DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Women of the Washington Press

In her new book about the women of the Washington press, Maurine Beasley describes dozens of stories about how female reporters have faced sexual harassment and sexist attitudes both at work and from the news sources they covered.

But Beasley, a former reporter for The Washington Post and now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, revealed one personal story she didn't include at a talk she gave on Women of The Washington Press: Politics, Prejudice, and Persistence this past weekend at the Newseum.

While at the Post, Beasley was experiencing a problem with a specific editor. She took her complaint to the union. There, a sympathetic representative bluntly explained the issue. "You don't have the right thing between your legs," Beasley said she was told.

It was highly appropriate that Beasley was delivering her talk on this particular Sunday. Exactly 100 years ago on that March 3 date, more than 5,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue right past the present-day site of the Newseum demanding the right to vote, a decision that came in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

So why did Beasley choose this particular topic? "I took it on because it is so close to my heart. I've seen a lot of changes in this field," said Beasley, who has been involved in journalism for decades. "It (the story of DC women reporters) is a narrow slice of the whole cultural interaction between men and women."

Beasley talked about Ann Royal, a distinguished DC journalist from 1830 to 1854. At that time, the job was judged to be completely inappropriate for any woman. "She was written off as the town freak. However P. T. Barnum said that if she had been a man she would have been a member of Congress," she said.

The women's suffrage movement was instrumental in seeing more women move into male-dominated, spittoon- and smoke-filled newsrooms. The leaders of the movement weren't interested in talking to male reporters. That reluctance forced publishers to hire women to cover the issue.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who viewed herself as a journalist, was also responsible for expanding the number of female reporters. When her husband was president, Mrs. Roosevelt began holding press conferences for women writers only. Again, this forced a hiring of additional women to cover those news making events.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, females were usually  relegated to the women's page of the paper. Those who did cover news were often subjected to unwanted sexual advances, especially from powerful members of the DC political community. "A lot of female reporters said those advances were so routine, they didn't even bother to report it," Beasley said, adding that many people whispered that women who reported big news were "sleeping with someone" to get the story.

Today, the situation is not as prevalent. But problems still exist.  "Discrimination is more hidden and in that sense more difficult to deal with," Beasley maintains.

But despite improvements, female reporters can still face sexual challenges in their chosen career. Beasley said a fellow journalism teacher told her of a recent incident of completely inappropriate behavior. One of the professor's young female grad students encountered a prominent politician last year and told him of her admiration. "He said 'when can we get together and sleep on it," Beasley said the politician replied. "Maybe he was trying to be funny or cute. But I don't know."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During her years at the Post, Beasley was familiar with Katherine Graham, one of the most prominent and powerful women ever in journalism. Graham took over as Post publisher after her husband died. She helped guide the paper through the Watergate era coverage that immensely enhanced the Post's
reputation and image. So how supportive of women in the newsroom was Graham? "That's an open question," Beasley said. "To the women who worked in the newsroom at the time it wasn't that visible."

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