Women of the Washington Press: Politics, Prejudice, and Persistence

Women of the Washington Press: Politics, Prejudice, and Persistence

by Maurine H. Beasley

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In Women of the Washington Press, Maurine Beasley chronicles for the first time the discrimination faced by Washington women journalists from the 1830s to the present day. In the face of blatant prejudice and restrictive societal attitudes, these remarkable journalists found ways to make enormous strides, sometimes by creating their own beats.

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In Women of the Washington Press, Maurine Beasley chronicles for the first time the discrimination faced by Washington women journalists from the 1830s to the present day. In the face of blatant prejudice and restrictive societal attitudes, these remarkable journalists found ways to make enormous strides, sometimes by creating their own beats.

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Northwestern University Press
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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By Maurine H. Beasley

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2012 Maurine H. Beasley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2571-1

Chapter One


CONGRESS: We trust in heaven for three things. First—that members may give us the means to pay for this paper, perhaps three or four cents a member.... Second—that Washington may escape that dreadful scourge, the Cholera. Our third prayer is that the Union of these States may be eternal. —"Farewell," The Huntress, July 24, 1854

With these words Anne Royall, the first woman to report, edit, and publish a Washington newspaper, ended her career as the capital's first and most notorious woman journalist. She died three months later at the age of eighty-five. In her "farewell" she identified issues that have continued to concern her successors up to the present: economic survival, general conditions in Washington, and personal interest in politics emanating from the U.S. Capitol.

A slight, disputatious individual in a trademark plaid coat who carried a green umbrella, Royall pursued congressmen into the Capitol seeking both news items and subscriptions for her news papers. Those who subscribed received her flattering comments, those who did not fell prey to her pen. Yet Royall was more than a gossipmonger, and her newspapers more than scandal sheets.

A penniless widow seeking a pension based on her husband's service as a major in the Revolutionary War, she launched her first Washington newspaper, Paul Pry, to support herself at the age of sixty-one. The name came from a popular drama, but Royall used her weekly newspaper mainly to investigate wrongdoing and give her views in sharp-tongued comment. Five years later she converted it into the Huntress.

Her second newspaper featured more literary works, which could be copied readily from other publications in an era of lax copyright laws, but Royall's main interest lay in being a public watchdog. Intent on making democracy function, she terrified politicians by exposing abuses of power, such as improper use of government horses and carriages by public officials. She stood up for states' rights, opposed the Bank of the United States, and campaigned for internal improvements, sound money, free schools, free thought, free speech, and tolerance for Catholics.

Curiously, by today's standards, she supported neither an end to slavery nor woman suffrage. A penniless servant girl, she had been educated by her husband, William Royall, a Virginia aristocrat who was twenty years older than she and an ardent Freemason. He encouraged her to use his well-stocked library, and she soaked up many of his ideas, which were based on the thinking of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and other Enlightenment figures. Her husband left his estate to her, but jealous relatives managed to break the will, claiming that she and the major had cohabited before marriage. Destitute at the age of fifty-four, she accepted charity from members of Masonic orders but wanted to earn her own living.

Before Royall turned to newspapers, she wrote and peddled ten volumes of travel books, full of facts, figures, and descriptions of the places she visited throughout the new United States. Eager to see all parts of the nation, she traveled by stagecoach, collecting material for each book while selling the previous one and writing shorthand notes by candlelight in uncomfortable inns. Readable and detailed, her books remain a useful source of nineteenth-century social history.

To push her pension claim, Royall made the capital her base of operation. A vitriolic exchange with Washington youth who mocked her verbal assaults on evangelicals led to her being the first and only American ever tried and convicted under an old law of being "a common scold." Her scorn for evangelicals stemmed from her support of Masons during a period of anti-Masonic feeling in the United States spurred by some church members.

At her 1829 trial, John Eaton, Andrew Jackson's secretary of war, testified to her good character and proper conduct, although others testified to her venomous speech. She was fined ten dollars, but due to her age was spared the indignity of being placed on a stool and publicly dunked into cold water. Two newspapermen paid her fine, saying they did so to "stand up for the honor of the press."

The following year Royall settled permanently in Washington. She acquired an old printing press, hired boys to run it, and with the help of a loyal companion, Sally Stack, published pamphlets before starting her first newspaper. Her pension case dragged on for years. Finally, in 1848 an act of Congress gave her $2,400, of which Royall's legal heirs took half. After paying her debts she was left with only ten dollars. In the last issue of the Huntress she said she had nothing but thirty-one cents.

For years Royall endured ridicule as a Washington character, chastised for her vitriolic pen. Male newspaper editors of the day also engaged in personal polemics, but Royall was treated like a town freak. One biographer stated that if a man with her mental abilities had been inculcated with the same political passion, he would have been elected to Congress. Long after her death, Royall remained a comic figure in the lore of Washington journalism.

