|NEW YORK, Oct. 21, 2017 – Rita Henley Jensen, a prize-winning investigative reporter, a domestic violence survivor and a fighter for women’s rights who founded Women’s eNews, an online news service covering gender inequality and other feminist issues, died on Wednesday. She was 70. The cause was breast cancer, which she had beaten twice before.
“We put women and girls on the front page,” Henley Jensen said, describing what set Women’s eNews apart from most major news organizations.
She changed the media landscape by launching Women’s eNews. During her years as editor-in-chief from 2000 to late May 2016, she hired scores of women and girls as freelance writers from around the world and mentored dozens of women in her New York newsroom. She expanded the coverage with an Arabic website in 2003. Women’s eNews racked up 46 awards during her tenure. Ms. Magazine said the success of Women’s eNews showed what happens when an editor decides that women and girls matter.
Fearless… Trailblazer… A warrior for women’s rights… Those words popped up repeatedly in posthumous tributes that poured onto Facebook and elsewhere from friends, colleagues and women she mentored during her long and outstanding career. “Rita Henley Jensen was a feminist warrior. She always had my back. There are not many people in my life I can say that about,” June Cross, a documentary filmmaker and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote on her friend’s Facebook page after her death.
Henley Jensen’s intelligence, her courage and her strength in the face of adversity gave her the aura of a modern Wonder Woman – one who favored suits and sling-back shoes over a Spandex bustier and briefs with boots. Underneath it all, she wore her built-in B.S. detector. “She was the bravest woman I know,” said Frances McMorris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who became the first African-American woman elected president of The Newswomen’s Club of New York. McMorris and Henley Jensen served – along with their mutual long-time friend Betsy Wade – as directors on the board of the Anne O’Hare McCormick Memorial Fund, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit that gives scholarships to women enrolled in Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Henley Jensen was a former board member of The Newswomen’s Club, founded in 1922 by the women reporters who covered the suffragist movement.
After undergoing radiation treatment for Stage IV breast cancer last month, Henley Jensen refused to rest. Instead, she curled up with her laptop in a favorite chair or in bed – often with her close friend Carol Jenkins, a former WNBC-TV anchor and correspondent who was one of the first African-American women to occupy a New York TV affiliate’s anchor chair, by her side. Together, they pressed onward with the research and writing for Rita’s book for the Jane Crow Project. She launched the nonprofit investigative reporting project in 2016 to explore why African-American women are dying in childbirth in such great numbers – at three to four times the rate for white women.
Her CNN Op-ed piece, “What the Senate Can Give for Mother’s Day,” is an example of her reporting on maternal health. Her work was nominated for a Front Page Award.
Hitchhiking to College
Her passion for covering domestic violence, politics, sexual harassment, gender bias, the fight for access to affordable birth control, the right to a legal abortion, equal pay and other women’s issues came from her own experience – a personal history that she called “a gift” in an interview in June 2011 with Sheryl McCarthy, the host of “One on One,” a weekly TV talk show broadcast by the City University of New York (CUNY).
Born on Jan. 1, 1947, in Columbus, Ohio, Rita Henley was one of six children – four boys and two girls. Her father was a business editor of a local newspaper, the Columbus Journal.
“I became pregnant outside of marriage at age 18,” Henley Jensen said. “I had run away from home. Birth control was unavailable. Abortion was illegal. I got married because I was pregnant.”
That was in 1965. She had the baby, a girl. Her husband beat her. But she thought he would change. She got pregnant again and had a second baby, another girl. Her husband stepped up his attacks, threatening her and the children with his fists and knives.
In 1971, she left the abusive marriage with the two little girls – then ages 5-1/2 and 18 months – and followed a friend’s advice to go on welfare to survive. She wrote about that experience for Ms. Magazine in 1995 to break the stereotypes surrounding domestic violence and welfare mothers.
