In an era when the pinnacle of American womanhood included a doting husband, a house with a white picket fence and the sound of children’s feet pattering about, the Pittsburgh Courier’s Evelyn Cunningham dared her readers to consider that maybe a mink coat would be less work and more security. So as not to be misunderstood, the columnist noted: “Women who think (and hope) that bachelor girls with good jobs and swank apartments would trade it all for a rose-covered cottage and a ring are wrong, wrong, wrong.”[i]
And while Cunningham’s comments were directed to African American readers in the most prominent Black-owned newspaper of the day, her message was one without racial boundaries. In fact, her column, The Women, tackled issues ranging from hosting dinner parties when one cannot cook to sex education and domestic abuse. Perhaps the titillating nature of Cunningham’s writing should have been expected when her inaugural column focused on a spicy discussion about who was buying the “unmentionables” in lingerie shops along New York City’s famed Broadway Avenue. (Hint: It wasn’t the dancers on theater stages.)
As early as 1952, Cunningham acknowledged that sex appeal in political candidates influences the female vote—giving agency to a voting bloc still not fully aware of its power to be political king-makers. A year later, she was commenting on Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s report on the sexual behavior of women, noting: “What I like about the Kinsey report is that women are now confessing things to each other that they shouldn’t oughta.”[ii]
When I first came across Cunningham’s columns as part of a larger project looking at the Pittsburgh Courier, I was almost shocked by her bluntness. I had to look at the date on the page a few times to triple-check. Evelyn Cunningham was Carrie Bradshaw decades before the fictitious New York columnist would even be dreamed up as a character offering advice to women, let alone a hit show on HBO.
With each new article I stumbled upon, I had to remind myself that Cunningham was writing during an era when one did not speak of women being social outliers to the American Dream, even if she was living proof that they existed. (She was also writing several years before the launch of the venerable New York Times’ women’s pages that focused on the Four F’s—Food, Fashions, Family, Furnishings.)
And while journalism historians are starting to pay more attention to the historical significance of the writings found on the women’s section of many U.S. newspapers, the reality is that this new line of research is just scraping the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And often, when the period is examined, researchers find a general discomfort surrounding societal expectations presented in media and the second wave of feminism sweeping across the nation.
To supplement my article on the work of Evelyn Cunningham in the December 2020 issue of Journalism History, this teaching essay aims to provide suggested readings, discussions and assignments for undergraduate and graduate students in courses focused on media history and popular culture. This essay could be particularly useful for graduate students undertaking research projects focused on women journalists and columnists as well as content on the women’s section of newspapers.
Suggested Class Discussion
American newspapers have featured women’s sections for decades. The first documented housekeeper’s column was published in the 1870s. Yet, it was the New York Times with its famed Four F’s—Food, Fashions, Family and Furnishings—which ran from 1955 to 1971, that set the bar for women’s pages everywhere.
Consider famous women journalists/columnists, both non-fictional and fictional. Who comes to mind? What are they known for? How do their columns or reporting reflect the times in which they were published? How does their work reflect their views of feminism and/or gender? How do these views change over time?
Suggested Class Activities
Select a date range and examine the women’s pages from your local newspaper’s archives. Consider significant dates in gender equality legislation, such as the days leading up to and after the June 10, 1963 passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the July 2, 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and/or the June 23, 1972 passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Where are these stories reported in the newspaper? How do those stories differ from what women reporters and columnists are writing on the dedicated women’s pages of the same newspaper? Whose stories aren’t being told? What do these stories tell us about that time and place? How is feminism and/or gender presented?
Explore social media platforms, such as Instagram, to see how modern women are making their mark and sharing their thoughts on the roles of women in today’s society. As non-traditional “columnists” with large followings, consider how curated pages, such as Makerswomen, Gurlstalk, or Girlboss, are digital versions of legacy newspapers’ women’s pages. How are these digital spheres similar in content to print? How are they different? What are the stories they tell? Whose stories aren’t being told? What do these stories tell us about the times?
Maurine H. Beasley and Sheila J. Gibbons, Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism, 2nd ed. (State College, Pennsylvania: Strata Publishing, 2003).
Carole McCabe Booker, ed. Alone atop the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Pioneer of the National Black Press (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015)
Deborah Chambers, Linda Steiner, Carole Fleming, Women and Journalism (London: Routledge, 2004).
Dorothy Butler Gilliam, Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America (New York, NY: Center Street, 2019).
Marilyn S. Greenwald, A Woman of the Times: Journalism, Feminism, and the Career of Charlotte Curtis (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999).
Marion Marzolf, Up from the Footnote: A History of Women Journalists (New York: Communication Arts Books / Hastings House, 1977).
James McGrath Morris, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015).
Ishbel Ross, Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in Journalism by an Insider (Harper,1936).
Roger Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1994).
Kimberly Wilmot Voss, Re-Evaluating Women’s Page Journalism in the Post-World War II Era: Celebrating Soft News (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Cindy Elmore, “Two Steps Forward and One Step Back: Coverage of Women Journalists in Editor & Publisher 1978 through 1988,” American Journalism 20, no. 4: 33-54.
Kathleen Endres, “In Their Own Voices: Women Redefine and Frame Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” American Journalism, 26, no. 1 (2009): 55-80.
Candi S. Carter Olson, “This Was No Place for a Woman”: Gender Judo, Gender Stereotypes, and World War II Correspondent Ruth Cowan,” American Journalism 34, no. 4 (2017): 427-447.
Rodger Streitmatter, “Transforming the Women’s Pages,” Journalism History 24, no. 1 (Summer, 1998): 72–82.
Kimberly Wilmot Voss, “Dorothy Jurney: A National Advocate for Women’s Pages as They Evolved and Then Disappeared,” Journalism History 36, no. 1 (Spring, 2010): 13–22.
[i] Evelyn Cunningham, “The Women: You Don’t Have to Agree with Me,” Pittsburgh Courier, Dec. 8, 1951, 12.
[ii] Evelyn Cunningham, “Race Women Left out by Dr. Kinsey,” Pittsburgh Courier, Aug. 29, 1953, 32.