Maurine Beasley on Women in Media
Maurine Beasley knows a little something about women and the media.
Sure, she’s been one herself for five decades, including her time as a reporter for The Washington Post and The Kansas City-Star. But Beasley is also widely regarded as the top-notch, go-to historian on the subject. Her many books includeTaking Their Place, a major documenary history of women in media;The New Majority, a pioneering effort to explore gender trends and changes among journalism students and professionals; and First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership of the Media Age. First Ladies details how presidential wives managed journalists, and, despite its emphasis on the modern moment, it is a natural extension of Beasley’s longstanding interest in Eleanor Roosevelt.
Beasley was the first woman tenured at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she’s taught for more than three decades. In 1993, she won the university’s “Outstanding Woman Award.” She earned a Ph.D. in American civilization from George Washington University, an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University, and undergraduate degrees in history and journalism from the University of Missouri.
Think that’s all? Not quite. Beasley also served president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, president of the American Journalism Historians Association and president of the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Unsurprisingly, she received the SPJ chapter’s Distinguished Service Award in 1994.
Here’s Maurine Beasley:
How did you find your way to a career as a journalist and an educator?
I got two degrees as an undergraduate—one in history and one in journalism. I wasn’t sure what path I wanted to pursue, but in the period I was in college (the 1950s), women did not go to graduate school very frequently. I would not have gotten a master’s degree in journalism except for the fact that a male staff member at The Kansas City Star where I worked for about three years, encouraged me to apply to Columbia University and actually helped me write the application. I’ll always be grateful to him. After Columbia I worked for about 10 years at The Washington Post, but I was going to school at night the whole time at George Washington University. I started to get a second master’s degree—in American studies with a specialty in social and cultural history—but discovered due to a chance comment from another student—that I could transfer to the Ph.D. program. I found out that the only difference between getting as master’s and a Ph.D. was 200 pages—the master’s thesis was 100 pages and the Ph.D. dissertation 300! I never expected to teach but by the time I had finished the Ph.D. I had left The Washington Post. My G.W. advisor, a wonderful African American woman, Letitia Brown, suggested that I teach.I started at the University of Maryland past-time in 1974 and have been here ever since. Obviously, I believe strongly in the importance of mentors.
You’ve spent much of your career documenting the history of women in journalism. Can you describe where we are today, in terms of women working in media? How has history led us to this point?
Women have been involved in the creation and production of news and various media products since colonial times. American journalism would not be what it is today without the work of women, but through the years they often have been viewed, like minorities, as questionable presences. They have been judged by a male standard and sometimes found wanting. Today you have women at the very top—as the managing editor of The New York Times, for example—but too many women are concentrated in the lower ranks and tend to move out rather than up (again with exceptions). Since women have rarely been seen as equal to men in society, it’s probably not surprising that women have their own media (magazines owned by men at the corporate level) that promote a brand of exaggerated femaleness. Society isn’t sure of the place of women and is floundering around trying to find it. The media both reflects and reinforces this. I don’t mean to give a political speech, but I think the media treatment of Hillary Clinton (and really her own life story) illustrates this point.
How is modern technology and online journalism influencing this history?
Obviously, everything is moving to the web. Women, as well as men, are active as bloggers, but there seem to be fewer political blogs by women than men and of these fewer by liberals than conservatives. Similarly, fewer women publish opinion pieces than men in any form. Somehow women seem less willing to speak out on public issues, no doubt because of centuries of being repressed for the expression of views. “Be quiet so the boys will like you” is what I heard in high school. I find the same thing true today of many women students. They are quiet in class, although they turn in good written work and get high grades.
What are your personal news sources? What media do you most use and enjoy?
I’m still a user of the “old media”—newspapers. I subscribe to the The New York Times and The Washington Post. But, then, I’m 71 years old! I resist getting web news, although I find myself drawn to it. Local television is almost laughable—sometimes I think it’s a sort of satire (“If it bleeds, it leads”). I dislike the female-oriented morning “news” programs because they seem so trivial. Rather than U.S. network news, I often watch the BBC (or PBS).
