Lucht Podcast: Newspaper Coverage of Women in Politics

new logoFor the 96th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, Tracy Lucht analyzes how five trailblazing women in politics of different races, ethnicities and regions were written about after the 19th Amendment was ratified.

Tracy Lucht is an associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. She is the co-author of “Gender, Race, and Place in Newspaper Coverage of Women ‘Firsts’ after the Nineteenth Amendment” in the December 2021 issue of Journalism History.

Featured Image: Nellie Tayloe Ross, George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/2014709682/

Transcript 

Tracy Lucht: I think that we really need to start doing justice to the specific experiences of people in all groups.

Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.

Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.

This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. For more than a century, the college –

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has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They are committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.

 Groundbreaking moments for women in politics in recent years, along with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, have spurred increased discussions about women’s history and how we got to this point today. A new Journalism History article explores gender, race, and place in newspaper coverage of women firsts after the 19th Amendment. The study builds upon historical research regarding newspaper coverage of women in politics by exploring how women of different races, ethnicities, and regions were written about after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. One of the authors of this research, Tracy Lucht of Iowa State University, joins us on the show today. Her research expands upon my own book, Press Portrayals of Women –

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Politicians, 1870s – 2000s. Tracy, welcome to the show. Why did you want to study how the media portrayed women in politics in the 1920s and 1930s?

Tracy Lucht: Well, 1920 was the year that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, which made it unconstitutional for states to restrict voting rights on the basis of sex, and as the suffrage centennial was approaching last year, my research partner and I were interested in the conversation surrounding it, particularly the impact that the suffrage movement had, as well as differences in the experiences of white women versus women of color.

Teri Finneman: And what has prior research found as far as how women in politics at the state and local level are portrayed in media?

Tracy Lucht: Um, well, Teri, you wrote an excellent book –

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about coverage of women in politics that I think we should definitely plug here, and, you know, as you know overall scholarship shows that women in politics are subjected to very gendered stereotypes. Women candidates tend to have stories written about them that focus on their families, their appearances, their personal lives, their personal attributes, their likeability and ultimately what this does is it sets up politics as a masculine domain and keeps femininity associated with domesticity, so “other” to the world of politics. So what the literature shows is that as women climb higher on the political ladder, so into national races that this, treatment in the media is exacerbated. It’s a little more mixed –

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for women at the state and local levels, but the gender divide is still there. Um, so I’m thinking here of a study of newspaper coverage of Nikki Haley, who was the first female governor of South Carolina, and that coverage initially portrayed her as a trailblazer but then also criticized her for some of her feminine qualities, because as the thinking goes femininity is really anathema to politics. But even later on, then she was subjected to criticism for being too masculine, which again as the ideology goes is unnatural for a woman. So it’s a classic double bind, right, for women in politics. So you see that throughout coverage of women in politics. You see journalists trying to make sense of women’s femininity but also their, their interest –

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in being part of a world that has been gendered as masculine. Um, and I also want to note here that there are differences between how white women are covered versus how women of color are covered, and we know that from the important intersectional work that has been done by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Ruth Zambrana, but I, in particular, want to point out that it’s been found that in congressional races that women of color received less and more negative coverage than white women, than white men and than men of color, so they’re sort of doubly othered in that way.

Teri Finneman: Yeah, I mean I think what’s so interesting about the research that both of us have done is, you know, we’re both taking a historical look and so people tend to think, well, that’s history.

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That’s in the past. Um, and, and we’re having to go around and tell people, no, like the same kind of coverage, the same kind of themes that we can date back to 1872 for sure are still playing out with women in politics today. This is still a problem over a century later.

Tracy Lucht: Absolutely. We are still seeing the echoes of these longstanding tropes and, and stereotypes, which I think emerged in the study that, that I did, and I want to pause and, and credit my co-author, Chelsea Davis, who is a graduate student here at Iowa State. She worked on the study with me so I want to give credit to her. But yeah, absolutely. The findings that we came up with, we found very relevant within the context of the 2020 election.

Teri Finneman: So for this particular study, who did you choose to focus on and why?

