The potential of female voice

Women writers reflect on their careers, the role of women in documenting history

In 1963, Judith Welles walked into The Washington Post’s offices, a collection of writing samples in her hand. She had just graduated from Vassar College and was hoping to land a position as a beat reporter. After writing obituaries for the local newspaper while in college, the chance to tell the stories of  “living people” excited her, she said. 

To her dismay, she didn’t land the position. Nor did she land the position of assignment reporter, sports reporter or any other familiar role. Instead, Welles was assigned the role of “dictation reporter.” Rather than researching and reporting on her own, she would be receiving phone calls from male beat reporters and typing up the stories they called in. Because there was a chance she would have to go out in the city alone at night to report, the role of beat reporter was “too dangerous” for a woman, her bosses told her. 

“That wasn’t acceptable,” Welles said. “So I walked out of there.”

She was able to land a new job at the Department of the Interior, where she wrote speeches for the department’s secretary. But her experience at The Washington Post was not an isolated one. 

During Women’s History Month, the need is even greater to recognize the historic contributions of women to journalism and analyze how the nature of female journalism has evolved over time. Welles faced gender discrimination in the 1960s, but that discrimination dates back to the turn of the 20th century, as women were staking out their place in newsrooms across the country.

Even before the female picketers and club leaders of the 1910s women’s suffrage movement, women advocated through writing. From 1869 to 1914, there were about 12 female-run newspapers in the American West dedicated to spreading the messages of the suffrage movement and to shedding light on the plight of the nation’s women. 

In 1853, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis established the Una, one of the first publications in America that aimed to highlight the push for women’s rights. The newspaper, run entirely by women, served as a mirror for female readers, offering a clear reflection of the institutionalized oppression they faced until publication ceased in 1855. 

The Revolution soon followed, another feminist publication brought to life by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the late 1860s. Their publication sought both to address the general disparity in the treatment of men and women in society and to outwardly push for suffrage. The publishers printed 10,000 copies of The Revolution’s first issue.

Though received positively by many and inspiring a number of women to join the movement, the Una and The Revolution eventually lost their audience to more conservative publications

The Women’s Journal was one such publication. While still raising awareness about the disparate treatment of women in society, it included sections dedicated to gossip, humor, letters and poetry, among other topics. The Women’s Journal created a relationship with its readers that extended beyond feminism; it formed a bridge between maintaining the current status quo and effectuating radical societal change, appealing to conservative and progressive citizens alike.

At the same time as the suffrage movement, a new strain of female journalism was evolving, staking out its place on the front pages of the nation’s elite newspapers and pioneered by “girl reporters.” Also called “stunt reporters,” these young women flocked to newsrooms around the country, going undercover to report on controversial issues and publishing their findings in widely read exposé series.

Nellie Bly is one of the most well known “girl reporters” of this era. In her series “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” Bly chronicled her experience in Blackwell’s Insane Asylum in New York City after being intentionally admitted. Her series was published in The New York World, and soon after, other young women followed suit. 

Nell Nelson reported on the sordid, cramped factories and inhumane working conditions of the nation’s inner cities in her series “City Slave Girls.” A different woman under the byline of “Girl Reporter” published a series in the Chicago Times shedding light on the city’s illegal abortions, posing as a young woman seeking medical treatment with the intent of uncovering which doctors would offer to perform the procedure.

Through their actions, the female reporters sparked real-world change. Bly’s work resulted in an increase in funding toward treatments for mental illnesses, Nelson’s exposé inspired labor organizations to push for protective legislation and the Times“Girl Reporter” fueled nationwide dialogue about the traditionally controversial issues of abortion and women’s healthcare. Their work inspired many of the “muckrakers” of the early 20th century, like Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair, to utilize elements of photography and writing as ways of drawing attention to the often overlooked issues plaguing America’s inner cities and lower class.

The female reporters’ unique first-person narratives serve even still as a window into the minds and ambitions of women like them at the time, immortalizing their adventures and feats in a way that is both personal and unobscured by the retelling of history books. More often than not, though, these women’s names weren’t preserved along with their work. Like “Girl Reporter,” the names Nellie Bly and Nell Nelson are both pseudonyms. 