Some people criticize the habit of ‘byline counting’ to expose gender disparities in journalism, saying that more women than ever are being published, and that byline counting borders on a ‘quota system’ that chokes off quality writing, wherever it may be found. How do you respond to this?
I think “byline counting” has its place. It does give statistical evidence of women being published, which is useful. But it doesn’t tell us about the content of the material. Anti-women articles certainly can be written by women. I disagree that byline counting discourages quality journalism. I don’t think the writing of men is necessarily of higher quality than that of women.
How do women’s media participation in the U.S. compare to that internationally?
I don’t have complete statistical information, but I think it’s comparable to the extent that journalism schools internationally are becoming female-dominated in terms of enrollments. How many of these students eventually find their way to the top of media organizations is another question entirely. Women in some parts of Asia, South America and Africa face more blatant discrimination than in other parts of the world.
For both U.S. women and women around the world, how do their portrayal and their participation in the media influence each other?
The two are inter-related but not in obvious ways. Women at the top inspire other women, but sometimes to get to the top women have to master a whole set of assumptions regarding news and media in general that underlie a society built on the idea of male domination.
You are consistently revered as a journalism teacher, and you were the first woman to be tenured at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. How does your teaching career chime with your understanding of the history of women in journalism?
I’ve seen a lot of women students. I’ve taught a women and media class for years—since 1976. I’ve seen a change in student ideas—in the 1970s and 1980s women wanted more opportunity in journalism and were more career-driven than students today. The young women now plan to have careers but they appear more oriented to family life in the long run. I think society needs to do more to keep highly-educated women in the labor force rather than to drop out to take care of their families. Yes, they may go back but probably at lower levels and in different occupational settings.
You taught journalism at Jinan University in China. How did that experience compare to your work as a media educator in the U.S.?
I found the students quite similar even allowing for cultural differences. Some were go-getters; some were not very interested in their class work. The most motivated were determined to learn English as their ticket to success in a global economy. I wish that U. S. students were as interested in mastering another language (including Chinese). In some ways U.S. students are more insular. The Communist government still controls Chinese media—make no mistake about that.
A description for your 2005 book First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership of the Media Age, reads: “media coverage of first ladies, often limited to stereotypical ideas about women, has not adequately reflected the importance of their role.” Can you talk about the significance of this today, with a former First Lady running as a presidential candidate and the viable possibility of a First Husband? (or First Gentleman?) How will the institution of First Lady be influenced by a woman of color filling the role?
If Hillary Clinton becomes the next President, I think we will see the end of the “first lady” institution—and that’s probably a good thing. I can’t imagine Bill Clinton sitting in the White House pouring tea. He will carve out a new role as the “first husband” and that will give much greater latitude to presidential spouses in the future. If a woman of color were elected—and I hope to live to see the day—I believe her husband too would have a different role than the first ladies play today. Of course, if she has no husband, that would make history too. Perhaps she could ask a male relative to help with some of the ceremonial functions! Or perhaps we could give up the idea of having the President’s family serve as substitute monarchs. (Our whole idea of the Presidency seems to be based somewhat on the ceremonial functions of the British monarchy, although our President has executive power long ago given up by the crown.)
You’ve written numerous books. How did you, as a journalist, grow to adopt this longer form? Do you still do reporting, or do you reserve your energy for book-length projects?
I am more interested in book-length projects than in shorter pieces for the most part, although I do book chapters and encyclopedia articles. I don’t think it’s hard for journalists to adapt to longer-form writing. They are professional writers and able to do long or short pieces. I like to do book-length work because it gives more latitude to develop a subject.
What are you working on these days?
I have a contract for an academic book on Eleanor Roosevelt as first lady (as part of the University of Kansas series on first ladies). I’m also involved in a prospectus for a book on Washington women reporters.
Women in Media and News
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