Diversity Essay: The Women’s Pages at American Black Newspapers

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Kimberly Voss

The “most radical advice columnist” of the 1920s could be found in the women’s pages of the prominent Black Chicago Defender newspaper. Few topics were off limits for “Princess Mysteria.”[i] She addressed abortion, rape, and the workforce—at a time when the media rarely covered these topics.

Vauleda Hill Strodder wrote under the penname of “Princess Mysteria.” She had performed on the vaudeville circuit as a mind reader; that name recognition and her expertise led her to become an advice columnist. She authored “Advice to the Wise and Otherwise” for the Chicago Defender from 1921 to 1930.[ii] Her columns reflected current events and societal expectations.

For example, a reader named “Dinah” of Washington, D.C., wrote to Princess Mysteria in July 1921. A few months before, Dinah had been in an accident and lost both of her legs. She wrote that she was engaged to the “perfect gentleman” who had begun to drink alcohol heavily. He said that he drank because of her loss. She wondered what she should do. Mysteria responded: 

Yours is a pathetic situation, and all of my sympathy is with you. Your intended husband is wrong to show a weakness for alcohol in order to display his sorrow for your loss. A drunkard will not make a husband for any woman. You have lost enough. Don’t lose all.[iii]

Historian Julie Golia, who studied numerous advice columns for her book, Newspaper Confessions, noted that Mysteria’s responses were rather short, but she packed a lot into those sentences. Mysteria championed forgoing a potentially unhappy marriage for a more respectable path. Golia’s interpretation of Mysteria’s advice is that the columnist valued independence. She wrote: “This guy is not worth your time. He has an unfixable flaw. Tied up in that is the respectability politics that were really prevalent in the Defender at that time.”[iv] This advice in a Black newspaper was different from that found in other newspapers, according to Golia:

If this had been in a mainstream white newspaper, I think most columnists would have advised her to stay with the guy, and would have put the responsibility on her to fix him, maybe pointed out how unattractive of a marriage prospect she had become because she had lost both of her legs. They might have emphasized the fact that he was a perfect gentleman, that he had a good job.

Women’s Pages in Black and White

The similarities and differences between Black newspaper women’s pages and metropolitan women’s pages deserve study to better understand women’s roles in journalism. Prior to the 1970s, most female journalists were restricted to the women’s pages of metropolitan newspapers. The content of these sections was largely based on women’s roles as wives and mothers, along with large doses of high society news.

At times, the sections were characterized by the four F’s: family, fashion, food, and furnishings—or what is often called soft news. In many media histories, soft news is often overshadowed by front-page news. The difference had big implications in the industry. Media historian Kay Mills wrote that “hard news and soft news were by no means gender-free terms. Instead, they evoked rich gender implications.”[v] Recent research has shown that the soft news content of the women’s page was more complex than previously thought.[vi]

Black newspapers, particularly the women who worked at them, are worthy of additional study. The four F’s of women’s news were similar, yet there were the additional aspects of civil rights coverage. There is already significant scholarship to build on.[vii] In addition to Princess Mysteria, Mattie Smith Colin, Freddye Scarborough Henderson, and Evelyn Cunningham are among the Black women journalists who are worthy of study. Below is an introduction to these three women. 

Mattie Smith Colin

Mattie Smith was the fashion editor at the Chicago Defender. She was born in Chicago and was a graduate of Chicago Public Schools. She studied journalism at Roosevelt and Northwestern Universities. “She was the kind of person that understood the importance of being well-informed, so journalism was a natural fit,” said her cousin Anne Fredd. In 1950, Colin was hired by the Chicago Defender, largely considered to be the nation’s most influential Black weekly newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its readership outside of Chicago. Colin was best-known for reporting from a Chicago train station in 1955 on the return of Emmett Till’s body. Colin captured the anguish of Till’s mother as her young, Black son, slain in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman, was returned to Chicago.

