- Front-Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction, 1880–1930
In her engaging new study, Jean Marie Lutes traces the figure of the “girl-reporter” in American culture and fiction (and in the epilogue, film) from Nellie Bly to Bridget Jones. Lutes’s interest in this topic began when she herself was a journalist writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Miami Herald before returning to graduate school to study literature. Her journalistic training is evident not only in her meticulous research and lucid style but also in the obvious passion and personal interest she brings to her subject.
The author’s goal in writing Front-Page Girls is at least two-fold. First, she wants to recover a tradition of female reporting that dates back to the late nineteenth century, correcting the idea that women journalists have always been few and far between. Second, and more importantly, Lutes demonstrates that this tradition serves as a much-needed corrective to a great deal of the received knowledge about not only American journalism but also American literary realism and modernism. While historically the reporter has been thought of as objective, disembodied, and decidedly masculine (an authorial perspective that realists such as William Dean Howells adopt in their novels), Lutes claims that the “public spectacle of the newspaperwoman illuminates an alternative reporter-novelist tradition, featuring not professional detachment and precise observation but rather the intimate, deeply subjective realities of physical experience” (p. 11). For the woman reporter, the line between the story she is telling [End Page 186] and her own position as a sympathetic observer/public spectacle is often blurred or, sometimes, abolished. Thus, Lutes’s study examines how, from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first, her role “[mediates] tensions between publicity and intimacy, journalism and fiction, [and] the abstraction of literary authorship and the visceral experience of embodiment” (p. 10).
The first three chapters of this study focus on significant women in American journalistic history. Chapter one recounts the many adventures of stunt reporters—most famously Nellie Bly—and how their derring-do earned them notoriety and a large readership in the sensational press of the 1880s and 90s. Chapter two focuses on Ida B. Wells, America’s most famous African American female journalist who launched an international anti-lynching campaign, situating Wells within the larger context of African American journalism. The third chapter chronicles the story of the “sob sisters,” a small group of female reporters—including Dorothy Dix—who covered the famous murder trial of Harry Kendall Thaw in 1908, in which the star witness was Thaw’s sexually forthright—and quite possibly sexually abused—wife. In her final chapters, Lutes turns to the “girl reporter” in fiction, first looking at how Henry James’s increasing skepticism and disdain for publicity influenced his unfavorable revision of Henrietta Stackpole in The Portrait of a Lady, and finally turning to three famous American reporter-novelists—Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, and Djuna Barnes—arguing that an early journalistic awareness of the public spectacle of female sexuality influenced their fiction in heretofore unexplored ways.
Front-Page Girls is especially good at describing this sexuality and the fine line that female journalists had to walk as embodied authors/subjects. For most, their success depended on their identifying with women such as asylum inmates, factory workers, and militant suffragists, whose sexual purity was often in question, while simultaneously maintaining an unequivocally respectable reputation as an inviolate woman. Furthermore, Lutes does a nice job acknowledging the inextricable link between sexualized bodies and racialized ones. While white female journalists could place themselves in vulnerable positions with some confidence because of their whiteness, Ida B. Wells and other African American journalists had not only to insist emphatically on their own respectability but also to protect themselves from the very real threat of sexual assault.
Although the three historical chapters are especially fine, Lutes’s literary analysis could be stronger. Her reading of the changes in Henrietta Stackpole’s...