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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 2
December 2006   

Jean Lutes on the antics and aspirations of women reporters

Have you ever wanted something so desperately that you would be willing to lock yourself up with murderers and other felons and pretend to be one of them, in order to come away with an original story? That is exactly what Nelly Bly, aspiring newspaper reporter, did in 1887 to gain respect as a female journalist. This intriguing story and others kept the audience mesmerized as Jean Lutes, assistant professor of English, talked about her new book, Front Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction, 1880–1930, in the Falvey Memorial Library first floor lounge on November 8.

For Lutes, writing about female journalists comes naturally. She began by majoring in journalism and, after graduation, landed a job as a staff writer for the Miami Herald. During her stint as a reporter, Lutes covered many interesting stories, including one about a man who shot himself outside a Miami hospital on Christmas Eve in order to donate an organ to his brother who lay dying inside.

But Lutes grew tired of the quick turnaround required in meeting newspaper deadlines and longed to write about subjects that required “careful thinking.” She returned to academia and earned a doctorate in English from the University of Wisconsin.

Lutes didn’t limit her book talk to telling interesting news stories; she also discussed the physical representation that was an essential part of being a successful female journalist. She asked her audience to consider how nineteenth-century female journalists were perceived in both the public sphere and in the papers. She pointed out that often reporters were represented in photographs or in by-lines that accompanied their articles.

As part of the desire to exceed their boundaries as women, to be on the frontlines of newspaper reporting, women needed to be willing to use their bodies for publicity purposes. Offering the public a bodily image helped to increase reader interest and reinforce the women’s roles as “stunt reporters.” These reporters often appeared twice in the public eye: first as a live reporter covering an event in person and, second, as an image accompanying her article.

Nelly Bly survived her ten-day stay at the insane asylum on Blackwell Island, New York, and even sent a series of stories, a day at a time, out to the New York World for publication. These stories not only made her famous but also encouraged other women stunt reporters to risk their lives for the sake of a good story.

As Lutes noted, not all women reporters were interested in performing stunts to capture a story. She concluded her talk by relating the story of Elizabeth Jordan, the newswoman who covered the Lizzie Borden trial. Borden, from Fall River, Massachusetts, was on trial in 1893 for killing her father and stepmother with an axe. Not wanting to receive differential treatment, Jordan sat in the courtroom alongside the male reporters assigned to cover the trial.

She was not interested in sensationalism, just clear, precise reporting, and her presence in the courtroom influenced members of the jury. Jordan’s stories, like those of her male counterparts, were sympathetic to Lizzie Borden’s case, but the public made a connection between the well-groomed, professional Jordan and Borden, who was being tried for murder. For this, Jordan became known as the newswoman responsible for saving Lizzie Borden from the electric chair.

As Lutes proved, not all women reporters were willing to sacrifice their safety for the sake of a good story. However, breaking into the field of journalism was a top priority for all.

Contributed by Laura Hutelmyer, photograph by Natalie Tomasco