When I started out in journalism, I had a undergraduate degree in experimental psychology. My undergraduate thesis was in a psychoacoustics and it was a complicated experiment. My graduate degree was in journalism, and I wrote numerous essays on the mechanisms of war propaganda. I skipped grades. I won awards, a scholarship, and was even in a gifted program. Suffice to say, I was a smart young woman who had much to offer as a writer.
You would think an editor would look at my c.v., and assign me something that involved thinking. Some did, but more often than not, editors would want me to write about…bridesmaid dresses.
I am a forty-four year old heterosexual single woman. As in never got married, or even had a reasonable facsimile of a marriage. Why?
Because I never wanted to get married. Footloose and fancy-free. I find the concept of marriage a mediocre form of sanctioned insanity. Some people must abide by peer pressure and groupthink; I am not in that particular psychographic.
But my editors thought just because I was young and female, by golly, that must be the only thought in my head. Husband hunting, and now I could wisely use my job to find the perfect dress for me and my girl posse.
And the way they’d try to sell me on the story was obnoxious, telling it to me in a happy sing song voice. “I have a great story for you,” one editor gushed to me, “Bridesmaid dresses!”
I was pretty certain I was not the only female journalist who was getting stuck with such horrid advertorial writing. Not even an offer to cover a comic con — just some dresses you wear once against your will and/or better judgement.
It is not as if I pitched frivolous stories, but getting to write the stories I was interested in was a genuine challenge. I once pitched a story about journalistic objectivity to one libertarian magazine, and the editor dismissively suggested I should offer that to a “woman’s magazine,” as if the article was a lightweight story. (I did get the piece published in Skeptic magazine a few months later).
I had pitched stories about art crimes in Canada, the political ramifications of street graffiti, street gangs in Toronto…but I was always turned down with some ambiguously sexist remarks offered along with it…and some patronizing twaddle that those things weren’t problems. I was being some hysterical female, never mind I had done enough preliminary research that told me there was a story, and I wasn’t wasting my time with pursuing them, even if other venues did see the merit of the topics.
Reality would prove my other stories were worth pursuing in other, more tragic ways.
I pushed on and ignored insults and putdowns (something I am pretty good at doing), and I avoided the pink gulag. I did write a couple of articles for one woman’s fashion magazine, but the topics were about justice and the law.
But my focus was almost exclusively on the business and ethics of journalism.
I noticed women were in soft news sections more than the hard news ones. Gravitas was not reserved for female journalists for a very long time. When the profession was more robust, women were shut out. When circulation and ratings began to decline, that’s when more female reporters got to cover the more serious beats to the point that women were no longer seen as an exception when they did get them.
But my preferences were always on the more obscure hard news stories people missed. I was always looking for some quiet corner where danger lurked, but people were too busy following their routines to notice that something was amiss. I always sought new angles of thinking, and different topics to cover. I noticed that street graffiti was an excellent omen of things to come, or that art was the currency of choice of those who wished to keep prying eyes off their business — and that street gangs probably had to have some politicians in their back pocket.
Had I been a male, I am certain those stories would have been accepted without reservation. I had noticed men got to write a lot of trivial dreck and were still taken very seriously. Stephen Glass wrote unimportant tripe for magazines such as The New Republic, George, and Harper’s. None of those stories warranted being published.
Yet not only did editors publish them, they helped make him a star…and then when his stories proved to be fabrications, it showed that when it came to journalism, a deceitful man writing about non-stories could get a whole lot further than honest women who were willing to write about the hidden things that mattered.
And that’s why women in journalism had always had to struggle. They get relegated to certain thankless beats far too often for comfort.
We don’t have enough Nellie Bly’s unleashed among the ranks, and that is a shame. She was always one of my journalistic inspirations, and her work inspired me to go into the journalism profession for the express purpose of writing about that discipline’s shortcomings. For all the talk about how women have progressed in this field, we often do it at the disrespectful expense of our foremothers who did some very fine work under very impossible circumstances. We cannot always arrogantly dismiss women of the past to make ourselves feel superior.
There is way too much work to be done to ever get smug.
There are too many hard news stories that get neglected. Homeless women need to be heard. Women in shelters or going through the justice system need to be seen. We so often put a sunny empowerment spin on female CEOs, but since when is advertising ever considered news? It isn’t always about praising women — but calling them out when they act badly.
We don’t have hard news outlets that cover women in a serious light. Women are often seen as afterthoughts. Even with the Harvey Weinstein debacle, the story is told about a dragon who preyed on a bunch of damsels in distress.
That is not helpful. Not all women kept silent. How did their complaint and/or lawsuits play out? Do the courts work with the reality of the situation, and if not, how do they get it wrong?
The story has turned into a peculiar kind of gossip: who’s next on the perv list? There have now been far too many cases for us to be running on a hamster wheel. The time for shock, outrage, snark, moral masturbation, denial, and dialogue is over.
The time for digging facts is here.
Because there are way too many unanswered questions. Why do we have a work system that distracts women with fear and anxiety? Why is a system rigged to punish women who demand basic civility in the workplace? How do people in power go unchallenged, and why was this allowed to go on?
That’s why women matter in journalism: we need women to report on the world, and the world needs to understand the true lives of all kinds of women.
Journalism doesn’t speak to women with the same seriousness as it speaks to men — because every man is seen as a potential visionary…
But women are still seen as husband-obsessed airheads who are just happy looking at disposable dresses.
And it is about time we pushed back.