WOMEN IN THE MEDIA
The prominent public profile of women journalists in press, radio and television in recent decades presents an extraordinary contrast to the culture of even half a century ago. It is a revolutionary change since the forerunners of women journalists appeared in print in the 19th century. The initial handful of women who wrote for newspapers in Australia usually hid their identities behind pseudonyms. The more fortunate were engaged under arrangements with some continuity for a series of articles, but most were casual contributors with little security. Most wrote for the general reader, not specifically on women’s topics.
Louisa Atkinson’s articles on the natural environment, published in the Sydney Morning Herald from 1860, were the first long-running series by a woman to be published in a major Australian newspaper. Pioneer social reformer and writer Catherine Helen Spence wrote on general-interest issues, usually under the gender-neutral name of ‘A Colonist of 1839’. Feminist Alice Henry, the first woman journalist to be taken on a staff of a metropolitan newspaper and trained on the job, was a versatile general reporter. Her description of her training on the Australasian in the 1880s is a unique record of this aspect of journalism before the start of the cadet training system.
The situation of women who wrote for the press changed in the latter part of the 19th century, when periodicals and then newspapers began to publish columns of household hints and society notes aimed at women readers. Editors saw the advantage in employing women to write and edit these columns, opening up a larger and more regular avenue of employment. The women attracted to this occupation came from wide and varied backgrounds. Some were highly educated, activist women; some had family associations with newspapers or journalism; others began with a hopeful bombardment of newspaper offices with unsolicited contributions. Women with an entrée into society circles had some advantages; others were attracted to the glamour of the slightly Bohemian, rakish aura of newspaper work. In the country, some women became proprietors/editors of family newspapers following the deaths of their husbands. In the 1890s, women journalists were sufficiently numerous to be noted in a survey of census data as being hard hit by unemployment in the depression.
Soon, most women journalists were confined to the women’s pages. For many, this meant relegation to the social columns. Social changes, including the expansion of shops into department stores and the increasing availability of new household equipment and ready-made clothing, ensured an increase in advertising revenue to support women’s pages at a time when suffrage campaigns and other women’s issues were making women more newsworthy. Women’s page material reinforced the image of the traditional homemaker. Ironically, it was written by journalists who as working women led very different lives. Some periodicals aimed at women readers—notably Louisa Lawson’s the Dawn (1888–1905), with an all-female workforce, Maybanke Wolstenholme’s Woman’s Voice (1894–95) and Vida Goldstein’s Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900–04)—articulated the feminist issues and social problems missing in women’s page journalism. In the Worker, (Dame) Mary Gilmore offered her distinctive brand of wisdom and advice, ingrained with feminist and socialist values.
Women’s sections in newspapers and periodicals built up small empires. The highly qualified Stella Allan (‘Vesta’), head of the Argus women’s section, had a staff of five by 1925. Although women journalists were paid at the same rate as men, this was largely negated as they were overwhelmingly employed on lower grades.
The employment of women journalists in this confined field entrenched the view that this work was not only particularly suited to women, but was the only journalistic work they were capable of doing. A few determined and able women managed to break through barriers. Louise Mack, a former editor of the Bulletin’s women’s page, became the first British female war correspondent when she managed to get to the front to report the fighting in Belgium in 1915. Abigail Clancy is believed to have been the first female parliamentary reporter in Australia when she was assigned to report the NSW Parliament for the Daily Mail in 1923. Kathleen Commins joined the Sydney Morning Herald’s previously exclusively ‘male, clubby world’ of sports writers in 1934 at a time when most other women journalists were a discrete group clustered in the women’s section. These achievements were exceptional and either episodic or, in Commins’ case, partly overturned when after a short time she was moved to the women writers’ room although she continued to report on male as well as female sport.
Moves by women into general reporting rounds were resisted. In 1921, male court reporters opposed women reporting the criminal courts, ostensibly to spare them from hearing ‘revolting and degrading indecencies’, although there is evidence that the real objection to women entering a previously all-male section of the profession was a perceived threat to gradings and wage rates. The Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA, later the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) did little to tackle this situation.