Henley Jensen hitchhiked with her children to Ohio State University, where she had received a full scholarship. In 1976, she graduated with honors. She then went to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York and earned her M.S. degree in 1977. She won eight journalism prizes on her first job. She later won Columbia Journalism School’s Alumni Award. (See her Women’s eNews bio and her Authors Guild bio for more information on her career and her awards.)
Henley Jensen was in Washington, D.C., on an Alicia Patterson Fellowship in 1996 when she saw mainstream media getting it wrong on a big story. She decided to change the media landscape. “In 1996, Bill Clinton signed a law called welfare reform that changed the provision that a mother could receive welfare until her youngest child turned six,” she said. Instead, the new law lowered the age to one, and also limited the education waivers-from-work requirement to one year.
“As a journalist, I saw other journalists fall in line, writing virtual propaganda about the need for ‘welfare reform.’ I decided I needed to change journalism.”
After completing her fellowship, she joined The New York Times Syndicate as a columnist. Those clips landed her the job of a lifetime. In the late 1990s, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund received a large gift to start an online news service focused on women’s issues. The fund “hired me to make it happen,” Jensen said, adding: “I had the opportunity to design the site, pick the name, hire writers. It was scary and wonderful.”
In June 2000, Women’s eNews was launched. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the fund’s board, forced to cancel its fall fund-raiser, decided to close Women’s eNews. Instead, Jensen spun it off and relaunched Women’s eNews as an independent news service on Jan. 1, 2002. The nonprofit news service is a 501(c) 3 public charity supported by tax-deductible donations and grants from foundations.
Raising Money, Raising Consciousness
To raise money for Women’s eNews, Henley Jensen created and ran an annual gala called 21 Leaders for the 21st Century. The event, which filled a New York hotel ballroom, honored 20 women and one man who had dedicated their careers to improving the lives of women and girls. Among the women honored as 21 Leaders over the years were two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Wangari Maathai and Shirin Ebadi.
“With Women’s eNews and the 21 Leaders Gala, Rita showed what one brilliant and determined woman could do,” said her friend, Frances McMorris, who is a reporter now based in Tampa, Florida.
She made her mark on Manhattan with Opening the Way: A Women’s History Walk that included landmarks of the suffragist movement and the sites where women trailblazers had worked in New York. She developed the tour with her close friends, Betsy Wade, the retired New York Times correspondent and editor, and James Boylan, the historian and journalist who founded the Columbia Journalism Review. Wade made journalism history as the lead plaintiff in the women’s successful class-action suit against The New York Times. “She was an extremely tough and difficult woman,” Wade said of her friend. “She fought ahead to get things done – and did get a lot of things done.”
When the Society of Silurians honored Wade last November with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Henley Jensen saw to it that two details were taken care of to help her friend celebrate that night – an arrangement of long-stemmed roses from the McCormick Fund’s board at the award dinner’s check-in table at The National Arts Club – and a gift-wrapped bottle of a beverage to be savored later. Henley Jensen and Wade – both passionate about journalism scholarships and mentoring the next generation of female journalists – worked as volunteers on the board of directors of the Anne O’Hare McCormick Memorial Fund, along with Carolyn Purcell , the McCormick Fund’s scholarship chair, who is the senior director of programming/ operations for Verizon-FiOS1 News Networks; Mary C. Curtis, a columnist who covers race, politics and culture for Roll Call; Sheryl McCarthy of CUNY-TV, who also teaches journalism at Queens College; Carol Jenkins, an Emmy-winning TV journalist and author who is the host of “Black America,” a CUNY-TV show, and Kelly Crow, the McCormick Fund’s treasurer, who is the art market reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Frances McMorris , a reporter for The Tampa Bay Business Journal and the McCormick Fund’s former secretary; Susan Chira, the correspondent and editor for gender issues for The New York Times; Irena Choi Stern, a communications consultant at What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative; Christine Haughney, a reporter in New York who covers agriculture for POLITICO, and Jan Paschal, the McCormick Fund’s president, who is a partner and managing editor in IPOScoop.com. McMorris and Wade have recently left the board.
