Rita Henley Jensen

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–I recently received an e-mail from a friend living in Washington state whom I had lost track of 25 years ago when I moved to New York to attend graduate school. Turns out she reads Women’s Enews and noticed my name.

Connecting us across vast distances is the fantastic power of the Internet, yet there is also the pain it brings. Receiving the note brought the memories of our times together flooding back, including the hollow place left from our not being able to really be together–having a cup of coffee or tea and just chatting and laughing like we used to do.

In fact, because of finances and time constraints, it is possible that we may never have that chance again.

The same is true for all of you, Women’s Enews readers. If all of you could have the funds and the time to join us, we could fill a football stadium many times over–just to enjoy being with one another–laughing and carrying on like the huge community that we are. Our market research indicates we are reaching nearly a million readers a month–because so many readers forward our stories to so many other readers–and that does not count the newspapers that reprint us.

And we may do that some day, but for now, Women’s Enews had to settle for inviting all of you over the Internet to last night’s $500 a plate dinner in New York that honored the Women’s Enews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century–women nominated by our readers for making news and changing the world.

I wish you all could have been there. It was a fantastic program that left everyone in an upbeat mood, confident that women’s leadership was an unstoppable force for the better.

Event Begins Campaign for Readers, Funds

And last night was the beginning of Women’s Enews campaign to expand its audience and to find a way to stand on its own two feet financially.

Women’s Enews became an independent news agency on Jan. 1 after 18 months as a program of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which was forced to cut back as a result of Sept. 11. Our new independence has given us an enormous boost in credibility.

Yet the transition was as scary for me as when I began college at Ohio State University in 1972 at age 24, still dealing with the emotional scars of a six-year-long violent marriage and receiving welfare to assist me in carrying the responsibility for my two daughters. But that transition led to an event that would come to demonstrate why I believe Women’s Enews is a fundamental part of change to benefit women.

Back then, a group of us who were single mothers attending college got together for mutual support. At one meeting, a member mentioned that she had heard my ex-husband had beat up his new girlfriend. I broke down and confessed what I had been through. Another member mentioned the telephone number we had posted to reach potential new members was receiving urgent pleas from women for a place to run from their spouse or companion. We began taking the callers into our home but we got a little scared by what we were hearing and the inadequacy of our response. We did not know what to do and had too few resources to really help them.

I sent away for some information from a woman in Boston named Betsy Kate-Warrior, who was following the phenomenon of battered women. The letter came back with statistics! It was common for women to be beaten–many were hospitalized and even murdered. What I had thought of as an unfortunate personal problem was not personal at all–it was a national issue. With the information in hand, I convened a meeting of our group, social service and law enforcement agencies that laid the groundwork for a battered women’s shelter in Columbus–one that today aids up to 10,000 women and families a year.

I left Columbus to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I wrote my master’s thesis on the legal system’s inadequate response to battered women. For example, in New York, women beaten by their husbands were not permitted to bring criminal charges but were required to go through the family courts. I testified before the state Legislature as an expert survivor and helped change the laws and police policies in New York City and the state.

Once again, I gathered the information no one else cared to and delivered it into the right hands. And that is what Women’s Enews is all about.

Satisfied that things had gotten better for women, I pursued a career in journalism that had little room for women’s issues–won a bunch of awards as an investigative reporter and raised my daughters. Yet, during a mid-career fellowship, I realized how wrong I had been. While many positive changes had occurred, much remained to be done.

In the intervening years, for example, the rate for men killed by loved ones had dropped dramatically but the homicide rate for women had remained stable. The changes in the 1996 welfare law made it nearly impossible for single mothers to pursue education has I had in the 1970s.

Yet the news coverage–broadcast, print and Internet–consistently failed to include our point of view or experts representing women’s interests.

News Needed to Participate in Democracy

How could women fully participate in our democracy, I asked myself, if we did not have information about issues affecting us in our own society?

