15 Female Journalists Who’ve Paved the Way

Like a lamentable amount of professions before (and even some after), for the longest time “Western” journalism only covered the perspectives of white men. But as society progressed, the field slowly opened itself up to women, minorities — and even minority women. While some catching up still needs doing to sweep away the last vestiges of inequality, one must always pause to acknowledge the contributions of those coming before. Far more than 15 females sent boulders flying through the glass ceiling, so take no offense at inclusions or exclusions. Consider it a very quick, very loose primer on some extraordinary contributors to the journalism sphere, allowing future generations amazing personal, professional and educational opportunities.

  1. Nellie Bly: Elizabeth Jane Cochran, better known as Nellie Bly (Pennsylvania), famously endured one of the most courageous, brutal acts of undercover journalism ever. Ten Days in a Mad-House chronicled the squalid, abusive plight of the mentally ill interred in asylums — atrocities she witnessed firsthand after faking instability and landing in the women’s facilities on Blackwell’s Island. After publishing her discoveries in 1887, the United States government launched a formal investigation and subsequently called for significant mental healthcare reform. Even beyond that, Bly also reached out to other charitable and social causes, traveling the world and reporting back the politics and culture of all the peoples encountered.
  2. Marion Carpenter: Thanks to this photojournalist’s passion and drive, one of the industry’s glass ceilings received a nice little breaking. A Minnesota native, Carpenter launched her career with Washington Times-Herald in 1944, then she joined International News Photo and worked on special assignments involving federal politicians. But her biggest contribution to women in journalism came when she became the first female member of the White House News Photographers Association. This honor bought Carpenter daily interaction with President Harry S. Truman (Lamar, MO), with whom she also traveled, and resulted in some famous portraits.
  3. Katie Couric: Broadcast journalist Katie Couric (Arlington, VA), known for her work with NBC and CBS, paved the way for others in her field when she became the first woman to solo anchor a weekday evening newscast. She began her stint with CBS Evening News in 2006, continuing to participate in specials on a wide variety of subjects. But today’s audiences know Couric for her political commentary and interviews with everyone from Sarah Palin to Shakira, though the majority of her more memorable ones involve current and former heads of state. And, of course, the 15 years she spent co-anchoring The Today Show with Tom Brokaw (Webster, SD).
  4. Evelyn Cunningham: Pittsburgh Courier played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, with Evelyn Cunningham’s sterling, fearless efforts front and center. As both a correspondent and, later, the editor, she tackled social injustices — most especially lynching — the mainstream media never bothered touching. Cunningham (Elizabeth City, NC) also enjoyed the honor of profiling Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Her absolutely amazing accomplishments, which also stretched into a radio career, earned her prestigious positions on several human rights organizations and even a special assistant gig with Nelson Rockefeller.
  5. Dorothy Dix: Love them, hate them or indifferent them, advice columns eventually became a permanent element of newspaper and magazine journalism. Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer worked under the pseudonym Dorothy Dix and reached an audience of around 60 million in her prime. Dorothy Dix Talks began life in 1896, publishing marriage and homemaking advice on the pages of New Orleans periodical Daily Picayune. After Public Ledger Syndicate picked it up in 1923, her readership expanded to 273 papers around the world, earning her a swath of dedicated fans and a few book deals — not to mention the honor of being the most widely-read female journalist during the era.
  6. Betty Friedan: Betty Friedan’s journalism background revolutionized women’s rights from both a rhetorical and professional standpoint. 1963’s The Feminine Mystique helped kick off Second Wave Feminism thanks to her painstaking investigative research delving deeply into the disturbing psychological realities of American housewives. Friedan herself had been previously fired from her journalist position at UE News for no reason other than pregnancy — an incident that ended up sparking a significant cultural shift. These firebrand actions paved the way for many, many more women than merely those in her industry.
  7. Margaret Fuller: As a voracious reader, it makes perfect sense that the Massachusetts native Margaret Fuller would go on to become the first full-time, American, female book review journalist. Her transcendentalist leanings inspired good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson to offer her an editorship position with The Dial in 1839. From there, she joined up with New York Tribune and secured a lauded literary critic spot, though Fuller also covered the visual and performing arts, social justice and political issues on occasion. Two years after that, the newspaper named her its first female editor because of her column’s great success.
