“For and About Women”:
The very name of this daily and Sunday section that ran for decades in The Washington Post now draws patronizing smiles and, recently, worse. In appreciations of the late Ben Bradlee, justified praise for the snappy Style section he founded in 1969, which changed feature journalism throughout the industry, was laced with insults about its predecessor, the women’s section.
Who could ever have been so blind and bigoted as to believe that only women attended parties, had children, wore clothes, lived in homes and ate food?
Certainly not those of us who worked there. We lived with that section head because the women’s department was where the jobs were — we could see how few women were advancing elsewhere in the news business — and because it was an exciting place to work.
Nobody believes that now. Even as the history of women in journalism is being written in a newly dignified fashion, journalists themselves, including women, continue to sneer at what is referred to as the “women’s pages,” although we produced eight stand-alone sections (the eighth was a food section) every week.
It has come to be believed that we were sycophants who, with what would have been an astounding lack of journalistic ethics, put out a treacly stream of flattery at the behest of “society.”
Here is an example of For and About Women’s society coverage:
In June 1961, rumor had it that Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, for the occasion of her daughter’s debut, had hired a platoon of workers to create a French city, plus Agincourt, on their Virginia property — except that the tents, constructed for guests instead of soldiers, would be heated and decorated with impressionist paintings.
Understandably, the Mellons were not eager to flaunt this extravagance. They may have denied that it was happening, as if it were possible to conceal an enterprise of that scale, even in the countryside.
Nevertheless, when the weekend party took place, and their guests were awakening in those tents and heading for Sunday breakfast in the luxurious catering tent, all of greater Washington could know what was going on.
Nobody, not even ultra-rich philanthropists with White House connections, could tell the brilliant and fierce women’s editor, Marie Sauer, what she should or could not cover. An event of this magnitude was social news, if not social history, in what I, for one (being fresh out of college) considered to be the tradition of the Duc de Saint-Simon’s society reporting from the court of Louis XIV. During the social upheavals of the 1960s, the Mellon extravaganza was a newsworthy example of a hidden lifestyle.
So, unfazed by the denials, Miss Sauer hired a helicopter to photograph the spectacle and stationed two reporters, one of them armed, in the woods next to the Mellon estate to extract a full account from wandering guests and workers. (The gun was for the reporters’ protection, not to threaten their sources.)
Ordinarily, however, the rich complained that the women’s section all but ignored them. Power, not mere money, was the qualification for what we defined as Washington “society,” and the Mellons were of particular interest then because of their close friendship with President and Mrs. Kennedy.
Miss Sauer — we never called her anything else — would bark that the society beat was no different from the police beat and send us to White House, State Department and embassy parties to quiz the newsmakers of the day. Whenever there was a major event in town —a presidential inauguration, a demonstration, the state visit of a foreign potentate, the citywide riots of 1968 — she would dispatch teams of us around town.
As we used to say, “We don’t just cover a story; we surround it.” Our assignment was to produce sidebars that supplied the details and the participants’ motivations and moods — the color — that gave meaning to the dry news accounts that were then standard in the A section.
Miss Sauer terrified me. As a beginning reporter barely out of my teens, I had to work weekends, and thus drew a Saturday assignment that she might otherwise have given to someone more seasoned. It was a function at the State Department where President Kennedy was expected, and she ordered me to accost him to ask some nervy question. I have suppressed what the awful question was, but I do remember thinking: “Who scares me more? The president of the United States or Miss Sauer?”
I asked him the question.
Miss Sauer also stressed that a newspaper was not simply a means of communication but a physical product, and insisted that those of us under her command know how to produce it. We didn’t just write stories; we wrote headlines, sized photographs and dummied pages, and we worked with the printers, in those days of hot type, to make her eccentric but innovative page designs fit. Her oversize pictures, with wide margins of white space, drove the printers crazy, but the arresting result came to be widely imitated.
The women’s section reported the feminist revolution of the ’60s and ’70s when other parts of the paper mentioned it rarely and then only as a joke. The Women’s Strike for Peace was ridiculed as being a bunch of housewives who should have stayed home, but we took them seriously long before their actions grew into the wider youth movement protesting the war in Vietnam.
At the 1963 March on Washington, I had worked my way through the most polite crowd of demonstrations I have ever observed, before or since, to a seat on the Lincoln Memorial steps as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign following his assassination, many of us spent days in the mud of Resurrection City, the demonstrators’ campsite, extracting individual stories from those who had endured hardship to come to Washington seeking their civil rights.
Nowadays, major news articles often open with illustrative anecdotes, but then it was only the women’s department that gathered and ran them.
Did For and About Women also run foolish articles, exaggerating the glamor of its subjects? Sure, lots of them. But probably not as relentlessly as the celebrity-crazed mainstream press does now.
Truthfully, the sexism of the times gave us an advantage in gathering news that all of us on the party beat exploited. My regular assignment was embassy parties, and I would stop at the foreign desk on my way out to ask what was happening around the world that day, so that I could seek the ambassador of whichever country was in crisis, as one or another always seemed to be. Having spent business hours avoiding the press, the targeted diplomat would nevertheless answer my questions, often also supplying recklessly un-spun background information of which he supposed I was ignorant.
Inevitably, such a rich source would call the managing editor the next day, outraged at seeing his own words in print, to scream, “How was I to know that girl was a reporter?”
Yes, he would have to admit, I had identified myself as being a reporter from The Washington Post. Yes, he had noticed that I took notes while he talked. But how could anyone be expected to understand that a woman wearing a party dress was a working reporter?
Outsiders were not the only ones to think that way. One night I came back from a White House party and duly reported to the national desk that President Johnson, in his customary loose party mood, had remarked, “I may have started World War III.”
“Oh, really?” I had replied in my best social manner, whereupon he explained that he had just bombed North Vietnam for the first time.
Back at the paper, one national editor turned to another and said, “If that’s true, we ought to put a reporter on it.”
So we learned to put such findings in our own section. Meg Greenfield, who later ran the editorial page of The Post, once wrote in Reporter magazine that it was “a common saying in Washington that if the President were to declare war at the [Woman’s] National Democratic Club, The Post would run the story on the society page.” Her thesis was that to keep up with what was going on in Washington, it was necessary to read For and About Women, and she reported that President Kennedy and then-President Johnson were among our regular readers.
Yet the insults keep coming — 45 years later! — about the supposedly pathetic, laughable excuse for journalism from which Style sprang.
That smug view of the past is rather like the popular belief that Victorians were too inhibited to indulge in sex: It fails to explain how we got to where we are now.
Style was formed by combining For and About Women with the cultural section called Show. (I am still disappointed that in the debates about what to name the new section, my entry lost. I had suggested Show and Tell.) This added arts coverage to the women’s section’s subjects of after-hours political and diplomatic life, profiles, food and fashion, all newly perceived as topics of interest to everyone.
And who wrote those sassy, attention-getting stories that made Style a success? Where did The Post suddenly find smart observers and sharp writers to staff the new section?
Many were already on the payroll. We’d been there all along, putting out For and About Women.
Judith Martin was a copy girl and reporter for For and About Women before becoming a feature writer and columnist for Style, then drama and film critic of the Weekend section. She writes the Miss Manners syndicated column and books.
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