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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 504-532
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Sob Sisterhood Revisited
Jean Marie Lutes
For female journalists who sought to enter the courtroom, the 1907 trial of Harry Kendall Thaw for the murder of Stanford White resulted in both a breakthrough and a backlash. The sensational case gave women reporters unprecedented visibility and new opportunities to cover serious news. For weeks, every major newspaper in New York City, where the trial was held, printed column after column of woman-authored trial reports. Women reporters had written about trials before this one, but never in such detail, with so much publicity, or in the company of so many other women. 1 Yet the Thaw case also spawned the dismissive label, sob sister, that would dog the careers of female news writers for decades. The term was coined to describe the four women who sat at their own special press table in the crowded courtroom: Winifred Black, Dorothy Dix, Nixola Greeley-Smith, and Ada Patterson. 2 As an early press historian tells it, journalist Irvin S. Cobb, "looking a little wearily at the four fine-looking girls who spread their sympathy like jam, injected a scornful line into his copy about the 'sob sisters'" (Ross 65). 3 Denoting a female journalist who specialized in sentimental or human-interest stories, or, more generally, a woman writer "who could wring tears," sob sister was in common usage by 1910, thanks in part to the voluminous newspaper coverage of the Thaw case between 1906 and 1908 (Schilpp and Murphy 116). 4 "For too long," one journalism historian remarks, "it was used to describe any woman reporter" (Belford 106). It later became a derogatory label for women novelists whose work was considered contrived and excessively emotional. 5
Recent studies have characterized turn-of-the-century news writing conventions, especially those that shaped realist and naturalist fiction, as inherently masculine. 6 This inaccuracy has encouraged literary historians to misread journalism as a masculine antidote for women's influence on fiction—a misreading that naturalizes terms like sob sister and obscures the visibility of women reporters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To attain a better understanding of the popular press's influence on literary authorship, scholars must develop a more nuanced view [End Page 504] of news writing, one that treats sensational narratives as a complex phenomenon in their own right and examines journalism's objective ideal with the skepticism it merits. Although the original sob sisters, like most of their fellow reporters, did not generally goon to write fiction or poetry, they helped to forge an emotion-bound template that shaped perceptions of women's literary labor for years to come.
In just three syllables, sob sister recast trailblazing professionals as gullible amateurs. Perhaps worse, the catchy alliteration implied that newswomen were inherently hypocritical, since they manufactured tears for profit. 7 It also linked female journalists tothe emotionally charged sentimental fiction of the nineteenth century at a time when the American literary establishment was attacking the genre with renewed vigor as shallow and trite. The hyperexpressive prose associated with the newswomen neatly extended the tradition of popular melodrama, but viewed through the standard framework of American literary history, these journalistic pioneers appear hopelessly behind the intellectual climate of their times: their work seems as distant from the era's unflinching realist and naturalist fiction as it does from the emerging experimental work of the modernists. Although recent scholarship on the interplay of sentimentalism, realism, and modernism has unsettled the once-firm divisions between these expressive forms and challenged the literary periodization that rendered the sob sisters anachronistic, 8 the writings of these early newswomen have attracted attention only as a predictable enactment of pop-culture pathos. 9
Shrugging off the sob sisters has caused critics to miss a complex, far more compelling story of gendered assumptions overturned, sexual violence unmasked, and narrative authority in flux. The newswomen's role was more vexed—and less soothingly domestic—than Cobb's appellation suggests. The explicit sexual content of the trial testimony, combined with the commentary of women whose presence in the...