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Tracy Lucht: So when we looked at the literature on women in politics, a lot of it did tend to center white women and their experiences, and in part that’s because of how we define firsts, I think, and also because historically white women have had greater access to political power. So we thought it was really important to diversify our, our sample, so we specifically looked for women of different races and ethnicities in different parts of the country to try to capture how that coverage might have been similar and how it might have been different. So we took a map of the U.S. that was divided into five distinct regions the Southeast, the Northeast, the Midwest, the West –

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and the Southwest, and so we wanted to make sure each of those regions was represented in our study, and then we scoured the resources of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers and, you know, other resources and looked for women who had achieved political milestones of various types so that we could have as diverse a group as possible. So what we ended up with and I guess I will go maybe chronologically starting with the first woman in our sample who was elected in 1922, and that was Soledad Chávez Chacón in New Mexico. She was the first woman elected to executive office in New Mexico and the first Latina in the U.S. to hold a statewide office. She was eventually elected to the state legislature, and I think it’s important here. We’re talking –

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about how relevant these historical findings still are, and an interesting point is that in 2020 New Mexico elected all women of color to its U.S. House delegation.

Teri Finneman: Oh, sure, yeah.

Tracy Lucht: Um, so then moving forward in 1924, Cora Reynolds Anderson was elected to the Michigan legislature and she was the first Native American woman to serve in any state legislature. She was a member of Ojibwa nation. Her father was white and her mother was Ojibwa. She served for just one term. She lost her seat to redistricting, and then also in 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming was elected and inaugurated as the first woman governor in the U.S. Miriam Ferguson of Texas was also elected governor –

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that year, but Nellie Tayloe Ross was first to be inaugurated so she gets to — she gets to make the claim as the first, you know, officially seated in that role.

Teri Finneman: This is, you know, off topic, but I mean the, the Miriam story is quite interesting in itself, I believe. [Laughs]

Tracy Lucht: Right. Right. [Laughs]

Teri Finneman: With, with her husband –

Tracy Lucht: Right.

Teri Finneman: – and what was the yeah, that, that’s an interesting story for our listeners that we should get into in another show. [Laughs]

Tracy Lucht: [Laughs] Yeah. I will leave that to you to, [laughs] to follow up on, but it is interesting because for Nellie Ross and for another woman I’ll mention in a minute, their husbands do play a role in their political life because Nellie Ross’ husband was governor of Wyoming, and then she was elected after his death. So I find that interesting because –

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another woman that we studied, Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, was in a similar position. Her husband was a U.S. senator and died in office. The governor of Arkansas appointed her to fill his seat because the governor had designs on the U.S. Senate seat and thought if he appointed Hattie Caraway, that there was no way that she would run in her own right, and that the seat would then be open for him. But she did run and was, and was elected and so she became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932, and she served for, for two terms. So she was representing the South, and then finally Crystal Bird Fauset of Pennsylvania, who was the first Black woman elected to any state legislature in the U.S., and she was elected in –

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1938 from a district in west Philadelphia. So those were the five women that we studied.

Teri Finneman: So throughout your analysis you found three primary themes: erasure, marginalization, and selective legitimation in local newspaper coverage of Native American, Hispanic, Black, and white women. So tell us what each of these themes means.

Tracy Lucht: So by erasure we mean partial or complete omission of relevant aspects of a woman’s identity or her political career. So broadly speaking, we can think of this as news coverage that simply ignores either entire candidates, and of course we didn’t, you know, look at candidates who had been completely ignored –

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by the media, but you can also think of it as, you know, journalists at work with a little eraser simply erasing part of a woman’s identity. So for instance, Cora Reynolds Anderson, who was Ojibwa, her heritage was never mentioned, not once, not in a single article. Um, so that aspect of her identity was completely, completely omitted leading to, you know, what we call erasure. Right? So then the second theme that we found was marginalization, which is a diminishment or decentering of women’s work or political participation. So here newspaper writers, you know, were essentially saying, you know, we acknowledge this person’s presence and maybe we acknowledge this part of her identity, but it is marginal to the world of politics.

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So it’s, you know, it’s a diminishment. It’s a way of, you know, pushing, pushing women aside. As, as you pointed out in your book, Teri, and as we found as well, even in newspaper coverage that’s positive, it can still be written in a way that treats women as exceptions to the norm. Right? So that’s, that’s what marginalization does. And then lastly, partial legitimation. It was interesting to find that there were ways in which newspapers explained some women’s success, and this isn’t something that all women benefited from, but for some women, particularly the white women in our study, the newspapers found ways of explaining why –

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it would make sense that they were in politics. Not that all women should be in politics, but it made sense that these individual women were in politics, and in that way, it gave them some partial legitimation, some partial validation, you know, even when the overall discourse might be marginalizing women as a group.