The best-known legend claimed that she followed President John Quincy Adams to the banks of the Potomac River, where he took his morning swim in the nude and sat on his clothes until he agreed to an interview. Historians doubt that this occurred, since Adams was a friend who willingly spoke to Royall and supported her pension claim, but the story still persists, testifying to the kind of journalistic zeal considered shocking in a woman of Royall's era. Royall herself gave lip service to conventional femininity, writing in a travel book, "No woman has any business with politics; there is something so masculine and opposed to female delicacy in meddling with the affairs of state that I view it with sovereign abhorrence." Her actions belied her words, but they illustrated the difficulty of integrating personal identification as a woman with the masculine world of Washington reporting.

Even at the end of the twentieth century Royall remained a contested symbol among women journalists in the capital. In 1990 the Society of Professional Journalists, a national organization, placed a plaque in the Senate Press Gallery as part of its program to mark historic sites in journalism. The plaque honored Royall as a "fearless champion of freedom of the press" and "the first woman to cover the U.S. Congress." Helen Dewar, a distinguished Washington Post reporter assigned to the Senate, objected strongly to the plaque, apparently unwilling to honor Royall as a legitimate journalist, and refused to be present for its unveiling, although she originally had been one of two women journalists chosen for special recognition at the ceremony.

By contrast the second honoree, Helen Thomas, a veteran White House reporter for UPI, spoke of Royall as a pathbreaker for women. Thomas said she was sorry to see the debunking of the "wonderful legend" of Royall sitting on the president's clothes but was glad there was "no regulation against irritating presidents with impudent questions—[otherwise] Sarah and I would be behind bars." This was a reference to Sarah McClendon, an outspoken journalist who, like Thomas, appeared regularly at presidential press conferences and strongly backed women's equality. "Women in journalism of our vintage have risen above outrageous prejudice," Thomas said, "from the blatant—'we don't hire women' pronouncements of editors in an earlier day—to the more subtle forms of discrimination today." It had taken more than a century and a half for women to move to that point.

Aside from Royall, the most remarkable nineteenth-century Washington woman journalist was Jane G. Swisshelm, a well-known abolitionist editor from Pittsburgh credited with being the first Washington woman correspondent. In 1850 Swisshelm, a small, slender woman said to have an enchanting smile, marched into the Senate Press Gallery, located in back of the presiding officer's rostrum. She was determined to claim a right to sit there, even though Vice President Millard Fillmore had tried to dissuade her. He told her the "place would be very unpleasant for a lady, and would attract attention." Since nineteenth-century ladies were supposed to be retiring in public, Fillmore in effect told Swisshelm not to make herself disreputable. Swisshelm, on the other hand, contended she was a journalist and that she simply could not hear what was going on in Congress from the noisy public gallery, where fashionable belles gossiped during history-making proceedings.

Having been hired by Horace Greeley, publisher of one of the most famous newspapers of the day, the New York Tribune, to write Washington columns, Swisshelm was determined to witness for herself how Congress would act on the issue of allowing slavery to spread to newly annexed territories. Covering Senate debate, which she apparently had difficulty hearing, she wrote in pungent prose in her second column, "They [the Senators] keep such a dingdong about 'supporting the Constitution.' One might suppose it was some miserable, decrepit old creature that was no longer able to totter on crutches but must be held on every side, and dragged along like a drunken loafer, on his road to the lock-up."

For her third column Swisshelm claimed her press gallery seat, where she got a ringside look at Sen. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drawing his pistol as Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri advanced toward him. She told her readers, "I sat in the reporters gallery, directly opposite the gentlemen, and saw it all." In her next column, which was her last, she explained that she had invaded the press gallery because of disgust with crowded conditions in the public galleries, adding, "So much for a fit of ill-temper! It has established woman's right to sit as a reporter in our legislative halls."

Yet she did not remain in the capital but returned home to Pittsburgh. Why? Because she had broken an unwritten law—that certain topics involving sex and power could be talked about, but not written about, in Washington. Swisshelm had published allegations, not in the Tribune, but in her weekly newspaper, the Saturday Visiter (a British spelling that she insisted on using), against the character of a famous statesman, Daniel Webster. She reported that he drank to excess and had African American mistresses. She knew the accusations would be too shocking to allow her to continue as a correspondent, so she left Washington, according to her autobiography, so that "Mr. Greeley should not discharge me."

Were the allegations true? In her autobiography, written thirty years later, Swisshelm wrote that she had been assured by credible sources, including Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era, Washington's abolitionist newspaper, that Webster had fathered a mulatto family. At the time, abolitionists had targeted Webster for attack because he backed the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the return of runaway slaves to their masters. Swisshelm contended it had been her moral duty to print the story, which had been widely circulated by word of mouth in Washington, even though Bailey and other abolitionists warned her against doing so, on grounds that Webster's powerful "friends would ruin her."

