Ladies of the Press Recorded the 19th Century


As the 19th century progressed, the presence of women in America’s papers and magazines was well-established. Their work spread across a wide spectrum of philosophies.

American women have always been part of the forces that have shaped journalism and the news industry. Not long after printing presses were imported into the colonies, a few women were printers and publishers. After the Revolution, women began to find their voices and to express themselves in print.

As the new nation entered the 19th century and its borders began to expand, the number of newspapers and magazines expanded just as fast. And the number of ladies of the press matched the pace. A quick glance through the histories of a mere dozen representatives of all the writing women reveals a rich and varied “crazy quilt” of personalities, writing styles, and career paths.

A few of their names are still well-known 150 years later; others may need to be re-introduced. Some are intellectuals and “serious writers,” many were crusaders, writing to end slavery and improve opportunities for other women; and some made careeers out of what may seem to be more frivolous topics. What is certain though, is that each writer was serious about the job she did.

A Baker’s Dozen of 19th Century Women Journalists

Brief introductions to 13 representatives of the 19th century writing women follow. More detailed information about each one, and the stories of another dozen or so, can be found at the website of the National Women’s History Museum; follow the link for Biographies, or access the online exhibit, Women With a Deadline.

Fannie Fern (Sarah Payson Willis Parton) , entering journalism at age 40 “Fanny Fern” won both fame and fortune. She wrote weekly columns from 1851 to 1872 that were published in many newspapers; the New York Ledger paid her $100 per column, making her the highest paid columnist of her time. She used satire to humorously critique motherhood, hopelessly flawed husbands, and women’s dress.

Margaret Fuller is linked with Thoreau and Emerson in launching the transcendalist newspaper, The Dial, in 1840. A ground breaking essay on women’s rights which she published led to an invitation from Horace Greely to become the first literary critic at the New York Tribune.

Frances Wright, born wealthy in Scotland, first came to this country in 1824 to lecture for the abolition of slavery and to write for eqaulity for women with her fellow utopian Robert Owen. She was years ahead of her time, but a generation of writing women soon followed her .

Lydia Maria (Francis) Child’s writings in the 1830s and ’40s concentrated on efforts to bring an end to slavery, as did those of Jane Grey Swisshelm in the 1850s and ’60s. Maria Stewart, the first recorded African-American female journalist, also wrote passionate abolitionist essays in a brief career in the 1830s.

The Growing Impulse toward Equality for Women

A number of women in the abolitionist movement met discrimination of their own and at mid-century a new movement, with its own journals and magazines, began to flourish. Notably, Amelia Bloomer ‘s The Lily, and the long-running Women’s Journal (1870-1917) published first by Lucy Stone, then her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, are key examples.

Abigail Scott Duniway was an active feminist, too, but the newspaper she founded in 1857 and published for decades, The New Northwest, was a general circulation publication, and very popular throughout miles of what was known as “the Oregon country.”

Jenny June (Jane Cunningham Croly) wrote a general-interest column for women at a major newspaper, the New York World. But after she was barred by the all-male New York Press Club from attending its banquent honoring Charles Dickens in 1868, she experienced a great awakening to gender discrimination, and worked and wrote against it.

Two Reporters Who Set the Bar Higher for Everyone in the Business

In the closing years of the 19th century, journalism had become a firmly established element in the daily life of America’s citizens. And women’s place in the profession was also firm, as they changed things for the better. Ida B. Wells Barnett and Nelly Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) in particular, are two courageous and investigative reporters who set new standards for journalistic campaigns for justice.

Wells-Barnett worked tirelessly to expose and fight the crime of lynching. Her Memphis paper, the Memphis Free Speech, was destroyed in 1892 and her life threatened. She relocated to Chicago where she continued to write and speak out about all forms of discrimination and to lobby for federal anti-lynching laws.

Bly is most remembered for her famous stunt: in 1890, following the success of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, Bly circumnavigated the globe, and reported on it, in 72 days. But she also pioneered the field of investigative reporting, encouraging various social reforms through her work.

Learn More About Women in Journalism

Women have continued to make history through their practice of journalism. Read about the lifetime achievement of modern pioneers like Israeli citizen Amira Hass, and her fearless coverage from inside the Palestinian Occupied Territories; or the women who have earned the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. The IWMF maintains a database of Lifetime Achievement winners and another for the Courage awards; both serve as a contemporary version of the Women With a Deadline cyberexhibit at the NWHM.