Diversity Essay: A Case Study of Woman Citizen

The Press as a Vehicle for Activism, Identity Formation, and Community

Sheila Webb

This essay explores how women, shut out of the public sphere, utilized print publications to garner support for their right to vote. Such publications played a critical role in organizing, in promoting arguments, in creating community among women activists, in providing an avenue for exploring a public identity, and in conveying narratives that promulgated women’s right to an equal place in the body politic. To activate each of these concepts, this essay focuses on Woman Citizen, which was published between 1917 and 1927. Woman Citizen inherited the mantle of Woman’s Journal, which had also promoted the right to vote and served as a venue in which new possibilities could be forged.

I became interested in analyzing Woman Citizen because it presented a case study of how an activist publication must adjust to altered political and cultural circumstances: The years Woman Citizen was active straddle the passage of the 19th Amendment, so the journal offers the opportunity to examine how such publications adapted to the new environment, one in which the “new woman”[1] took center stage. The narratives it had carefully nurtured to promote women’s entrance into the public sphere now had to pivot to address how women could participate in the changed landscape. The study provides a provocative conclusion because I show that narratives prominent in the run of the magazine persisted for a century and were revisited in the 2008 media framing of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.


Stuart Hall wrote that the media provide the foundation on which “groups and classes construct an image of the lives, meanings, practices and values [that] can be coherently grasped as a ‘whole.’” This “social imagery” participates in a cultural environment that is mediated by newspapers, magazines, and other media forms.[2] By the turn of the twentieth century, women had long used the press as a mechanism to organize and interact. Linda Steiner writes that women leveraged the press to advance their case: “Women’s rights advocates first focused on launching their own periodicals as mechanisms through which they could develop and elaborate arguments on behalf of both the cause and their evolving identity, and then recruit and mobilize converts.”[3] Janet Cramer’s analysis of three turn-of-the century women’s publications shows how they helped form or reinforce “notions of women’s public identity.”[4]


In 1917, Woman Citizen inherited the mantle of Woman’s Journal, which, founded in 1870, was the longest-running suffrage journal. For three years, Woman Citizen was the official journal of the National American Women Suffrage Association. During the 1920s, under the editorship of Virginia Roderick, the journal moved away from suffrage to cover business and the role of citizenship, with an approach that demanded for each woman “an equal share of the world’s duties and privileges.”[5] The goal was to be “the mirror of the life of the up-to-date intelligent woman.”[6] The featured subject was a white woman who was educated, with financial resources, or both. Women of commendable achievements were profiled. American women of other races seldom appeared, and when stories of Black or Native American women were published, it was not in the longer articles or in the profiles.


The resonance of storytelling is summed up in the phrase, “Change the narrative, change the future.”[7] An important approach in media studies is an analysis of the narrative form that news coverage takes and the role of the stories that journalists convey.[8] Narrative analysis thus provides an avenue to ascertain the larger cultural role that journalism performs. Martha Solomon notes the essential role of narratives presented in the press: “The stories about competent, successful women encouraged readers to envision new roles and activities.”[9] Magazines are perfectly suited to discharge this function.[10] My study was a narrative analysis which looked at how the stories of advancement changed over the ten-year run of the journal. I found the richest way to address the shifting narratives was to closely examine the profiles, because they provided insight into how the editors presented new roles for women by featuring and acclaiming unique achievements that they hoped would be seen as not only estimable but also as galvanizing models.

I found that the journal tried to adapt to the new landscape by adopting known, congenial views of women while at the same time promoting new, more active ones. There was not an abrupt difference in the framing of women between the early and later years, but rather a deft move from the early, necessary mention of a woman’s family role, to a later, more exclusive focus on details of a job or experience. The important influence of a male relative, along with accommodating children, was maintained. Chance was also a repeating trope, with a successful woman “discovering” or falling into her field or vocation. Often noted, but mostly unexplored by the editors, were the educational and financial resources of the featured women. Education, often from a women’s college, was routine, and the advantages afforded by domestic help were also either inferred or expressed in the text. Rarely, however, did either the subject or writer note the fact that both enhanced the opportunity for success. This approach reveals the assumptions of the editors about their white, middle-class readership.