Freddye Scarborough Henderson 

Freddye Scarborough Henderson was born in Louisiana in 1917; she earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics from Southern University and a degree in fashion merchandising from New York University in 1950.  From 1944 to 1950, Henderson owned a dress shop in Atlanta. In 1950 Henderson became a fashion editor for the Associated Negro Press and wrote a fashion column that ran in many American Black newspapers. She married Jacob R. Henderson in Georgia in 1941. Later, Henderson and her husband created the Henderson Travel Service located in Atlanta. They worked with civil rights leaders such as Andrew Young and Martin Luther King, Jr., to arrange safe travel for African Americans.

Evelyn Cunningham

Evelyn Cunningham worked as a journalist for more than two decades at the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black weekly newspaper with a national circulation. She started in 1940 and largely worked out of the New York office. Her colleagues nicknamed her “Big East,” because of her height—5-foot-11 in heels—and her personality. She penned a popular column in the newspaper called “The Women,” which included a mix of topics including fashion and sports. Early on in her career, she said: “I was covering women’s things—club meetings, tea parties, weddings, engagements—strictly that, strictly that.”[viii] She also became known as the “lynching editor,” because of her reporting on the killings in the segregated South. For several years in the 1960s, she had a radio show on WLIB in New York called “At Home With Evelyn Cunningham.” Cunningham campaigned for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and she accepted a position on his staff. Later, she became a member of the Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities in 1969. Cunningham married four times; she outlived her final husband by a year. In a New York Times profile, she said: “Each one of my husbands tried to diminish my independence and my work. They all loved me most while I was cooking — and I am not a good cook.”[ix]

Notes

[i] Rebecca Onion, “The Most Radical Advice Columnist of the 1920s,” Slate, May 16, 2021, https://slate.com/human-interest/2021/05/princess-mysteria-radical-advice-1920s.html.

[ii] Julie Golia, Newspaper Confessions: A History of Advice Columns in a Pre-Internet Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[iii] Onion, “The Most Radical Advice Columnist of the 1920s.”

[iv] Golia, Newspaper Confessions, 86, 88.

[v] Kay Mills, A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Pages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

[vi] See Jan Whitt, Women in American Journalism: A New History (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 37-61; Kimberly Wilmot Voss, “Vivian Castleberry: A Case Study of How a Women’s Page Editor Lived and Translated the News of a Social Movement,” Southwest Historical Quarterly (Spring 2007): 514-532; Kimberly Wilmot Voss and Lance Speere, “A Women’s Page Pioneer: Marie Anderson and Her Influence at the Miami Herald and Beyond,” Florida Historical Quarterly (Spring 2007): 398-421; Kimberly Wilmot Voss, “Forgotten Feminist: Women’s Page Editor Maggie Savoy and the Growth of Women’s Liberation Awareness in Los Angeles,” California History (Spring 2009): 48-64; Allison Robinson, “The Women’s Pages: A Hard Look at ‘Soft News’” New York Historical Society, December 21, 2021, www.nyhistory.org; Marion Marzolf, Up From the Footnote (New York: Hasting House, 1970); Mei-ling Yang, “Women’s Pages or People’s Pages: The Production of News for Women in the Washington Post in the 1950s,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (Summer 1996): 364.

[vii] See Candi Carter Olson, “’Try to Lift Someone Else as We Climb’: 120 Years of the Women’s Press Club of Pittsburgh and the Women’s Movement” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2013); Rodger Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History (University Press of Kentucky, 1994); Pamela E. Walck and Emily Fitzgerald, “Finding the ‘Cullud’ Angle: Evelyn Cunningham, ‘The Women,’ and Feminism on the Pages of the Pittsburgh Courier,” Journalism History (Dec. 2020): 339-357; Lauren Anderson, “Black Women in the 1920s Newspapers and Journals,” Society for U.S. Intellectual History, April 25, 2012, https://s-usih.org/2012/04/black-women-in-1920s-newspapers-and/.

[viii] Papers of Evelyn Cunningham, Penn State University Libraries, https://libraries.psu.edu/about/collections/few-good-women/evelyn-cunningham.

[ix] Daniel Lovering, “Evelyn Cunningham, Civil Rights Reporter, Dies at 94,” New York Times, April 29, 2010.

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