  8. Mary Garber: For nearly 70 years, heavily decorated Mary Garber enjoyed preeminence as the veritable First Lady of sports journalism. Her career launched in 1940 as Twin City Sentinel‘s society editor, but snapped up general assignments once World War II started leaving holes in the staff — and it just so happened that sports coverage needed a warm body after a while. After that, Geaber’s knowledge, passion and tenacity earned her a litany of awards, honors and critical acclaim. Most importantly of all, though, such a success challenged preconceived notions of women and journalism.
  9. Ayala Hasson-Nesher: This news correspondent with IBA is considered one of Israel’s foremost political commentators, earning the very first Queen of the Desert Award celebrating female empowerment. Ayala Hasson-Nesher’s career unearthed some incredibly shattering conspiracies, most notably the Bar-On-Hebron controversy of 1997. Today, she hosts the news magazine show Yoman on weekends and continues to cover the hard-hitting political stories garnering her initial renown. In addition to being seen on IBA, Israeli citizens can hear her “Hakol Diburim” radio program on its Kol Yisrael station.
  10. Marguerite Higgins: Female war correspondents today owe a debt of gratitude to Marguerite Higgins for her pioneering work in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. She launched such an illustrious pedigree with New York Herald Tribune, eventually covering such momentous historical events as the liberation of Dachau, the Nuremberg Trials and the first few days of the Korean War in addition to interviewing notable names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Francisco Franco and Nikita Khrushchev. General Douglas MacArthur declared the ban on female war correspondents because of Higgins’ tenacity as the Korean War broke out. Among her myriad other awards and accomplishments, this influential woman was the very first to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize.
  11. Nancy Hicks Maynard: The Maynard Institute of Journalism Education leaves a wonderful legacy for its stunning, groundbreaking co-founder. Nancy Hicks Maynard paved the way for women and minority journalists alike when she became the first African-American, female reporter with The New York Times, working on education, science and healthcare stories. After that, she served as president of the MIJE, which she co-founded with husband Robert C. Maynard. Together, they also purchased the struggling newspaper Oakland Tribune — thus making it the very first entirely African-American owned and operated daily in a major metropolitan area.
  12. Ethel L. Payne: In 1972, Ethel L. Payne made history when CBS made her the very first African-American female commentator at a major news organization. Her blend of journalism and activism during the Civil Rights Era garnered the nickname “First Lady of the Black Press,” and she started out covering the lives of black soldiers stationed in Japan. While working for the Chicago Defender, Payne stood at the forefront of racial equality, with stories about the 1963 March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, desegregation of Alabama‘s University of Alabama and plenty more. She even famously interviewed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and asked him point blank about the desegregation of interstate transportation.
  13. Pearl Stewart: Oakland Tribune once again played an integral role in equitable journalism when it hired Pearl Stewart for its editor position. Though it only lasted seven months from 1992 to 1992, she still became the very first African-American woman to edit a major city’s newspaper. Over a decade after departing to make room for original chair holder David Burgin, Stewart took up editing for Chicago Defender, although she ended up resigning two months after. Most of her legacy goes largely unsung, however, as she served in several roles at Florida A&M’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication.
  14. Barbara Walters: These days, most think of Barbara Walters as a celebrity first, journalist second, with many completely unaware of her earlier gender breakthroughs. In 1974, NBC named her the first female anchor on a major network’s evening news. Walters co-anchored The Today Show and, in doing so, opened up the floodgates for other women journalists wanting a spot on local and national programming. It probably comes as no shock to anyone, but she encountered considerable sexism from the men with whom she shared desk and studio space — and boy howdy will she remind everyone at any given opportunity.
  15. Oprah Winfrey: Oprah Winfrey, regardless of opinion, undoubtedly shapes a not-insignificant segment of pop culture with her juggernaut media empire. The very definition of a self-made billionaire, her traumatized, impoverished childhood ended when she landed a position anchoring the local news at age 19. From there, she climbed her way up the professional hierarchy — no easy feat for a minority woman — and completely revolutionized the daytime talk show format into something viable and (to tens of millions of viewers) relevant. Today, her worldwide acclaim and personal and financial successes inspire many female journalists hoping for even a molecule of what she’s earned.

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