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Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries

COM Prof Caryl Rivers on women in the press

Caryl Rivers, a COM professor of journalism, will discuss women who made their mark in journalism tonight at the Gotlieb Center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In the 1960s, journalist Frances FitzGerald wasn’t content to sit at a desk and write about cooking and society gossip for the women’s pages of a U.S. newspaper. Instead, she strode into the thick of the Vietnam War to do what few other women had done — cover a war zone on the ground. She went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1972 book Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Her career and that of other groundbreaking women in journalism will be the focus of Women of the Press, today, March 20, at 5 p.m., on the fifth floor of Mugar Memorial Library. The discussion is part of the Student Discovery Seminars sponsored by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

Maria Morelli, archivist at the Gotlieb Center, will show students original letters, manuscripts, and notebooks from women journalists that are part of the center’s holdings. Also leading the discussion will be Caryl Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism and the author or coauthor of several books. Rivers contributes regularly to the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and other major U.S. newspapers.

Rivers spoke with BU Today about women in journalism, her role models, including legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas, and the challenges that women in the field continue to face.

BU Today: Which women will you talk about tonight?

Rivers: I’ll talk about Frances FitzGerald, who wrote the book Fire in the Lake. She covered the war in Vietnam and her work is especially relevant  today. FitzGerald won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, which is about how the war had torn up Vietnamese society. She wasn’t sent over by a newspaper; she was there during the war by herself. There were very few women there, so she was very much a woman in a man’s field. What’s interesting is that while everyone else was covering combat zones, she was looking at Vietnamese society, and she had the field all to herself. She carved out her own niche, which is an interesting approach. If students really want to learn what Vietnam was like, they should read Frances FitzGerald’s work.

I’ll talk about Martha Gellhorn, who was really a woman in a man’s field. She covered the Spanish civil war and what was happening in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. She was all alone and really a pioneer in the field. It was very difficult being the only woman covering those areas. She had a tough life, a lot of traveling, and really didn’t get much support.

In the early days, lots of women went independently, and only after they’d proved themselves were they hired by publications, because it was almost impossible for women to advance in newspapers unless you had a padrone. But now look at Iraq — there are women journalists in print and television, and no one is saying, “You’re a woman, you can’t cover the war.”

What enabled women to advance in journalism?

One factor was the many lawsuits in the 1970s by courageous women at the Associated Press and the New York Times. It was also due to the women’s movement — the idea that you can’t treat women as second-class citizens, and you have to open up any job to those who have the talent. Their attitude that “No, I’m not going to sit and write about social events; I’m going to cover what the guys cover.” In the 1950s and ’60s newspapers had women’s pages, and women wrote about cooking, baking, socialites, and celebrities, but in many papers they weren’t allowed to write “desirous” news.

What are some of the challenges still facing women in journalism today?

Things are much better than they were when I became a journalist in the 1960s, when there were no women Washington correspondents, no women bureau chiefs, and no women on TV giving the news. Things have changed a lot, but there’s still a glass ceiling. You won’t have any problem getting hired as quickly as men at the entry level. But women will be moving along in their career and suddenly — zap! — they don’t get a job when a man less qualified does.

Are there women in all areas of journalism now?
The biggest story in the country could be broken by women and probably win a Pulitzer Prize. All across the board we’re seeing women in positions they’ve never been in before. But we don’t see women writing opinion columns or lead stories for opinion magazines.

Why is that?

These are very highly regarded jobs, and often the young guys are the ones getting mentoring in that area and the people making the hiring decisions are white men who are looking for the person they were at 25.

Which women journalists inspired you in your career?

Marguerite Higgins, a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, was my first role model. She covered Korea and was one of few women who went in and did what guys did. Another role model was Helen Thomas, who started covering First Ladies and wasn’t allowed until later on to cover presidents. And now she’s the Helen Thomas.

Worldwide, do women journalists face the same kinds of challenges?

There are a number of organizations devoted to the problems women journalists have in some cultures. Journalists are increasingly becoming targets, like Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in Russia last year. In some cultures, as women move more into journalism they become targets because they expose things that the powers that be don’t want exposed.

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.