March 13, 2017
The journalistic credentials of “soft news” outlets such as Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue have come under fire in recent months over whether or not their hard-hitting pieces on scandals of the Trump Administration should be taken seriously. This is not the first time, and certainly not the last, that journalism for female audiences was more or less told to stay in its place. To write about “hard news” was to reach beyond their purview into things they “obviously” would know nothing about. My great-aunt Marie faced the same criticism during her two decades as the editor of the women’s section of the Washington Post, called “For and About Women.” Marie, just like those who came after her at outlets like Teen Vogue, never bowed to the pressure to stay in her lane.
Marie was born in 1908 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Being the oldest of 6 children, she was often called upon to be the second mother to her three younger brothers and one younger sister. Marie attended both college and graduate school and earned her master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University — a remarkable accomplishment considering the obstacles placed in her path. Her parents only provided money for the boys in the family to attend college, so she had to pay her own way. This embodied a self-reliance and work ethic that would be reflected later in her career.
Marie distinguished herself as a journalist at her hometown paper, The Elizabeth Times, before starting at the Washington Post in 1935 as the assistant Sunday editor. Her career took a turn as war broke out and she enlisted in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) where she served in a public-relations role. In 1946, when she returned to the Post, she became editor of the women’s section and aimed to leave her mark.
The women’s section wrote about what you may imagine a women’s section in the ’40s and ’50s wrote about. They covered fashion and cooking and society in Washington, as well as the push for women’s rights civil rights and community action. The society coverage, often seen as the most vapid of the lot, was where Marie saw her greatest opportunity to embed within the coverage nuggets of “hard news.” At the White House and embassy parties that she and her staff were always being invited to — relatives say she always had a large bowl full of invitations — she would encourage her reporters to ask the tough questions of those in power.
One female reporter recalled a particularly good account of the hard news that could be gained at these events, and how even after getting a scoop, the women reporters were dismissed.
One night I came back from a White House party and duly reported to the national desk that President Johnson, in his customary loose party mood, had remarked, “I may have started World War III.”
“Oh, really?” I had replied in my best social manner, whereupon he explained that he had just bombed North Vietnam for the first time.
Back at the paper, one national editor turned to another and said, “If that’s true, we ought to put a reporter on it.”
This type of interaction led Marie to hold onto these nuggets of information and publish them in her section rather than losing the story to those “real reporters.” It was said that “For and About Women” was required reading for anybody who wanted to get a full picture of what was going on in Washington. Marie and her team of reporters provided the color and context that the “hard news” lacked. In the early 1950s, Marie lobbied to get the name of the section changed to “For and About People,” to more accurately define her stories, but her request was denied.
Marie and her team at The Washington Post embodied the best of journalism, providing impactful news with context. She was always straining against the confines placed on her because of what she was perceived to be, and she was never contented with what was, but was looking to what should be. We have come a long way since the ’50s and ’60s in a multitude of areas, but we should not forget there is even further still to go. To underestimate, belittle or dismiss good work because of the perceived value of its source is to fall into the same trap as our predecessors. Marie was one tough lady and would be applauding the journalism of Teen Vogue and Vanity Fair — as we all should.