Review, Undaunted

Senior Women Web: Jo Freeman Reviews UNDAUNTED

July 27, 2023



Jo Freeman Reviews

Undaunted: How Women Changed American Journalism by Brooke Kroeger

Read the review here, on the site of Senior Women Web  

Undaunted cover

By Brooke Kroeger
New York: Knopf, 2023,  xiii + 568 Pages, 95 interspersed photos 
Hardcover, $35.00

Jo Freeman

by Jo Freeman

In Undaunted the author tells the stories of numerous women who have made their mark on the profession of journalism.  Reaching back to the early 19th Century, she begins with Margaret Fuller, who “unstuck the gate” (p. 3) in the 1840s.
Fuller wasn’t the first woman to write for publication, but she left extensive journals which make it easy to tell her story.  In those days it was unseemly for a woman’s name to appear in print, except for birth, marriage and death.  Those who shared their views with the public used pseudonyms.  Fuller used an *.
Of course publishers were men (sometimes married couples) since it took money to put words into print.  These men had to see value in what women wrote to do this.  Kroeger doesn’t discuss them, but Horace Greeley appears to be a frequent publisher of women’s work in the 19th Century. Greeley was a vocal abolitionist, as were many of the women who wrote before the Civil War. It was pursuit of this cause that led them to throw off womanly modesty in order to speak out and write about the evils of slavery.
The other topic deemed particularly suitable for women writers was exemplified by Godey’s Ladies Book: family, fashion, food and other topics within “women’s sphere.”  Sarah Josepha Hale edited it for forty years.  Women who wanted to be paid to write took aim at these “women’s interests.”  As more women became literate throughout the 19th Century, the audience grew and more women writers were hired to appeal to them.
There have been many studies of how many women appeared in print in different decades.  Kroeger reviews enough studies to provide some numbers.  They do not show steady growth, though there are some patterns, which she comments on.
Several themes appear throughout the book.  One is the importance of personal relationships in opening doors.  Family was the normal route for women to go into the professions, or any other man’s job, not just writing for publication. If not family, some other personal relationship (e.g. college roommate of the publisher’s daughter).  The author does identify a few women who she says just walked through the door.  Being at right place at the right time sometimes worked, but mostly it was relationships that opened doors.
Another theme is that wars are good for women. Men are pulled out of jobs and sent to fight; women often take their place.  Holding on to those jobs after the men return is another matter, but overall women’s presence in journalism (and other professions) doesn’t regress completely.  Women also covered wars, usually as stringers paid by the piece as bureau heads wouldn’t put them on staff as war correspondents.
I wish I had known all this when I made my unsuccessful foray into journalism in 1967.  After six months working as a writer and photographer for a community newspaper I walked into the offices of four of Chicago’s five daily newspapers.  When I asked the front desk about joining the staff I was practically laughed out the door.  No one even looked at my carefully prepared portfolio of stories and photographs.  I was told that women couldn’t work for their newspapers  because “women can’t cover riots.”  If I had read Undaunted before I heard this, I could have replied that women have covered wars at least since the Civil War. Since women’s history was among the missing when I went to school, I didn’t know this.  Of course, I didn’t have a personal connection either.  Nor did I know that most women wrote in the women’s ghetto – whether it was called the women’s page or the style section.
A lot of women journalists married male journalists. That was both good and bad.  For some that was the route to an interesting job or getting paid to write at all.  For others, it meant they had to choose between family and work.
Kroeger’s history needs context. To understand “How women changed American journalism” it would help to know how journalism changed over the century and half that she covers. Anyone who has read 19th Century newspapers knows that it changed quite a bit.  The book has extensive end notes and a good index, but the lack of a bibliography makes it hard to review and pursue sources.
Her own years as a journalist shine through in her writing.  Undaunted is a good read.
Copyright © 2023 by Jo Freeman