Teri Finneman: Walk us through the kind of coverage each of these women received more specifically. So one of your findings that struck me was about Cora Reynolds Anderson, and how one article wrote that “Mrs. Anderson is not a politician and believes that if she were, she never would have been elected.” So despite the fact that this woman was a state legislator, right, and that –

Tracy Lucht: Right.

Teri Finneman: – this kind of sentence would never be emphasized for a man. So, you know, what were some of the other key findings that you had?

Tracy Lucht: Right. Right. Yeah, for Anderson in particular the coverage was very focused –

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on her domesticity, portraying her as essentially a housewife. Um, yes, even defining her as not a politician even though she clearly was a politician and had been involved in the Grange and in other community efforts. You know, one of the other articles actually said, “The only woman member of the legislature today diverted the attention of the assembly from weighty matters of the state to house cleaning,” because her first bill that she had introduced was a bill thanking the workers that kept the state Capitol clean and, and functioning, but I mean very explicitly the news coverage of her positioned her as an interloper, as someone encroaching –

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on what was rightfully the world of men. She was described as quiet, demure. Um, you know, articles pointed out that she didn’t campaign on her own behalf that others campaigned for her, and as I mentioned earlier, they entirely erased her Native American identity. She had a teaching degree from the Haskell Institute in Kansas, which is now the Haskell Indian Nations University, and that was never once mentioned. So in contrast, Soledad Chávez Chacón did see her heritage mentioned in newspaper, paper coverage there. She didn’t receive a lot of coverage, and neither did Cora Reynolds Anderson. Their coverage was, was pretty minimal. Um –

[0:18:00]

but in Chacón’s case she was portrayed as the daughter of governors with newspaper articles pointing out that she came from, you know, a prestigious family whose leadership in that area dated back to Mexican rule. So, giving her some partial legitimation in terms of her family, still positioning her in relation to her family, which I think is important to point out but, you know, giving her a little more validation than Anderson had received up in Michigan. Coverage of Chacón also tended to focus on her appearance and, and her personality. Let’s see. Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming received abundant newspaper coverage as the first woman governor in the U.S. or at least, you know, as Wyoming would like to make that claim.

[0:19:00]

Right? Um, but she was presented as the little lady in the governor’s chair. That was a quote from, from one of the newspaper articles. She was treated as a test case, you know, for whether women as a whole could be trusted to lead. So the stories that, that we fond about Ross just very much emphasized that she was outside of a woman’s traditional sphere, and sort of gave her a, you know, almost like a — treated her election as if it were handed to her, that she was given a man-sized job. That was a quote as well, and she was defeated for reelection. But I will say about Ross, given that her husband had been governor –

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that there were more mentions of Wyoming’s identity as a state. You know, it took a lot of pride in the fact that it had been the first territory to give women full voting rights and it, it placed Ross within that tradition of progressivism, and so in a way they, they sort of made her symbolic of that kind of a regional mythology in, in that state’s view of itself, which was similar to the coverage that Hattie Wyatt Caraway received in Arkansas. She was the woman who had won election to what, the Senate seat that had been held by her husband, and she was very much legitimated as having been a spouse. I mean the coverage of her was, again, very careful to say that she didn’t consider herself –

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a politician, you know, but she felt the call to continue her husband’s work. There was an article about their, their old-fashioned marriage and it really cast her in the tradition of white Southern womanhood. She’d come from a Confederate family. She’d, you know, raised three strapping boys. She was really treated as having embodied kind of that, that ideal. One of the headlines even said that she — it said she was of us, with us, and for us, so very much positioning her as, as one of us, which, again, partially validated her election and her representation. Arkansas also, the newspapers there took a lot of pride in the fact that they had been the first state to elect a, a woman as a U.S. senator, so they’re sort of claiming her in a way that Wyoming also sort of claimed Ross.

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And that was different from the women of color in this study, and particularly Crystal Bird Fauset of Pennsylvania, who also received abundant coverage. She received more coverage than any other woman in this study from the year before she was elected. She was a really influential lecturer. She was active in the Democratic party. She had connections to the Roosevelt administration. But all of the coverage of her in the white newspapers of that state didn’t just refer to her as a legislator or a woman legislator, but it was always a Negro woman legislator. They always linked her to the African-American community and made her seem as an exception. Um, so even in –

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in stories that were very positive, it very much set her up as, as, you know, an outsider, as not the norm to the white male world of politics. A lot of those stories also mentioned that she was born in Boston, so it was almost a, you know, she was almost triply othered because she was an African-American, she was a woman, and she was from Boston. So, she was very much treated as, as an outsider. Sorry, that was a long answer.

