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American Women: Resources from the Serial & Government Publications Collections

Women as Audience

Newspaper publishers and advertisers were quick to realize the purchasing power of women. In the nineteenth century, sections of the newspaper were directed to women in their roles as homemakers and mothers. Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson (1849-1896) increased readership when she added women's and children's features to the New Orleans Daily Picayune (News MF 1167) after becoming the publisher in 1876.

The women's pages that originated in the late nineteenth century targeted the women's market and quickly became ubiquitous, appearing in ethnic and small town newspapers as well as those of large metropolitan areas. To attract women readers, publishers hired women reporters to report on society news, community projects, homemaking tips, fashion, and recipes.

Women as audience are highlighted under the categories below. Links are provided to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog for noted newspapers, digital access to primary sources, subscription databases, and reference resources created by the Serial and Government Publication Division.

Madam C.J. Walker--Preparations. 1920. Library of Congress Serial and Government Publication Division.

In the mid-1890s, philanthropic projects of women's clubs in large and small urban areas led to the appearance of women's editions of daily newspapers. Distinctly different from the women's pages common in many papers, women's editions involved the takeover of the newspaper by women for that day's edition. In many cases, women wrote, edited, typeset, and published the day's paper, filling it with lavish illustrations and numerous advertisements. Generally, the editions were much longer than the regular issues, and often they contained multiple sections. Circulation was much higher for these special issues than that of the usual newspaper issue and they were published on religious or civic holidays, usually for fund-raising purposes.

Examples of Issues and Concerns in Women's Editions

  • Milwaukee Journal’s front page of the 1895 “Charity Edition” included the headline “Women Own It All,” referring to the Washington, D.C., gathering of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Council of Women. That same issue also illustrated the sporting page with women playing golf and riding a bicycle.
  • San Francisco Examiner's edition included an excerpt from the autobiography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Louisville Courier-Journal printed a “Black List of States” giving the legal age “at which a little girl may consent to her ruin.”
  • Mrs. John Watkins Mariner, editor of the Milwaukee Journal (News MF 1533) “Charity Edition” of February 22, 1895, had two reasons for her involvement as editor: “The first and paramount one was, of course, to raise money for the poor; the second one was to succeed. I wanted to show what women could do.

Examples of Editorials or Advertisements Celebrating Women's Editions

  • “Well Done!” from the Louisville Courier-Journal (News MF 1158) of March 28, 1895.
  • Cleveland Plain Dealer (News MF 1411) ad from January 24, 1895
  • “Empress of the Dailies: Something about the Paper the Ladies Will Publish” from the December 23, 1894 San Francisco Examiner, p. 17 (News MF 984).

Newspaper publishers and advertisers were quick to realize the purchasing power of women. In the nineteenth century, sections of the newspaper were directed to women in their roles as homemakers and mothers.

To attract women readers, publishers hired women reporters to report on society news, community projects, homemaking tips, fashion, and recipes. Many prominent women reporters got their start on the women's page and then moved on to investigative journalism, while others found their niche covering women's issues.

Women's pages provide a picture of what family and household life was like over time. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, women's pages began to disappear, replaced by lifestyle and entertainment sections of more general interest. More recently, women's pages are being reinvented again to target an important audience. In 1990, the American Society of Newspaper Editors produced “Womenews,” a prototype section, and the Chicago Tribune followed with a weekly Sunday section called “Womanews.”

Women Reporters who Began in Women’s Pages

Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson (1849-1896)

Helen Rowland (1875-1950)

Inez Callaway Robb (1901-1979)

Helen Worden

"French periodical pills - Warranted to have the desired effect in all cases." Boston Daily Times. 1845. Library of Congress Newspaper and Periodicals Reading Room.

Product Advertisements

Besides the ubiquitous advertisements for hair products, complexion lotions, clothing, and dry goods that appeared in every newspaper, a number of newspapers accepted advertisements for thinly disguised treatment for unwanted pregnancies. Such ads appeared in newspapers of large cities and small towns and in newspapers with high and low circulation in the nineteenth century. Advertisers cloaked their remedies in phrases such as “Preventive Powders for married ladies, whose health forbids a too rapid increase of family,” “treatment of obstinate case of female irregularity, stoppage of suppression,” and relief “from severe pains which they occasionally suffer periodically.” One advertisement by a Dr. L. Monroe in the Boston Daily Times (January 6, 1845, p. 4, c. 6) carefully advises that “ladies married should not take them [pills] if they have reason to believe they are enciente [sic], as they are sure to produce a miscarriage.”

In New York, the Sun and the Herald accepted advertisements from abortionists such as Madame Restell, Madame Costello, and Mrs. Bird. Their ads were not, however, universally accepted. The New York TribuneNew York Herald, August 20, 1871, p. 4, c. 3). The presence of such advertisements in major newspapers, the success of abortion practitioners (Madame Restell became a millionaire), and the relative lack of prosecution despite its illegality and public censure suggest nineteenth-century society's ambivalence toward abortion.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first American woman to receive a medical degree, labored against the misconception, fostered by newspaper advertisements of the day, that a female physician was by definition an abortionist. In Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.,1895)External, Blackwell states the dilemma when recounting her decision to pursue a medical degree:

There was at that time a certain Madame Restell flourishing in New York. This person was a noted abortionist, and known all over the country. She was a woman of great ability, and defended her course in the public papers. She made a large fortune, drove a fine carriage, had a pew in a fashionable church, and though often arrested, was always bailed out by her patrons. She was known distinctively as a ‘female physician,’ a term exclusively applied at that time to those women who carried on her vile occupation.(pp. 29-30)

Not until the passage of the Comstock Act of 1873 did the “public papers” cease to carry such advertisements.

"Wanted--Male help; Wanted--Female help." Chicago Tribune. 1892. Library of Congress Newspaper and Periodicals Reading Room.

Help Wanted Ads

Looking at “Help Wanted” advertisements is another way to document women in the workplace. By looking at the type of work advertised for women and the vocabulary used to describe the tasks over time, researchers can document the advancement (or lack thereof) of women in the workplace.

Most newspapers had separate listings by gender for help-wanted ads until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The sample page on the right from an 1892 Chicago Tribune issue typifies the employment advertising practices—"Wanted-Male Help" and "Wanted-Female Help." The impetus to change this situation was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1968 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines for employment ads: “The placement of an advertisement in columns classified by publishers on the basis of sex, such as columns headed ‘male’ or ‘female,’ will be considered an expression of preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination based on sex” (29 CFR 1604.5). The American Newspaper Publishers Association challenged the guidelines and voiced many of the arguments held by advertisers and publishers, including anticipated advertising revenue losses and inconvenience to job seekers. By the mid-1970s, challenges by women's groups, public opinion, and failed court cases led to the eradication of separate want ads. Judge Kramer's opinion in the 1972 case Pittsburgh Press Company v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations captures the new attitude: “It is no longer possible to state that all women desire, or have an ‘interest’ in, any one type or classification of work. Some women have the desire, ability and stamina to do any work that men can do. Once we accept such a premise it then becomes logically impossible to permit continued segregation of employment want ads by column headings for any job” (Pittsburgh Press v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, 287 A.2d 161 1972).