The first women’s press clubs appeared at the end of the 1800s, launched by female journalists seeking equal pay, professional training, camaraderie and, perhaps more importantly, respect. By the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 700 women had joined groups in 17 states. In the decades that followed, hundreds more joined similar organizations, including the Women’s National Press Club.
I know all of this thanks to an excellent academic essay by Elizabeth V. Burt that I stumbled across earlier this year while researching the history of women in the American press. It was an interesting read, but the concept of special clubs for women seemed as quaint and un-modern as the petticoats their members used to wear. As I learned last weekend, I was wrong.
The spirit of these clubs remains strong — and relevant — today. I was one of roughly 200 women who spent a few days in rural Vermont at the Journalism and Women Symposium’s annual conference. I’d registered for two reasons: The hotel was a couple of hours from my house, and I was certain to meet some of the people involved in the digital startups I’m researching for my thesis.
The drive was, in fact, easy, and the interviews I arranged were top-notch — but the weekend was about more than filling notebooks and collecting business cards. In her essay, Burt quotes a member of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association explaining why such clubs were important: “They hunt up every discouraged newspaperwoman within reach of them, give her the secret of how to get a corner on saleable news, and in fact set her on her feet.”
That’s exactly what I saw happen in Vermont. Veteran members offered advice on job hunting, salary negotiation and story pitching to women just starting their careers. Those of us with technical skills held tutoring sessions on social media and website hosting. I picked up some tips about storytelling, of course, but also leadership advice, bookkeeping strategies and a few teaching ideas that I can’t wait to unleash in Ham-Smith next semester. And all of it came from other women, which, as I said on Twitter, is pretty different from the scene at many journalism workshops.
The highlight of the weekend, though, was meeting veteran copy editor Betsy Wade, the lead plaintiff in an equal employment lawsuit filed against the New York Times in 1974. At a reception Saturday night, I asked her sign my copy of The Girls in the Balcony, a book by Nan Roberts about the lawsuit. Next to her picture, Wade wrote ” sisterhood is all.”
(Between annual conferences, JAWS members communicate through an active Google group. The conversations — and freelance opportunities and job postings — are worth the modest membership fee. Details here.)