As we celebrate Women’s History month, we should pay homage to a resolute group of women who deserve recognition during Sunshine Week, another March event. Sunshine Week calls attention to journalists who courageously brought to light information that governmental and other authorities prefer to keep hidden. Their notable ranks include women who have insisted for nearly two centuries on their right to cover the nation’s capital in spite of prejudice against their gender.
Three decades before the Civil War, Anne Royall, an impoverished widow, started her own newspaper, Paul Pry, in Washington. As the name implied, she had no hesitancy in exposing abuses of power such as unauthorized use of government horses and carriages by public officials.
Ridiculed as unwomanly and argumentative, Royall eked out a meager living as a Washington journalist for nearly a quarter-century, ending her career in 1854 with a prayer that “the Union of these States may be eternal.” She had only fifty-four cents when she died at the age of 85.
Her successors also encountered hostility on grounds they had no place in the man’s world of political reporting. In 1850, Jane G. Swisshelm, the first woman journalist to insist on sitting beside men in the Capitol press galleries, had to give up her seat because she dared publish unseemly details of the private life of Daniel Webster, one of the most famous senators of his day.
Women did not actually find a place in the press galleries until the suffrage campaign that culminated in women getting the vote in 1920, but even then they were not always welcome.
Although women replaced men in Washington journalism during World War II, when it ended editors resumed hiring practices that relegated many women journalists to social reporting.
Relatively few women had access to news that told the public about the activities of its officials. In the 1950s, however, Maxine Cheshire, a social reporter for The Washington Post, investigated Mamie Eisenhower’s acceptance of gifts from foreign governments. Cheshire was among 10 Washington women journalists profiled in a 1972 Cosmopolitan article headlined “The Witches of Washington,” which pictured its subjects as competitive and unfeminine in their pursuit of news. Women were refused membership in the prestigious National Press Club until 1971, and allowed to cover speeches of officials there only by sitting in a hot, crowded balcony, while men reporters took notes and dined in comfort below.
When federal equal employment legislation took effect in the 1960s and 1970s, women journalists got new opportunities to cover the same assignments as men. But they still encountered barriers, including sexual harassment. Eileen Shanahan, an economics writer for the New York Times from 1966 to 1977, described flagrant examples of harassment on Capitol Hill in an oral history interview. She cited an instance in which a senator directed her to his “hideaway” office to get an important economics report and “actually tore a button off my blouse trying to get at me.” She fought him off, but remembered to pick up the report as she left.
Today, women are estimated to represent about half of the Washington press corps and have proved themselves capable of carrying on the highest traditions of journalism. For example, Dana Priest of the Washington Post is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Along with Anne Hull, she exposed the degraded living conditions for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center, which led to the resignation of top officials and improvements in health care for veterans.
She previously uncovered secret overseas prisons that the Central Intelligence Agency used for interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Somewhat akin to Anne Royall nearly two centuries earlier, Priest is motivated to bring an abuse to light as a way of ensuring that democracy continues. In a television interview on secret prisons, Priest said, “We tried to figure out a way to get as [much] information to the public as we could without damaging national security.”
Women have fought hard and responsibly for the opportunity to report significant news from Washington.
• Beasley is professor emerita at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland College Park. She is the author of “Women of the Washington Press: Politics, Prejudice, and Persistence” (Northwestern University Press, 2012). This article is produced in partnership with OpenTheGovernment.org for Sunshine Week.