The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933– ) opened up a slightly wider range of employment for women journalists. Despite the widespread prejudice that women’s voices were too ‘high pitched’ and lacking in ‘authority’ to be effective on air, by the mid-1930s a few women were employed to present daytime chat shows aimed at women radio listeners. Mary Marlowe hosted a popular show at 2UE Sydney, and from the late 1930s and into the war years Elizabeth Webb attracted a substantial following with her Speaking Personally program on ABC Radio.
World War II expanded opportunities for women in general reporting as male journalists left to join the armed services. A few became war reporters, led by Adele (Tilly) Shelton Smith, who reported from Malaya for the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1941; Lorraine Stumm, who reported the Japanese attack on Rabaul; and Elizabeth Riddell, who covered the Allied invasion of Europe and the liberation of Paris. In 1942, the ABC recruited a few women as journalists and newsreaders to its independent news service, and in 1943 there was a breakthrough in another area when Pat Holmes joined the Sydney Sun as a photographer. Towards the end of the war, the AJA paper, the Journalist, carried an indecisive discussion on whether women would retain their positions when men returned from the war. Although some did, most of the gains were lost. By 1948, the ratio of female to male journalists on the Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial staff had fallen to one in 13, appreciably lower than before the war. At the ABC, it would be three decades before a fulltime woman newsreader would be appointed.
In the 1950s, women not only made up a small percentage of the journalistic workforce, but most were still employed on the women’s pages, which mirrored the most conservative, conformist aspects of post-war society. An Argus journalist described the 1950s as an era when reporting innocuous social news was ‘the bread and butter of women journalists’ work’. In the 1960s, a few women’s page editors ventured cautiously into controversial subjects such as equal opportunity in employment, while Charmian Clift’s enormously popular weekly columns in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Herald indicated how much women readers craved a more meaty brand of social commentary.
A few women journalists were recruited into specialist fields—the West Australian, for example, engaged Catherine Martin as a medical reporter. A few secured jobs reporting parliament and the courts, and there were more jobs in the expanding areas of suburban and country newspapers, specialist publications and government publicity. It was not until the later 1960s, however, that Margaret Jones became the first woman to be taken on the general reporting staff of the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC recruited its first female journalism cadet. Into the 1970s, the Journalist still consistently portrayed journalists as male, and the AJA executive remained an all-male body.
On radio, the flamboyant newspaper columnist Dorothy Jenner (‘Andrea’) in Sydney and Claudia Wright, a trailblazer for talkback radio in Melbourne, established popular programs, but their experiences—either being taken off the air or coming under unrelenting attack—indicated that women who adopted confrontational attitudes were unacceptable. The Macquarie Network had a better record than other commercial radio networks or the ABC in employing women announcers, but only a very few secured popular timeslots as management persisted in the view that women’s voices were most suited to midnight-to-dawn sessions. Old debates about women’s ‘high-pitched’ voices reignited in the talkback era, effectively cutting women out of this field.
When television began, women were employed more readily than in the early days of radio, but invariably they were young and attractive, and employed as hostesses. With few exceptions, current affairs programs and news presentation remained male preserves through most of the 1960s. The most promising portent occurred in 1968 when Caroline Jones joined the ABC’s This Day Tonight in Sydney as its first regular female reporter.
Widespread social changes and the influence of the women’s liberation movement made the 1970s a turning point for participation of women in the media. There were dramatic changes in both the role of women in the media and the material that the media presented to women. The old staples of women’s reportage disappeared as the pages changed to more sexually neutral lifestyle sections with a wider social issues agenda. The Sydney Morning Herald’s women’s editor, Suzanne Baker, was termed a ‘campaigner’ when she introduced some of the excitement of the revolution women were experiencing in her material, and her publicising of controversial subjects was deemed ‘not the purpose of the women’s pages’. But by the end of the decade, old-style women’s pages had virtually disappeared.