At the time Swisshelm's charges made their way into print, male editors, including Greeley, castigated her for making the accusations, which they reprinted with no effort to determine their veracity. Early biographers of Webster ignored them, but recent biographers have pointed to unseemly details of Webster's personal life and attached some importance to the allegations. One concluded, "reliable or not, Swisshelm did permanent harm to Webster's reputation."

Regardless of the accuracy of the allegations, it took an iconoclast to publish them. The personal conduct of political figures remained off the news agenda of almost all Washington journalists—then and for many years thereafter. As outsiders, women like Swisshelm and Royall were not bound by the same rules, but they paid a high price for being outspoken—they lost their own status by being ridiculed as unwomanly. A woman journalist did not fit the nineteenth-century ideal of the "lady," who personified what historians have identified as the "cult of true womanhood." It equated virtue with "piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity." Swisshelm refused to limit herself to this narrow role. After leaving the capital, she returned to Pittsburgh, where she gave birth to a daughter and subsequently left her husband. With her child she moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, the home of her sister, and revived a defunct frontier newspaper. Her antislavery stand so enraged an opposing editor that he led a gang of toughs in destroying her press and type. Not one to give in, she started another newspaper, the St. Cloud Democrat, and became a crusading lecturer, but not always as a liberal.

Swisshelm favored women's rights but was far from being a bleeding heart. She returned to Washington in 1863 after a national lecture tour calling for harsh treatment of Sioux Indians involved in the Dakota Rebellion the previous year. While in the capital, she nursed wounded soldiers in makeshift hospitals and was hired as one of the first woman clerks in the federal government, replacing men fighting in the Union army. She did not return to the Capitol press galleries, although she mailed reports criticizing conditions in military hospitals to her St. Cloud newspaper, which she sold to her nephew. As a well-known figure, she published a column in Greeley's Tribune begging readers to send her pickles and lemons, believed useful for fighting gangrene. Consequently, pickles and lemons soon flooded her home.

Curiously, in her autobiography, Swisshelm glossed over her journalistic career and reaffirmed traditional gender roles, devoting about a third of the volume to her service as a Civil War nurse. Assuming that her foray into the Senate Press Gallery three decades earlier had paved the way for women journalists to claim the same privileges as men, she declared she had "felt the novelty would soon wear off, and that women would work there and win bread without annoyance."

Unfortunately, for many years this did not materialize, although Swisshelm was not the only woman to act as a Washington correspondent during the Civil War. Journalism, particularly when practiced on a part-time basis, presented itself as a relatively respectable occupation for a woman. For example, Mrs. John A. Kasson, wife of a congressman from Iowa, used the name Miriam to send letters back to the Iowa State Register in Des Moines.

More remarkable was Laura Catherine Redden, a deaf poet and writer from Missouri who used the male pseudonym Howard Glyndon. Redden traveled alone by train from St. Louis to Washington in 1861 and became a correspondent for the St. Louis Republican. She wrote several columns about troop movements and battles near the capital and reported on the Lincoln White House. Redden also gathered material for a book, which contained biographies of members of the House of Representatives, although her chief interests remained writing poetry, some of which Abraham Lincoln called "very pretty," and travel articles. She made no attempt to hide her gender or deafness in Washington and communicated with news sources by giving them a tablet and pencil to write down answers to her written questions.

Another correspondent, Lois Bryan Adams, a widowed Michigan poet and editor residing in Washington, contributed letters to the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune from 1863 to 1865. Like Swisshelm, she was among the first women government clerks. Adams signed her columns L and was never identified by name in her newspaper. Her readers knew who she was, however, since she had used that pseudonym for years in her literary career. It centered on publication of her work in the Michigan Farmer, a leading regional agricultural journal. After that periodical moved to Chicago, Adams secured a job in the newly organized U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like the other women clerks she received $600 a year, exactly half of what male clerks were paid.

In her letters to the Detroit newspaper, Adams described the department in detail, along with other government agencies in wartime Washington, which she called "shabby-looking" and "very dirty" with open sewers "channeled across the pavements." In an easy, conversational style she expressed sympathy for the newly freed African American population, described the Civil War hospitals where she took relief supplies and volunteered as a nurse, and commented on women's activities, politics, and war news. In November 1865 she attacked Swisshelm, who had written a widely reprinted column disparaging women clerks, all of whom were appointed by members of Congress, as incompetent, overly dressed, and "perhaps a little piece of painted impertinence."


Excerpted from WOMEN OF THE WASHINGTON PRESS by Maurine H. Beasley Copyright © 2012 by Maurine H. Beasley. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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