The narratives I identified that constituted a through line for the entire run are the following: narratives that incorporated traditional motifs — of motherhood, family, and housekeeping — in new ways; narratives that cast the subject as a pioneer who overcame the boundaries of gender expectations; narratives that profiled women within the framework of the ideal American — one who succeeds through merit, hard work, and purpose; and narratives that portrayed the successful woman framing her own advancement as one that took her by surprise or was the result of a lucky break.[11]

The editors, writers, subjects, and readers of the Woman Citizen participated in a historic moment. With suffrage accomplished in 1920, the task changed to realizing the promise of the long-sought goal of full citizenship. This study examined the shifting narratives of women’s roles in a changing environment and looked at the ways in which an activist journal addressed new opportunities. The end of the journal’s run reflects on the challenge to adjust to changing social circumstances and highlights the fraught nature of how gaining the right to vote was only one step in women’s move into the public sphere. The closing of the journal signaled that the era in which women’s publications promoted women’s advancement was over, at least for 50 years. The narratives that the journal fostered did not disappear, however. They were a constant in the framing of woman politicians into the twenty-first century, seen in the coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin — discussed in relationship to their families, subject to the housekeeping trope, portrayed as pioneers, and in the case of Sarah Palin, freighted with the claim of “success by chance.”

About the Author: Sheila Webb is a professor in the Department of Journalism at Western Washington University. Her research focuses on the cultural role of magazines, the way new media has changed magazine practice, and the creation of community in the magazine form. She is a two-time winner of the AEJMC History Division’s Covert Award for the best mass communication article in 2011 and 2017.

Featured Image: “Suffrage Won — Forward March!” Woman Citizen Cover, 4 December 1920.


[1] See Linda Steiner’s discussion of the term “new woman” in “Nineteenth-Century Suffrage Journals, Inventing and Defending New Women,” in Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, ed. Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, and Brooke Kroeger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 39-53.

[2] Stuart Hall, “Culture, the Media, and the ‘Ideological Effect,’” in Mass Communication and Society, ed. James Curran, Michael Gurevitch, and Janet Woollacott (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1979), 340.

[3] Steiner, “Nineteenth-Century Suffrage Journals,” 8.

[4] Janet M. Cramer, “Women as Citizen: Race, Class, and the Discourse of Women’s Citizenship, 1894–1909,” Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs (March 1998): 1.

[5] Carrie Chapman Catt, “We March On,” Woman Citizen, April 9, 1925, 1.

[6] Woman Citizen, September 1925, 39.

[7] Sarah Jones Weicksel, AHA Today: “Changing the Narrative: ‘The State and Future of the Humanities in the United States’,” American Historical Association Perspectives on History (16 January 2018). https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2018/changing-the-narrative-the-state-and-future-of-the-humanities-in-the-united-states

[8] Steve M. Barkin, “The Journalist as Storyteller: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” American Journalism 1, no. 2 (1984): 27–33; Robert Darnton, “Writing News and Telling Stories,” Daedalus 104, no. 2 (1975): 175–194; Arthur Asa Berger, Narrative in Popular Culture, Media, and Everyday Life (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1977), 1–70; David L. Eason, “Telling Stories and Making Sense,” Journal of Popular Culture 15, no. 2 (1981): 125–9; Paul Rock, “News as Eternal Recurrence,” in The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media, ed. Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (London: Sage, 1973), 64–70.

[9] Martha M. Solomon, “The Role of the Suffrage Press in the Woman’s Rights Movement,” in A Voice of Their Own, The Woman Suffrage Press, 1840–1910, ed. Martha M. Solomon (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1991), 16.

[10] Richard Ohmann calls magazines “the first truly mass medium.” Politics of Letters (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 135–168.

[11] For a detailed discussion and examples of each of the narratives see Sheila M. Webb, “The Woman Citizen: A Study of How News Narratives Adapt to a Changing Social Environment,” American Journalism 29, no. 2 (2012): 9-26.

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