“You have to make your own path,” Henley Jensen wrote in a letter in late August to Anne O’Hare McCormick Scholars Melissa Bunni Elian, Sherrell Dorsey, Alissa Escarce and Casey Parks,who are pursuing their master’s degrees at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She told them “to ignore all advice from the industry’s white-haired male barons and their lackeys.” She went on to say: “Second: Yes, do the who, what and where, but you have the opportunity to do a deep dive into how the whys of gender and racial bias distort the lives of millions of Americans, and it is your obligation to do so.”
Her final recommendation blended the professional and the personal sides of life. “Last: Balancing a journalism career and raising a family is often an impossible task for those of us who did not get lucky in the partner sweepstakes,” she wrote in the letter that her eldest daughter, Ariel Jensen-Vargas, delivered to the Anne O’Hare McCormick Scholars at a dinner in late August, when they received their scholarship checks from the McCormick Fund’s board members. “But do it anyway. Ariel is Exhibit A for this argument – the wonderful member of the third generation mastering the current technologies to spread the information our readers deserve and need,” she added, in a reference to the link between her father’s life as a newspaper editor, her own career and her daughter’s expertise in digital media.
The Anne O’Hare McCormick Memorial Fund is accepting donations for a scholarship that will be given in memory of Rita Henley Jensen. The Journalism and Women Symposium, known as JAWS, also had a special place in Henley Jensen’s heart. She and Betsy Wade, along with Mary C. Curtis and other mutual friends, were active in mentoring young women journalists in connection with the group’s annual JAWS Camp and other JAWS programs. Connecting women journalists with activists for gender equality and racial justice was a high priority for Henley Jensen, who was also an active member of WAM! Women, Action and the Media.
Henley Jensen made a cameo appearance in the 2016 documentary film, “Equal Means Equal,” which showcases women telling the story of why it’s urgent to fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She supported the ERA Coalition, working for this cause alongside her friend, Carol Jenkins, the founding president of the Women’s Media Center.
This winter, Henley Jensen and Wade donned pink pussy hats to join in the Women’s March. Rita marched in Massachusetts, where she was on a research fellowship at Mount Holyoke College to work on her Jane Crow book, and Betsy marched in Manhattan. The solidarity of sisterhood burned bright throughout their friendship of nearly 40 years, with Wade spending hours with Henley Jensen after she came home from the hospital in September.
In late May 2016, Henley Jensen traveled to New Delhi, India, where she was honored at the Women Economic Forum with the Iconic Thought Leader of the Decade Award from the All Ladies League, a group of 25,000 women in government, business, the professions and the arts. While she was in India, she went with a group to tour the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. “The shah had built it as a tomb for his favorite wife,” she recalled in an interview last year. “I asked the tour guide: ‘What did she die of?’ And the answer was that she died in childbirth.” That fact resonated with Henley Jensen, who was wrapping up her work at Women’s eNews and getting ready to start her book on “The Jane Crow Project: Why U.S. Mothers Are Dying While Giving Life.”
To some, it may not be a coincidence that on the morning that she died, the date was Oct. 18th, the eve of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
Henley Jensen loved India and she loved Indian food, which was served at one of the last gatherings in her home of The River Walkers, her uptown Manhattan circle of friends, including Carol Jenkins, June Cross, Sharon Katz, Sandra Garcia, Idelisse Malave and Andrea Arroyo. Henley Jensen was too frail to take a bite. But she did get into the party spirit by donning her Wonder Woman pajamas.
She is survived by her daughters, Ariel Jensen-Vargas and Shasta Jensen , both of New York; her granddaughters, Emily and Jane, and her grandsons, Anthony and Henry, all of New York, and three brothers – Paul Henley and Dick Henley and their families, of the Columbus, Ohio, area, and Mark Henley and his family, of the Bloomington, Ill., area. Planning is under way for a memorial service in New York to celebrate Henley Jensen’s life and outstanding career. Details will be announced at a later date.