Newly liberated women journalists moved to previously out-of-bounds areas. Several, including the feminist Anne Summers, joined the National Times as investigative journalists writing on previously avoided or under-reported subjects, such as rape and prison reform. Others were employed as financial journalists on the Australian Financial Review, with editor Vic Carroll believing the talents of women journalists had been under-used in the past. In 1975, Canberra Times journalist Gay Davidson became the first woman to head a bureau in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, and she was later the first woman president of the Gallery. Ita Buttrose, after a career as founding editor of Cleo and editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly, became the first editor-in-chief of a metropolitan newspaper when she was appointed to head the Sydney Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in 1981. Young women, observing the industry changing from its former status as a male bastion, began to flock to the new journalism courses.
The radical Australian Women’s Broadcasting Cooperative’s Coming Out Show (1975–94), launched on ABC Radio to mark International Women’s Year, typified the assertiveness of second-wave feminism, prompting the establishment of a Task Force on Equal Opportunity for Women in the ABC. The report revealed that an overwhelming 90 per cent of women employed at the ABC were working in low-status support jobs, and that major barriers to breaking down the sexual division of labour included the discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes of management and staff. Only 7 per cent of journalists and an even smaller percentage of announcers and television producers were women. In 1975, one of the few announcers, Margaret Throsby, became the first woman since World War II to read a full-length main evening ABC Radio news bulletin and in 1978 she was the first woman to read the 7 p.m. ABC News on television.
Over the next few decades, women became commonplace across the spectrum of reporting and presenting, with some achieving senior gradings and a few high-profile appointments. In 1991, Lyndall Crisp was appointed the first female editor of the Bulletin. Two years later, Michelle Grattan became the first woman to edit a major daily newspaper when she was appointed to the Canberra Times and Carmel Travers was made Network Ten’s general manager of news and current affairs. In the same year, a federal government report on the portrayal of women in the media found that there was entrenched inequality in the Australian news media, which continued to lag behind women’s lifestyle and economic power. Only 23 per cent of news and current affairs reporters were female.
A survey on the status of women working in the media and issues affecting their role, conducted by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) in 1996, found that many media industry structures were fundamentally unequal and patriarchal. Most women remained in the lower grades, pigeon-holed in traditionally female areas such as women’s issues and fashion and to lesser extent in health, the arts, entertainment and education, rather than politics and sport. Nearly one-quarter of respondents had left a job in the media because they felt they were discriminated against in promotion. Opportunities for promotion were affected by child-care responsibilities, which made it difficult to work shifts. The survey found half the respondents had experienced sexual harassment in newsrooms.
In the 21st century, the presence of women anchors of prestigious current affairs programs on radio and television, and as writers on the opinion pages of Australian newspapers, is an enormous advance on their small almost insignificant presence in the newsrooms of the middle of the last century. Although sometimes a token presence on pages otherwise dominated by male writers and sometimes assigned in all media to ‘softer’ areas, many women have made a mark reporting politics, war and public affairs. Women are well established as political commentators; the press, the ABC, commercial radio and commercial television regularly post women as foreign and war correspondents; and women have presented ABC Media Watch— arguably ‘the toughest gig’ on television.
The public profile of notable women tends to disguise the fact that women journalists struggle to attain real influence in decision-making roles. Few reach influential leadership positions, with power over recruitment and promotion. Content is still determined predominantly by men, a situation that has implications for sexual bias in the presentation of news and opinion. In 2013, none of the major metropolitan newspapers was edited by a woman, and Cathy O’Connor, head of DMG Radio, was the sole female chief executive of a major Australian media company. Since the 1980s, females have greatly outnumbered males in tertiary journalism courses, yet women employed in the media are still found disproportionately in low- and middle-range positions, and work in a culture that is still described as ‘blokey’.
A new national organisation, Women in Media, launched in 2013 by a group of senior women journalists, aims to overcome this culture by empowering women working in the industry through mentoring younger and mid-career women, providing networking opportunities and promoting improved workplace outcomes. Based on a successful Women in Media group established in Western Australia, it has the support of industry leaders including Caroline Jones, former Sydney Morning Herald editor Amanda Wilson, media academic Jenna Price and television, radio and print journalist Tracey Spicer, as well as the MEAA.
REFs: P. Clarke, Pen Portraits (1988); K.S. Inglis, This the ABC (1983) and Whose ABC? (2006); C.J. Lloyd, Profession: Journalist (1985).