Progress, but women journalists not home free

March 3, 2011


Linda Kay is a former sportswriter with the Chicago Tribune (and the first woman to write sports for the paper), an associate professor and chair of the journalism department at Concordia University in Montreal. She is author of a forthcoming book called “The Sweet Sixteen” about a group of groundbreaking women journalists in Canada. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters is hosting a live blog on March 8, 2011, to mark International Women’s Day.

My students are often surprised to learn that one hundred years ago, women were working as journalists in Canada. According to the 1911 census, some 70 women across the country were categorized as “journalists, editors and reporters.”

It was an exclusive group that had grown incrementally since 1886, when Sara Jeannette Duncan became the first woman hired by a newspaper in Canada.

These early female journalists were extremely talented; to earn a vaunted position on a daily newspaper, they had to be, as they were invariably the only female employed by the paper.

Hired for their literary ability, many were published poets, writers of fiction, or noted essayists. They were hired specifically to write and edit the “Woman’s Page” of the newspaper.

The “Woman’s Page” had become a staple on mass circulation newspapers by the end of the 1800s.

Savvy newspaper proprietors had come to understand that women were the primary purchasers in the family and that advertisers were keenly interested in courting them.

Thus the advent of the “Women’s Page” as a magnet for female readers.

The earliest female journalists had to invent themselves. They had no template to follow. There were no schools of journalism in Canada at the time, and most women born in the late 19th century acquired no more than a high school education at best.

What’s more, in 1911, women had few rights. They could not vote federally or provincially in Canada. They were not regarded as “persons” under the law, so they could not hold office.

And yet these early women journalists were stars in their own right. As the only female voice on the paper and the “conductor” of a full page devoted to women, they were widely read — and not only by women.

Men followed them devotedly. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier admitted that he avidly read the work of Kathleen “Kit” Coleman in the Toronto Mail and Empire. He was also an admirer of French Canada’s first fulltime female newspaper journalist, Robertine Barry, who wrote for La Patrie in Montreal and started her own newspaper in 1902.

Early female journalists addressed varied topics in their columns, answered mail from readers, and provided advice on everything from household shortcuts to affairs of the heart. And yet, they were a living paradox. As independent women with a career, they had opportunities most women did not. But the world they wrote about was a constricted one.

They addressed subjects that traditionally occupied women. And the role of women at the time was limiting. A woman’s proper place was thought to be the home; her role was defined as wife and mother.

One hundred years later, women journalists have traveled far.

They are not constricted in their reporting nor mere tokens in the newsroom. And yet, some of the challenges faced by the pioneers remain. While females make up two-thirds of the enrollment in journalism schools across Canada, the proportion of males to females reverses once in the newsroom.

Female graduates either choose not to enter the field at all or do not stay long
in a working environment many feel is family unfriendly.

 At the same time, women journalists are more visible in Canada than ever, recently assuming anchor positions on major networks in an unprecedented wave.

It is a hopeful sign that gains, hard won over the last century, will widen the opportunities for female journalists in the years ahead.

Picture Credit: Daily newspaper boxes line the sidewalk in downtown Ottawa in this file picture. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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