 [Laughter]

Teri Finneman: Well, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Tracy Lucht: [Laughs] I know.

Teri Finneman: So I mean you’ve given us a really, a pretty good overview already, but do you have kind of a shorter summary of the key differences you saw in how the white women were covered versus the women of color?

Tracy Lucht: Yeah. I mean, it was very clear from our findings that the white women were, um –

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I’ve, I’ve used the word “claimed,” but they were sort of treated as symbolic of a regional identity providing them with, you know, a, a path to validation for their political presence that wasn’t available for women of color. To a certain extent, we saw that for Soledad Chávez Chacón because of her Hispanic lineage, which in the specific politics of that state, that heritage was a source of political strength for her, but I think this raises a really interesting point for scholars, which is I think one thing that this study does is it shows why we need to move beyond the binary when we think about race in terms of thinking about, you know, white women –

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versus women of color and, and sort of lumping all women of color into one category. Right? I think that we really need to start doing justice to the specific experiences of people in, in all groups and looking at the nuances of those experiences, and I feel that that, that that emerged in, in this study that, that place made a difference that, you know, women of different races and ethnicities had different experiences, that white women had different experiences, and I really would love to see more literature start to tease out those nuances because I’m sure there was a lot here that Chelsea and I missed, and so I would love to see others continue this kind of work.

Teri Finneman: So we touched upon this earlier, you know, and the, the power of the media is such that narrative tropes and stereotypes –

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come to be accepted as common sense, which reinforces and perpetuates structural inequalities, and we’ve been seeing this happen since the 1800s already. And, you know, what’s also important to note is that of course the media reflects the culture of the time. Right? So this is a societal issue, not just a media issue. At the — at the same time, in the case of Nellie Ross and virtually every woman in politics, you know, they have to present themselves as tough enough for the boys club but feminine enough to still uphold dated gender norms that they’re still expected to, to, you know, enforce, which thereby boxes themselves into presenting these tropes and stereotypes themselves. So like how do we get past this?

Tracy Lucht: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think that is a really great question because in all of my research on women in the media both in terms of –

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how they are represented but also in terms of women who have sought a public presence for themselves, I have found that women themselves are very careful to present themselves in alignment with, you know, prevailing ideologies that will help gain them approval, that will help them achieve the kind of influence that they want to have. And, you know, I’ll mention here that my first book was about a woman named Sylvia Porter, who was a personal finance journalist, the first person to write about personal finance journalism, and she had this career over 60-some years and really saw that kind of, you know, prominent public presence, and I was able to see how she changed –

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the way that she crafted her image over time to try to adhere to changing norms and ideas related to gender. So I think it is really important for us to recognize that women themselves exercise some agency in how they craft their own images. Because of that, I put the onus on the storytellers, on us as journalists because it, you know, a political advertisement is, is one thing. You know, if a candidate is trying to be voted into office, obviously that candidate is going to use whatever discourses and tools they have at their disposal. Men do this, too, right, in terms of presenting a, you know, an image of masculinity that will be appealing and will help them get elected. And I do think –

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it’s the job of the storytellers to resist these stereotypes. I mean the stereotype is the easy story to tell. It’s the story that gets told over and over and over. I think that the onus is on the storytellers to look for different stories to tell, to look for ways to, I don’t know, to, to break some of the molds that, that have been so fixed for so much time. I also, and this is just, you know, me getting on a soapbox, but as, [laughs] as part of this project of reform, I would love to see political journalism get away from a focus on personalities and horse race coverage, and I would like to see more solutions journalism. I would like to see an emphasis on policies and the potential impact of those policies –

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in a way that would maybe decenter you know, a candidate’s image, and maybe that, that could help, but I’m with you that it is, this has been going on for a very long time and, and it really does need to change because it’s holding us back as a society and as a country.

Teri Finneman: And then our final question of the show is why does journalism history matter?

Tracy Lucht: That is also an excellent question, and I guess for me, I see journalism history as offering a lens through which we can examine knowledge, storytelling, and power, sort of the intersection of those three things, and by power I mean economic power, political power, cultural power. I think –

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you know, as a historian examining those things: who knew what, what knowledge was available, what was being communicated; two, who was telling which stories and how were those stories being told, and then, three, who benefited from the way that those stories were told. I think it helps us understand why things are the way they are, and I think it helps explain both how things change and also how some things, you know, seem resistant to change, as we’ve been talking about. But that’s my take on it. That’s what really fascinates me about journalism history.

Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

Tracy Lucht: Thank you for having me.

Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast.

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You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.

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