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University Archives Female Journalists' Treasures

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A University of Missouri collection houses the papers of notable female journalists and reveals their professional stories. Sheila Gibbons says with the arrival of the digital age, however, valuable history may never find its way in to the archives.

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A University of Missouri collection houses the papers of notable female journalists and reveals their professional stories. Sheila Gibbons says with the arrival of the digital age, however, valuable history may never find its way in to the archives.
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Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)--Memo to today's female reporters and editors: Don't toss those files! Don't hit that delete button!

Journalists, occupied with chronicling the activities and efforts of others, too seldom consider how to preserve the history they make themselves. Icons such as the late Katharine Graham of the Washington Post produce the occasional memoir, and women who have covered war and sports, to name two nontraditional beats, have produced marvelous books about their experiences. But most journalists, accustomed to keeping themselves out of the stories they report, rarely reveal their own.

In particular, multitasking female journalists shouldering responsibilities on today's smaller-than-ever news staffs don't always have time to keep journals, blog or organize records that would prove valuable to future scholars. That could mean that journalism history will continue to have a gender gap. That's a tragedy and a travesty.

So this is a call to all those overworked scribes to visit the Web site of the National Women and Media Collection at the University of Missouri-Columbia. There they can learn how to transfer those notes, research reports, back-of-envelope musings, speeches, correspondence and other miscellany they've accumulated throughout their careers to a repository that will sort, preserve and, most importantly, treasure them.


Home for Journalism Legends

"This is the largest collection of material on women and media in the U.S. and arguably, the world," says Jean Gaddy Wilson, author and news consultant who developed the collection in 1987 with the help of Nancy Lankford, then the associate director of the University of Missouri's Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

(The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., also has a sub-collection on women in journalism as does the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.)

Marj Paxson, a 1944 Missouri graduate, donated her papers plus the trust fund that enabled Wilson to pursue the papers of other female journalists, and with Lankford, to build the collection. The Gannett Foundation also provided funding.

"When Jean first approached me about establishing the collection, I saw immediately that it was a great opportunity," Lankford recalls. "She was giving me the chance, as well as tangible assistance, to acquire the papers of women whose groundbreaking careers had made them legends."

Paxson herself was just such a figure. She reported for United Press in Nebraska, then moved to the Associated Press. She led Theta Sigma Phi, now the Association for Women in Communications, for four years. She was women's pages editor for newspapers in Houston, Miami, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Philadelphia, and was publisher of two Gannett newspapers.

"Marj was one of the women hired during World War II who signed a waiver stating that when the men came back from service, she would relinquish her job to one of them. And she did," Lankford says. "Of course, we know that even so, she went on to have a very successful career. But she wanted the struggles and achievements of women like her to be documented so that younger women coming up in the profession could understand what those who had gone before went through."


Documents of Substance, Not Style

For today's young women, particularly students beguiled by the glamour of anchoring television news, the National Women and Media Collection is a wake-up call. It documents the endeavors of women who believed that news was about substance, not style; hard work, not hairspray.

The collection houses the papers of women such as Laura Redden Searing, a deaf journalist, poet and author who covered Washington during the Civil War; Fran Harris, who began her career on radio in 1931 and by 1943 was the first female newscaster in Michigan; Mary Paxton Keeley, the first female journalism graduate in the world (University of Missouri, 1910); Marie Anderson, women's pages editor in the 1950s and 1960s who shifted coverage away from frivolous society news and toward women's issues; Sylvia Porter, the renowned personal finance columnist who wrote for major newspapers, magazines and authored scores of books; and Theo Wilson, the legendary trial reporter for the New York Daily News.

These women labored in historical periods and at levels far different from those of the airbrushed and blow-dried media "stars" we are familiar with today. "What they did is seen by the people who write the history as unremarkable," Wilson says, "but they are remarkable because they not only had to do their jobs but fight male privilege."

The National Women and Media Collection also contains records of organizations such as American Women in Radio and Television, the Journalism and Women Symposium, the women's section of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. (The collection also holds some archival material about the beginnings of Women's eNews.) In these holdings can be found the history of women's efforts to gain parity in newsroom employment and pay, and research on media depiction of women and girls.

The National Women and Media Collection celebrates its 20th anniversary Sept. 11 at the University of Missouri library with a keynote address by former AP Alaska bureau chief, Vietnam War correspondent and columnist Tad Bartimus. The evening, headlined "We Are the Heroines of Our Own Stories," includes a panel discussion.


No Time to Waste

There's an urgency about attracting more contributions to the collection because of the dramatic changes in the way we all generate and exchange information. Electronic communication thus far hasn't been archived the way paper correspondence and records have been. In order for the collection to grow, more journalists must be willing to preserve their e-mails, cell phone records, CDs and zip drives containing work and digital images the way their predecessors kept paper files and photographs. Depending on funding, digitized material may be accessible to the public through the Web site.

Become a donor during your working life and send materials annually, the National Women and Media Collection advises all female journalists. The stories of how female reporters and editors have adapted to gigantic shifts in the way journalism is practiced and consumed today--more citizen journalists, more bloggers, more editorial interaction with readers, viewers and listeners--are crucial to media historians and scholars.

Media won't be the only lens through which female journalists' papers will be examined. Scholars outside journalism will study the collection for insights into historic events. A Civil War scholar will find Laura Redden Searing's files a must-read. Economists studying consumer behavior will discover a treasure trove in Sylvia Porter's papers. Criminal justice scholars will find Theo Wilson a fascinating interpreter of malfeasance. The National Women and Media Collection reminds us that records left by female journalists illuminate multiple facets of society as well as their own professional journeys.

Let's hope there's more--much, much more--to come.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

National Women and Media Collection:
http://whmc.umsystem.edu/nwm.html

Diane Gentry, Washington Press Club Foundation Oral History
with Marjorie B. Paxson:
http://wpcf.org/oralhistory/paxint.html

Sophia Smith Collection, Women's History Manuscripts
at Smith College, Journalism:
http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/subjournalism.html

Note: Women's eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.