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Introduction to Married to the Media: A History of Women and News

February 28, 2009


Women’s fundamental connection with mass communication in the middle and late 20th century has not been fully documented.  Even women who entered the profession early on during this time have little knowledge of the extent of women’s effort in reforming media for their sake and the sake of society. It was a relentless campaign that encompassed the modern women’s movement leadership, media women, government, the law, and politics.

As this book’s title suggests, women in media can look at their connection with journalism and news in much the same way they think about a long-term partner: At first it’s exciting and new, then reality sets in, and finally both sides mature into the experience. This book is about the evolution of the long-term relationship that began in the 1970s when the women’s movement of the Second Wave and the Watergate scandal drove record numbers of women into the world of media.

Looking back at this era is part of a collective retrospective going on now by members of the generation that began examining society in the 1960s and 1970s and using civil disobedience to try to change it. It was an era different from today and so needs to be seen as it was then, which is part of the purpose of this book and part of the mission of a historian. This book seeks to tell the story of women’s connection with media and make plausible inferences about the effect of that. It relies on a historian’s interpretation but also on the actual words of women involved in the movement. It also introduces a theoretical backdrop for what in academia is called feminist media studies.

A history of women’s activism in media in the United States documents women’s presence at the center of a social movement to challenge power relations as they were expressed in the media at a particular time in history. I have named this connection between women and media mediafeminism, a term that has been met with enthusiasm from scholars who have studied women’s relationship with media from before the suffrage movement. Trained as observers, mediafeminists are like mediums in a haunted house. They are constantly aware of the presence throughout the media world of the gender and power inequities that others don’t see.

By tracing this history, I analyze what actions activists took and why, as well as the goals of feminism in activism and scholarship within mass communication in the last part of the 20th century.

My aim is to give a personal view backed up by theory and scholarship to illustrate what it’s been like for women in the world of media since the Second Wave of feminism opened wide that universe to women. I make the case that women have fundamentally changed power relations, particularly in the United States, through media. This book is about the privileges women have enjoyed in journalism, while suffering injustices at the hands of those who run the show. It fills in the gaps in the historical record about women’s efforts to reform media as the problems growing out of the corporate structure of media grew over the past 20 years.  As women have changed society, they have changed the social structure, and they have changed media as a result.

Robert McChesney, Mark Cooper, and Ben Bagdikian, among others, have made the role of media in democracy an urgent priority now that the growing concentration of media ownership and its potential negative effects to democratic discourse are no longer up for debate among communication scholars.  In bolstering their position in favor of a more diverse mass media, particularly in the United States, intellectuals use the decline in the male-headed household and the restructuring of society as part of their argument. Yet, they discuss little about the historical warnings from women’s and civil rights groups – the very groups that spurred the restructuring — on this issue. Women’s groups, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, practiced an advocacy so tied to media that it can be called mediafeminism.  These groups defined news – most often identified as the source of democratic discourse in communication — as a gendered field that represented the male-dominated societal structure.  They have worked for decades through national and international channels to voice the very warnings now being touted as dire.

Therefore, it is important to explore fully the role of mediafeminism in this debate.
This role is an area traditionally neglected in women’s media studies in favor of media-centered analyses of the ways in which media depicted or commodified women. While women were concerned about their depiction, their mediafeminist  principles dictated that a gendered discourse could do little else. A look at their larger effort to change the discourse in favor of diverse views is the point of this study.

A large part of this history can be found in the archives of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, which served as a clearinghouse for most aspects of women’s activism in media. The institute, which is still in existence, was what one scholar called “a universe, a place, a believable space, that so many of us were hungry for” in the 1970s and 1980s.  Women’s association with the institute helped to legitimize their place in a field in which smoke-filled rooms and male-only, off-the-record meetings were commonplace. It also helped legitimize women’s role in the public sphere of politics, business, and government.

The institute, founded by Dr. Donna Allen, was an unusual women’s “think tank” on social issues of the day, and its newsletter, Media Report to Women, documented the activities of the institute and virtually all of women’s activist efforts. The newsletter is the only source for much information on class action lawsuits against media companies, nationwide challenges of broadcast licenses by women activists, and the behind-the-scenes work women did to have specific language regarding media treatment of women inserted into federal law and international agreements.

In a little-known episode, for example, the institute led women in a global effort to gain access to technology. The institute sponsored international satellite teleconferences at the U.N. World Conference of Women of the U.N. Decade for Women in Copenhagen in 1980 and in Nairobi in 1985. Long before the Internet sparked debate about the elimination of media gatekeepers, or even before broadcast satellites were in common use, these pioneers found ways for women to communicate with each other on a global scale.

