Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page
Women journalists cover anything and everything today. They work in all facets of media. But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs. There were always exceptions to that rule. Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only. A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century. Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself. She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing. Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press. It’s officially out in May. My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons. This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.
Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.
As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.
She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.
In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.
Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.
“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”
She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.
Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.
“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”
The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says. “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”
“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.
“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.
“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”
Wirth admires Peattie’s range.
“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.
“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”
Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.
“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”
All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.
“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.
Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”
Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.
“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.
“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”
She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.
Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.
“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”
Bess Furman Armstrong
Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.
“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.
“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”
Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill
Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.
“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”
Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.
“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.
Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.
“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.
“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.
“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”
One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.
“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”
Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.
“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.
“The guys never had a clue what was going on.
Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas
I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”
Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.
“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”
All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.
“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.
“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”
Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.
“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.
Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”
Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”
She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.
“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”
She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”
Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.
“What really made me into a journalist besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”
When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.
“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.
So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.
“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”
She got the assignment change she desired.
At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.
“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.
“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.
“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”
She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.
“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”
Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.
Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.’” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.
“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”
Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”
“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.
“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.
“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”
Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”
With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.
“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”
Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”
When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.
“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”
The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.
Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.
She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.
“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”
Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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