- The Girl Reporter in Fact and Fiction:Miriam Michelson’s New Women and Periodical Culture in the Progressive Era
Legacy readers are undoubtedly familiar with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which is commonly considered a classic work of feminist literature. Few feminist literary scholars, however, are aware of the matriarchal utopian novella that preceded, and likely inspired, Herland. In July 1912, three years before Gilman serialized her utopian novel in The Forerunner, the popular literary magazine The Smart Set announced the upcoming publication of a story titled The Superwoman, promising its readers that this “brilliant” piece of fiction would “arouse wide discussion, especially among women, since the ‘woman question’ is so much in the foreground these days” (“August Smart Set”). The Superwoman did not disappoint. Appearing as the lead novella in the magazine’s August issue, the story featured a caddish male protagonist, Hugh Ellinwood Welburn, who, in a twist of fate, finds himself aboard a transatlantic ocean liner with both of the women he is courting: a beautiful ingenue and a sophisticated widow. Before Welburn is able to make up his mind between the two women, however, he is swept overboard, and the novella, which begins in the realist tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James, playfully switches genres, evolving into a work of speculative fiction. Welburn awakens on a remote island ruled by Amazon-like women who practice polyandry, judiciously [End Page 321]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 322] choosing male mates and using men primarily for reproductive purposes. In this “topsy-turvy” world, gender roles are reversed and women are all-powerful, revered foremost for their wisdom and their physical strength (Michelson, Superwoman 16).1
The author of this forgotten feminist novella was Miriam Michelson (1870–1942), a writer who had until recently faded into obscurity. Michelson was far from unknown to readers in 1912, however. Her best-selling debut, In the Bishop’s Carriage, was one of the most-talked-about novels of 1904. A picaresque tale told from the point of view of a slang-speaking, streetwise thief named Nance Olden, the novel was adapted multiple times for stage and screen, with some of the most famous actresses of the day clamoring to embody Nance. In the Bishop’s Carriage established Michelson’s reputation as a writer attuned to the desires of modern women.2
Although readers in the East viewed Michelson as a newcomer when In the Bishop’s Carriage appeared in 1904, she was already well known in western circles as one of California’s star reporters. In the 1890s, a decade that consigned most female reporters to writing about fashion trends and society events for the “Woman’s Page,” Michelson broke gender barriers in the journalistic profession, covering crime and politics for San Francisco’s leading dailies. Her name often appeared in the headlines and sub-headlines of her stories; although many news articles at the time were published unsigned, Michelson’s bold bylines attest to her celebrity as a female journalist. If Michelson had a regular beat, it was the growing presence of women in the political sphere. Her journalism provided her with a forum to highlight the activism of suffrage leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Gilman. But she also wrote about a range of progressive issues, including the temperance crusade, anti-annexation protests in Hawai‘i, the effect of vice on Chinatown’s immigrant population, the conditions of Indian boarding schools, and prejudices faced by black soldiers during the Spanish-American War.
When Michelson became a regular contributor of short stories to mass-circulation magazines in the early twentieth century, her experiences in the newsroom provided her with ample material for her fiction. This “ripped from the headlines” quality of her writing is best exemplified by a series of Saturday Evening Post stories featuring Michelson’s alter ego, Rhoda Massey. A “girl-reporter” in the era of the yellow press (“Milpitas” 349), Rhoda tests the limits of journalistic ethics in pursuit of sensational stories, from celebrity scandals to...