While in writing these women could be perceived as almost movie-like heroines, their activities still clashed with traditional gender roles of the time. As a way of preserving their reputations, few women made the decision to use their real names in their published bylines.

Alexandra Robbins graduated from Whitman in 1994 after serving as editor-in-chief of the Black & White her senior year. While at Whitman, Robbins excelled writing investigative pieces on controversial subjects like drug use, eating disorders and shoplifting, realizing that “people liked to tell [her] things,” she said.

After attending Yale University, where she wrote for the school newspaper her first two years, Robbins realized that she “had more to say that would fit in a newspaper or a magazine article,” and began writing her first book at 23 years old. She went on to write others like it, including “The Overachievers,” in which she returned to Whitman to investigate the culture of overachieving that pervades similar high schools around the world. 

Despite being focused mainly on “plowing down any barriers,” Robbins felt that in her early journalism career having her byline read “Alex Robbins” rather than “Alexandra Robbins” gave her an “edge,” she said. 

“People didn’t necessarily know from my writing that I was a woman,” she said.

She remembers a friend telling her about overhearing one of the newspaper editors at her university talking about Robbins’ story which had been published in the local paper that day, complimenting the story but mistakenly labeling her as a man.

“She told me, ‘He was reading your article and he said, Who is this Alex Robbins guy? I have to get him to write for me,’” she said.

Now, her published byline reads “Alexandra Robbins,” and although American workplace culture in the new millenium still has room to grow, she believes there are “so many strong women” within publishing houses. 

“Women should always uplift and support other women rather than trying to compete for some token female brass ring as if there can only be a few women in a company that succeed,” Robbins said. 

While Robbins has access to a female-dominated workplace in her line of journalism, many other reporters do not. 

After turning down her offer from The Washington Post and accepting the position of speechwriter at the Department of the Interior, Welles stuck with her position for years, writing speeches for various U.S. cabinet members. During that time, Welles would often survey her surroundings, only to find that she was the only woman in the room. 

“I would be in meetings with all of these important people and men, and if I tried to ask a question, it was just like, ‘Later, later,’” Welles said. “It was very marginalizing.”

Now, more than 50 years later, Ashley Parker (‘01) still sometimes finds herself in that same position. As a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, Parker has spent a great deal of time in the same environments as Welles once did, covering Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign as well as the 2016 presidential race.

I can remember, especially early in my career, looking around rooms and realizing ‘Oh, wow, just about all the people who are making decisions are white guys,’” Parker said. “But I do totally also think it’s changing.”

Now, at The Post, Parker is conscious of diversity. Although she thinks “every organization can be better,” she’s able to find a “pretty diverse group” of reporters in any given newsroom, she said. Just on the seven-member White House correspondent team, Parker works with people of different genders, ethnicities and backgrounds.

The prospect of passing better habits to new generations excites insiders like Parker. 

“I think one thing that’s nice about Women’s History Month is it spotlights women who have been doing interesting and daring and heroic things,” Parker said. “And I think that’s a nice way for my daughters and women everywhere to be reminded that women have been doing awesome things for eternity.”

For Marisa Bellack (‘95), who is currently The Washington Post’s Europe editor, as much as she feels female voices are important to include in the newsroom, it’s just as important, if not more important, that they are included in the stories being published, she said.

“I think less about being marginalized myself and more about how female voices have a potential to be marginalized in our publications and what I can do to rectify that,” Bellack said.

As women navigating the field of journalism at different points in history, each reporter, writer and editor has learned something valuable along the way. For Robbins, that lesson is to “have a thick skin,” and to “know your strength.” For Parker, it’s to be persistent without getting discouraged. For Bellack, it’s to be aware of others’ situations.

For Welles, the most important thing is to trust curiosity, the same curiosity she relies on today as a local historian. Sometimes, she feels she asks people too many questions and “makes them uncomfortable,” she said.

“They’re not meant to be intrusive; I’m just interested in you,” Welles said. “I’m interested in your life. I think it’s the old adage: be yourself, like yourself, and don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions.”