The institute’s founder has been recognized for her historical contribution in using the newsletter to record the women’s movement of the 1970s in the words of those who carried it out.

Documenting the activism of women in media fills in gaps between the history of the peace movement, civil rights, and the women’s movement — all of which are related, according to recent evidence, though those relationships have not been fully explored even by women’s movement leaders. This book uses this part of history as a focal point for revealing the source and scope of a larger struggle by women to have a greater voice in society.

A history of women’s activism in media makes an important contribution to 20th century American history, particularly in relation to the women’s movement and the media’s connection to social change. A close look at the activities of women in this cause further develops our understanding of the roots of the modern activist period and the role of the media in social discourse. It also introduces the concept of mediafeminism and documents the integral role that women played in media reform efforts as debate strengthens today about a potential crisis in the part media play, or fail in playing, in 21st century America.

Just as ecofeminism makes the point of a special connection between women and the natural order, mediafeminism is based on the idea that mass communication drew women, making them prominent in numbers in U.S. journalism and mass communication schools as well as in the industry.

The first chapter, “The Women’s Movement and Media Activism: Which Came First?” introduces the potential for a revisionist history of the women’s movement and media activism.  While it is generally believed that women’s movement leaders of the second wave sought media coverage and made media a top priority, there is evidence women were already active in media reform.  When 200 women turned out for a conference panel moderated by Dr. Donna Allen in 1974 entitled “Women: In the News and the Newsroom,” the event made headlines in major newspapers and participants called the discussion “electrifying.” The next year, women’s movement leaders such as Bella Abzug made it their business to attend the same panel, indicating the women’s movement leaders knew an electrifying atmosphere when they saw one.

Chapter Two, “At the Center of It All: Donna Allen and the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press,” outlines the de facto “center” of the women’s media movement as the WIFP, located in Washington, D.C.  This chapter would detail Allen’s background as an economist, her own treatment at the hands of the media, and her motivation for starting the institute. It would also describe the institute’s unique role in fostering networks among women media activists.

Chapter Three, Media Report to Women, outlines the way the newsletter began, its philosophy, and its presence as a historical archive (see sample chapter).

“Women’s Media Activism: the 1970s – A Utopian Vision,” Chapter Four, documents the history of how women came to media activism and the vision they had of a world in which there would be equal treatment for all.  Women activists, flush with excitement over new ideas for equality, felt betrayed by what they considered to be “men’s” media.  They wondered how media, which they believed should reflect the views of all as envisioned by the founders, had become a tool of the rich and powerful or what they considered the patriarchal social order.

Chapter Five, “The 1980s and Beyond,” discusses an era that few feminist media researchers have touched upon because of the conventional wisdom that it was a time of backlash against feminism — the 1980s.  This chapter would outline the progress women made in entering the media field, in influencing media policy, in becoming pioneers of media technology, and of beginning a body of feminist media research and scholarship.

“Surviving Tokenism, Sexism, and Ageism to Change the Social Order: Women’s Stories in Their Own Words,” Chapter Six, adds a storytelling narrative into the text by relying on oral history archives of women activists in the second wave and personal interviews of women important to the story. This chapter will hopefully bring the movement alive to young people who hear about it in debates over women in politics and from their parents and grandparents who were witnesses to it.

Chapter Seven, “Women and Mass Communication Academia,” summarizes the history of women’s theory-building and scholarship in mass communication, which ran on a parallel track with activism.  This history includes academic milestones ranging from Gaye Tuchman’s warning in 1985 of women’s “symbolic annihilation” to Leslie Steeves’ call in 2004 for academics and activists to forge theory together.

“Mediafeminism: Women and the Ethics of Discourse, Chapter Eight, defines the beginnings and scattered histories of an oppositional political discourse and praxis uniquely intertwined with the dominant discourse of media.  Feminist theorist Noel Sturgeon, in her examination of ecofeminism, described it as both a feminist theory and an activist movement. Mediafeminism has a similar dual definition and is based on what women did and theorized in practice in a field to which they were drawn. This chapter also encompasses the ideas of anthropologist Helen Fisher whose research indicates that “female communication” is unique, as well as the work of Jurgen Habermas in defining ethical discourse as “a cooperative search for the truth, where nothing coerces anyone except the force of the argument.” The final chapter also assesses the state of mediafeminism today.

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