Lately I’ve been reading about women journalists in the 19th century. Specifically I wanted to find one who could make a cameo appearance in my novel in progress. And, well, like they say about potato chips, you can’t stop at just one. What a cast of fascinating characters they were! Lydia Starr McPherson, the one I chose to attend a press reception with my protagonist, Sophie Robillard Caldwell is a woman worthy of a novel of her own, and right here and now I am calling dibs. Born in Ohio in 1827, Lydia moved to Iowa with her family at age 12 and began teaching in Ashland, Iowa at age 17. At 22 she married David Hunter and the couple had five children. When David died, Lydia moved her family to Caddo Indian territory (now Oklahoma) where she married Granville McPherson, owner of the Oklahoma Star. Writing under the name Urania, she co edited the paper until McPherson moved the family to Blanco, here in the Texas hill country where he died. In 1878 Lydia moved to Whitesboro, Texas and established the weekly Democrat, the first Texas newspaper to be owned and operated by a woman. A year later, she was invited to move her operation to Sherman,Texas where in 1881, her paper became the Sherman Democrat, an influential daily. Lydia was one of 3 female members of the Texas Press Assocaition, a delegate to a national newspaper convention, and honorary commissioner of the New Orleans World Exposition in 1885. She contributed to a number of magazines, traveled throughout the west, and in 1892 published Reullura, a collection of poems. Her sons owned and operated the Sherman Democrat until 1920.
Nellie Bly was the pen name of 19 year old Elizabeth Cochrane , shown here– who first worked for the Pittsburgh Dispatch and later went to Mexico where she sent back travel dispatches while secretly searching for missing Americans. Known for her daring, sensationalistic stories, Nellie was often labeled a “muckraker” for her stories of harsh living conditions among the insane and the poor.
Elizabeth Jordan (1865-1947) wrote thousands of articles, served as assistant Sunday editor of the New York World, edited Harper’s Bazaar, and penned 28 novels and story collections. Best known for her coverage of the Lizzie Borden trial in 1893, Elizabeth claimed to have elicited a confession from Lizzie, who was acquitted in the ax murder of her parents–a confession that was published after the verdict. Elizabeth wrote that women made better journalists because their sympathetic natures allowed them to more easily find the truth, and therefore offer readers a more objective view.
A career as a newspaperwoman in the 19th century was not an easy one. A woman who found a job in a newspaper office was often relegated to writing household hints, giving advice to the lovelorn and answering reader mail. Those like Lydia, Nellie, and Elizabeth who traveled and took on social issues, and published fiction and poetry were women of exceptional talent and fortitude. Writing about female journalists, Elizabeth Jordan summed it up best: “She will need…a spirit which no amount of discouragement can break.”
As a high school and university student, I edited my school’s newspapers and loved every minute of it. My hat is off to women like these three who paved the way.