The Women’s Page: More than Meets the Eye
“In Women’s Realm,” “Society,” “People and Events,” “Over the Coffee Cups”- these are just a few of the names that denote women-centric columns in the English language newspapers within the FPRDNP. But to the contemporary user of historic newspaper archives, what does this mean and why should we care? The first of a two part series celebrating Women’s History Month, this blog post will explore the meaning and content of what historian Alice Fahs refers to as “The Woman’s Page.” To do so, I will use the Pensacola Journal exclusively due to the consistent presence of a woman edited society section in the title spanning from at least January 1905 to at the earliest December 1914, when our archives for this particular paper end.
What is a women’s column and what is its place in newspaper history? As journalism scholar Jan Whitt puts it, they “are a product of the late nineteenth century and were designed to draw a large audience for advertisers interested in marketing to women.” (38). There are multiple types of women’s pages, including separate papers for women known by the same name and single pages within broader-interest papers. While the editors of the Pensacola Journal offered both by 1909, we will concern ourselves with the columns contained within the general paper. Historian Alice Fahs claims in her book Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space that these pages have largely been overlooked by newspaper historians. This is a mistake because these “stories offer compelling insight into a lost world of women’s writings that placed women at the heart of a new public life.” (13)
Looking at the women’s section in the Pensacola Journal broadly, the reader can find a vivid portrait of the social calendar in the city. Beyond simply reporting important life events such as births, deaths, and funerals, the column also includes reports of illness, birthday parties, out of town visitors, and club meetings. Unlike the quick local news sections of the paper, the social events found on the “People and Events” page typically contain a paragraph or more description of the headline. For example, the April 3rd 1909 “Society” column devotes four paragraphs to Miss Victorine Kroenberger “a beautiful young Pensacola girl” who left home to “enter the Convent of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame” in order to become a nun. In this respect, the column provides more context for local events than the rest of the paper.
Not just a source for local news, the “Society” page in the Pensacola Journal also offers insight into national cultural concerns for women. This section of the paper houses the syndicated column “Heart and Home Problems,” written by Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, that also can be found in the Topeka State Journal (KS), Rock Island Argus (Ill.), and the Oklahoma City Times (OK) just to name a few. Beginning in 1912 and continuing through at least December 1914, these columns by Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson provide practical advice to letter writers regarding a wide variety of issues like courtship, hygiene, and their education. In many ways, her column is a precursor to those like “Dear Abby” or “Miss Manners” found in contemporary newspapers and their online counterparts.While the modern reader may expect a column like this to contain fairly traditional advice regarding gender roles, they sometimes deviated from the norm. For example, in the column below from August 1912, Mrs. Thompson says that “many splendid men have helped their wives with the housework, thinking it more dignified for a man to help his wife than it would be for him to let her become a worn-out drudge” in response to a fourteen year old’s query about being responsible for all house work because her mother is deceased.
Women’s pages also address topics related to the body both inside and out. Fashion and beauty are addressed in these columns in the form of editorials, news reports, and advertisements. For example, the Pensacola Journal contains a sub-column known as “The Journal’s Daily Fashion Feature” in many issues. This feature includes drawings and descriptions of cutting edge women’s clothing styles from around the United States and Europe. From this feature, it becomes obvious that Pensacola women in the early 20th century wanted to stay abreast of fashion trends. Beyond wanting to simply know about fashion, they valued the skills of individuals who were able to reproduce the current styles locally. For example, an article from October 7, 1906 highlights Mrs. Nordstrom’s millinery due to the fact that the store has “one of the best St. Louis milliners.” Why was it so important to report on the talent of employee Miss Nobles? Because “St. Louis is where millinery styles are made.” These women’s sections inform readers of trends and also let them know where they can procure the goods discussed.
When it comes to internal issues, women’s papers feature advertisements for products related to problems typically relegated to women such as the care of the sick and cooking. All manner of new and cutting edge products are promoted that promise improvements in health and digestion. For example, an ad by Cotolene claims women should use it to replace lard because it “makes food that any stomach can digest…and is the most healthful and economical cooking fat on the market.” With the tagline “sunshine in the kitchen,” ads for this particular cotton seed oil are a frequent sight on the “Society” page. While women are targets for ads related to feeding their families in these columns, it is clear they are also responsible for their overall health as well. An ad for “California Syrup of Figs” from October 22, 1913 begins with the phrase “Look at the tongue, mother!” before claiming that the mother would soon have “a well, playful child again” after using the product to eliminate constipation and yellow bile. Beyond the health of their families, advertisements also promise cures to obviously misunderstood maladies grouped together as “womanly troubles.” The tonic known as Carudi, for example, promises to “relieve or prevent headache, backache, side ache, dragging sensations, nervousness, irritability, irregularity, and general female weakness and misery.” Like the Cotolene ad, Carudi advertisements span the run of the section. Regardless of if they bought these products or not, women who read “Over the Coffee Cups” and its other iterations were exposed to advertising with considerable cultural subtext.
While much more can and should be said about historic women’s newspaper columns, the fact of the matter is there are easily upwards of 500 pages within just this digitized portion of the Pensacola Journal that are edited by women and deal with people and societal events. This overview barely scratches the surface of the available information in just this one title. However, I hope that after reading this blog post it is abundantly clear that even in the early 20th century, women weren’t simply passive consumers of the news. They were a demographic that is explicitly courted by the inclusion of sections like “People and Events,” “Society,” and “Over the Coffee Cups.”
Works Cited and Additional Information
Fahs, Allice. Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Jaffe, Sarah “From Women’s Page to Style Section.” Columbia Journalism Review, February 19, 2013. http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/womens_page_to_style_section.php.
Whitt, Jan. Women in American Journalism: A New History. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008.