We had to create our own news service–ask reporters to dig up and write about what women are saying and doing. And the Internet made it possible: For the first time in history, women could communicate easily and relatively inexpensively.

Since our launch on June 15, 2000, Women’s Enews has covered the news generated by the leaders who were with us last night.

We covered Beijing Plus Five and 21 Leader Charlotte Bunch’s continual efforts to put the human rights of women on every nation’s agenda.

We wrote about how term limits left California’s legislature without a single African American woman and what 21 Leader Dezie Woods-Jones in Oakland was doing about it; that women in Afghanistan were barred from holding jobs, attending school or even receiving medical care and what 21 Leader Eleanor Smeal was doing–before Sept. 11–to call the world’s attention to it; that the Republican Party had taken a 100 percent anti-choice stance and what 21 Leader Dina Merrill’s organization was doing about it.

We told the story of 21 Leader Sister Christine Vladimiroff’s refusing to bow to a papal order. We revealed how little women received from the nation’s philanthropic foundations and how 21 Leader Tracy Gary was working to change the balance sheets; we reported that many lesbians received extremely poor health care and what 21 Leader Jessica Halem was doing to fix it.

We told the story of how Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, educated in the one-room school house her father founded, rose to demand through the courts the millions of dollars the United States held in trust but failed to give the Blackfeet.

We wrote about the ongoing struggle about race and class in the women’s movement–the subject of the teaching and writing by 21 Leader Elizabeth Martinez.

We covered the story that explains why Women’s Enews must exist–the near total lack of women at the top in major media companies–a fact that 21 Leader Gail Evans did her best to change while executive vice president at CNN.

And many more stories no one else covered–about business, technology, education, culture, sports, violence and key political races–but are vitally important.

Four Journalism Awards in Two Years

In less than two years, Women’s Enews received four journalism awards–the most recent the 2002 Exceptional Merit Media Award (EMMA) from the National Women’s Political Caucus for our coverage of domestic violence. We attracted a strong readership. In fact, Women’s Enews is now a daily must read for editors, reporters and producers at the top news outlets: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Public Broadcasting System, CNN and National Public Radio. Sometimes these media credit us; other times not.

We have our own audience as well. In fact, 10,000 members of the Business and Profession Women USA receive us through their organization and the 300,000 members of the National Women’s Council of Ireland has signed a distribution agreement with us so that its entire membership will have access to Women’s Enews. We have received inquiries from readers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.

When we became independent on Jan. 1, we had some funds in place from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation to help to get us through the first six months. We hope last night’s event will help us lay a path to making Women’s Enews financially sustainable.

Feel free to e-mail me suggestions other than to take advertising (we thought of that) or charge for subscriptions (thought of that one too). We haven’t ruled either out, but other sources of revenues must be developed.

This week’s cover story by Assistant Managing Editor Jordan Lite provides an in-depth look on the development of microbicides–products women could use to protect themselves from AIDS and perhaps prevent pregnancy as well. Monday’s piece called out a warning that the Bush administration is pushing for the United Nations to adopt an abstinence-only reproductive health policy–even for nations where 10-year-old girls are married and early childbirth is a leading cause of death among women. One story is about possibly preventing a major cause of early death among women; the second about a policy that could deny women the information they need to protect themselves from the disease and unwanted pregnancies.

All this costs money. We pay our tiny staff, our reporters, the landlord and telephone bills, the technical crew and graphic artist. Not much, but it adds up. One news story costs about $1,500 to produce–and there are 365 days in the year. I hope you can find it in your heart to help us keep gathering the information women need to have, have the right to have, and must have, and making sure it gets to the right hands–just as Betsy Kate-Warrior did in 1975 to a young woman living in Columbus, Ohio and just as the mission of journalism calls all of us at Women’s Enews to do.

Rita Henley Jensen, May 22, 2002.

To find out more about the 21 Leaders, go to

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