-1880s, this trio, along with Lydia Maria Child and Mary Clemmer, are the earliest exemplars of what women in the profession could aspire to be and do if they had the talent, the skill, the connections, the energy, and the drive. All of these women fared far better in achievement, fame, and fortune than the men with whom they competed. The record made this clear. They start the story in a section titled “First Wave: 1840—1880.”
Note how the title information on each book’s flap differs. Ladies of the Press:
And a word about the relative sale price of each: The $3.75 cover price of Ladies of Press re-calculates in today’s dollars to a purchasing power of nearly $80. Chapeau to Ross: Ladies is better than holding value. I paid just over $100 last week for a signed first edition with dust jacket. Undaunted is priced between $30 and $35, depending on the seller.