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What Pioneer Women Journalists from the Past can Tell us about the Profession

The revelations that women journalists face harassment worldwide, is, sadly familiar. Ever since women journalists began to challenge for their right to report the news, they have been the target of pushbacks from this macho and male-dominated profession.

Until the turn of the last century, journalism was almost exclusively a male preserve. Right up until the 1930s, newspapers usually only employed one female journalist on their staff, and she was normally the women’s page editor.

Women did write for newspapers, but they were often precariously freelance, and usually their work was sequestered in the women’s pages, reinforcing ideas that a woman’s place was firmly in the domestic sphere.

But after the First World War, when women had become more visible, filling roles more usually occupied by men, a few bold, pioneering women began to ask for jobs in the news pages. After women won the partial franchise in Britain in 1918, women also began covering politics. The first woman lobby correspondent was appointed in 1923.

Two British journalists, Shiela Grant Duff and Margaret Lane, challenged for their place in the male news rooms of interwar Fleet Street. Both were hugely talented. Shiela Grant Duff covered the rise of Hitler and fascism across Europe in the 1930s, warning, before many, his threat to world peace, and Margaret Lane was a foreign correspondent who scooped the world with her interview with Al Capone at his famous Chicago trial. Both suffered sexual harassment and what we would now today call ‘trolling’ with vile rumours about their personal life circulating in newsrooms and amongst the male press corps.

Grant Duff went for a job interview at the Times newspaper but was told she couldn’t be a foreign correspondent because it would be ‘awkward’ to have a woman in the news room. The editor suggested she write about fashion instead.

Margaret Lane at one point resorted to climbing on top of a desk in the Daily Mail news room to denounce rumours that she was having affairs with two men in the office. Shiela Grant Duff, while she travelled Europe, warning against Hitler’s growing power (while most British newspapers supported the British government’s appeasement policies), was accused of sleeping with Nazis by the diplomatic journalists she worked with. Ultimately she had to resign her role at the Observer because the foreign press club in Prague where she was based, refused to honour her press credentials and because she disagreed strongly with the newspaper’s pro-appeasement stance.

Conversely, women journalists who stayed in the realms expected of them: writing about fashion, babies and education, did not report similar levels of harassment in their diaries and memoirs, indeed often found male journalists courteous and helpful.

It has taken until very recently, for women to enjoy anything remotely like parity with men, on television news and on mainstream newspapers. Even though huge strides have been made in the past few years, a report by Women in Journalism conducted last year revealed that women’s voices, and particularly voices of black women, are virtually absent from the front pages of national newspapers.

Today women journalists report increasing quantities of online abuse. It seems the more visible they are and the more they raise their voices, the more a target they are from trolling, just as they were one hundred years ago. Calls for action to protect women journalists range across the world, from the International Women’s Media Foundation setting up training programmes for women to deal with online abuse to governments, including the British Government setting out policies to protect all journalists, recognising that women and journalists from BAME backgrounds are particularly vulnerable.

It still seems like there is a mountain to climb in terms of increasing diversity and representation of marginalised groups in mainstream media. But progress has ben made, if slowly and we should remember the struggles of women like Margaret Lane and Shiela Grant Duff of 100 years ago, who pioneered a very lonely and difficult path before us.

Written by Sarah Lonsdale

- twitter @sarahjlonsdale

Dr. Sarah Lonsdale is a senior Lecturer at City, University of London’s Journalism Department. Her most recent book, Rebel Women Between the Wars: Fearless Writers and Adventurers (MUP 2020) features the lives of Margaret Lane and Shiela Grant Duff.

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