Stand on our shoulders
Yes, I am an opinionated woman. And ever since the first time I was called a name by a reader who disagreed with my column, I’ve been proud of my profession.
Turns out, I’m in good company. “Opinionated Women in the Land of Steady Habits” is a recently published compendium of columns by 63 women writing for daily newspapers in Connecticut through the years. Three of my columns are in the book, and it’s not because the editor, James Herbert Smith, is my husband.
The day Smith’s first daughter was born in 1969, he became a feminist.
“In my mind and heart that day I pledged that no boy, no man, was going to stand in the way of my daughter’s ambitions and desires, and American society would have to change to accommodate a new generation of girls who could become the women they wanted to be,” he wrote in the introduction to “Opinionated.” A national award-winning journalist for more than four decades, he is now retired and this is his fifth published book.
It took a long time for American society to change.
Not long ago, women who wanted to be journalists typically landed in the features department of newspapers. This used to be considered the “soft” news in newspapers, such as recipes or plays. The “hard” news of politics and crime were for men. But some strong women made their mark. In 1831 in the Hartford Courant, Lydia Huntley Sigourney wrote an impassioned plea to beautify schoolhouses: “Why need the structure where the young are initiated into those virtues which make life beautiful, be divorced from taste or devoid of comfort?” Hers is the earliest voice in “Opinionated.” She became a successful poet and a street in Hartford was named for her.
For most women in the early feminism days of the 1970s it was difficult to find female opinionator role models in daily newspapers.
Think about it — the first female columnist in the Colonies wasn’t even a woman! In 1722 The New-England Courant published 14 letters by a widow with a gift for satire called Silence Dogood. “She” was developing a following (and a few marriage proposals) until the publisher, James Franklin, discovered Silence Dogood was the pen name of his 16-year-old brother, Benjamin, an apprentice in the shop. Upon discovery, Ben Franklin bolted for Philadelphia.
“Silence” is an antithesis to the women in the book who were not only finding their voices, but also daring to influence opinion.
Irene Driscoll, who I know, was on the leading edge. Her 1974 column, “Her Sex Still a Quiet Issue,” takes on reactions to the possibility of the first female governor elected in her own right.
“Although she downplays its significance, it has not gone unnoticed that Ella Grasso, Democratic candidate for governor, is a woman,” Irene begins. She scolds for the attention placed on Grasso’s clothing style when “no similar critique of (Bob) Steele’s style of dress has cropped up. His polyester suits and white shoes escaped all but the most fleeting commentary.”
Would a male columnist draw attention to the unequal treatment of candidates for the state’s highest office? Let’s just say it is harder to notice an inequality when you’re in the majority. It was important for women to attain positions throughout the newspaper and to add their voices.
After the riveting Watergate reporting by Woodward and Bernstein that toppled a presidency, women were just as inspired as were men to pursue the ideals of journalism.
In 1978 I started on my path as a correspondent in the Hartford Courant’s Groton bureau, earning a whopping 35 cents an inch for a story and $3 to cover a meeting. I wrote long and went to lots of meetings. When I had my first page-one byline, on the Eastern and Western Mashantucket Pequots, I was hooked.
But it would take many years to move from writing objective news to writing opinion. Barbara C. White, the editor of the Record-Journal in Meriden, encouraged me in 1992 to write restaurant reviews, which was great fun but harder than you would think. Although Mrs. White wrote exquisite reviews, her columns in the “Opinionated” book are on other matters. She writes of lesbian and gay friends, of the need for open government and of her brother’s addiction to cigarettes. That column begins this way: “He came for the flavor; last week he died for the taste.”
While the #MeToo movement has empowered women to speak up about sexual abuse, female columnists grappled with the issue earlier. Bethe Dufresne, with whom I worked at The Day in New London, wrote in 2006 of a Coast Guard Academy cadet’s court martial for “extorting sexual favors.” “There are so many sad things about this trial but the saddest of all, to me, is that it seemed to send a message that women want the freedom to act as recklessly as men, yet at the same time be protected from our own unique consequences. Don’t get me wrong: We women have every right, or at least the same right, to get drunk, have casual sex or make complete fools of ourselves, and none of this entitles men to do with us as they please.”
Some of the many columns in “Opinionated Women” are shocking — such as the mother arrested for enjoying breastfeeding her baby — others are humorous or touching or provocative. Many are by writers at Hearst Connecticut newspapers, such as Jane Stern, Mary Ellen Fillo, Linda Tuccio-Koonz, Angela Carella and the late Lisa Chedekel.
With our rising voices, comes the criticism and name calling. We have to be able to take it. “Feminazi” is the epithet that made me take a deep breath — and stand taller.
The American society of equality Smith envisioned for his first daughter is getting closer. To the upcoming opinionated women we say: Stand on our shoulders.
Jacqueline Smith is an editorial page editor with Hearst Connecticut Newspapers. Email her at email@example.com.