Coming of age at the turn of the century, Missy Meloney belonged to a generation who felt the tug of old and new ideals of American womanhood. A few female renegades of her mother’s generation had broken with traditional domesticity to pursue passions outside the home, making it easier, though not easy, for Missy to consider the same. Still, the pressures for a genteel lady to keep out of politics and paid work largely prevailed, and it would be another 20 years before the 19th Amendment allowed women so much as a vote in national elections.
In fact, white, middle-class women who had not already been forced by necessity to take paid work outside the home were often held up as the best justification for denying women suffrage: Unsullied by the corruption of politics or the unsavory atmosphere of the factory or the marketplace, such women were the moral influence in society, the argument went, and thus it was best to keep them in the safe haven of the home, above the fray of the outside world, where they could be principled mothers and untainted exemplars to the next generation of citizens.
It was perhaps rhetorical then, when Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, asked in 1901 “Is the Newspaper Office the Place for a Girl?” Most newsmen surveyed said that their daughters should not be exposed to their workplace conditions. Helen Winslow, an ex-reporter, was inclined to agree, confessing in Atlantic Monthly that the field of journalism had been “too hard and too hardening” for her. One female editor warned young women to expect none of the courtesies of the drawing room in the city room. “Reserve and dignity form the armor of the successful newspaper woman,” she declared. The key to survival was to blend in, stay quiet, and maintain a “perfectly cool, professional manner.” Reporter Elizabeth Banks put it differently at the turn of the century: “I have heard some women of my profession described as icicles, heartless, knowing not what it means to suffer, caring only for their work, their ambition, becoming almost sexless.” Life as a woman reporter, in other words, was thought to require a renouncement of femininity.
It had become fashionable for women to mail in prose to the local paper, but showing up to the downtown city room in person, where male reporters frantically milled about swearing, smoking, and hawking into spittoons was a different proposition altogether. And yet young Missy showed up to the city room of the Washington Post anyway—unannounced, unchaperoned, and asking for a permanent job. To be taken seriously, she did not hide her femaleness, though she aged it a bit, combing out her curls, tying up her hair, and donning a long frock and bustle borrowed from her matronly aunt. She asked to see the managing editor Scott Bone, whose initial response was surprised, yet fatherly. Did she know that reporters kept late hours? And had deadlines? And had no time to walk her home at night? He thought it cruel to encourage the girl, but Missy was politely persistent. With reticence, he agreed to pay her $15 a week to cover stories he chose for her—no crime or vice, just society events and interviews with local personages.
Bone was a rare editor who gave a few female reporters a break. Helen Rowland was another teenager he paid $3 to write her first story, money which her father apologetically returned. But Bone insisted that anything he considered printing deserved to be paid for, including first pieces by green reporters who were girls. That said, he sometimes regretted his decisions—like when he sent Missy out on her first assignment to interview New York Senator Chauncey Depew, and she came back empty-handed. Having arrived to the Capitol early, she had stepped into the congressional library to pass the time and became so engrossed with the music collections there that she missed the senator altogether. Bone thought Missy lacked focus and sent her home.
An exclusive scoop gave Missy renewed purpose, however. Washington reporters were obsessed with the Spanish-American War hero George Dewey, but all they had on him were rumors—rumors that he was in debt, rumors of his lady friends—nothing they could verify. Luckily, Missy’s mother had a contact, the first assistant Postmaster, General Perry Sanford Heath, who had information about Dewey that had yet to break. Heath sat on a committee that raised donations to buy a home on the war hero’s behalf, and he knew the address of the house chosen for Dewey. Missy asked if she could have the story, to which Heath initially squealed with laughter. But he came around to giving her the scoop, so long as she got a big price for it—nothing less than $200, he told her. The dailies paid up to $25 apiece for exclusive photographs, so Missy borrowed her brother’s Kodak and met Heath at the future home of Dewey on Rhode Island Avenue. She photographed everything inside and out, even the cat hiding in the kitchen, and then went to market with her wares.So many political dramas to cover—and yet Missy experienced the disenchantment of not being assigned to any of them.
Her first stop was the Washington office of the World, where editor Sam Blythe listened to her pitch with skepticism. He asked for the address of the house, but Missy wouldn’t tell him; Heath had advised her not to. She did tell him that she had already written for the Post, where the city editor would undoubtedly want her story when he heard about it. Fine, Blythe told her, then sit here and write out everything you can remember, and she did, from the yard, to the wallpaper, to the look of the mid-Victorian furniture. She squeezed out four lackluster paragraphs, but Blythe wanted more. The World had come to expect real color and spice from their women reporters, he told her, several of whom even embellished with personal accounts. It dawned on her that she could supplement details about the house with snippets about the personalities Dewey would likely encounter in his new neighborhood. Various ambassadors, Teddy Roosevelt, Madame Bonaparte—all of them were neighbors who Missy and her family knew personally.
By the time she submitted her copy it was well after dark, much to the obliviousness of the male reporters frantically clacking at their typewriters. Unlike their male colleagues, newspaper women didn’t have the luxury of forgetting the time. Reporting on balls that went on past midnight, female society reporters faced the problem of getting home afterhours unchaperoned. Missy was able to get safely onto a street car, but her mother had been worried sick. Her impulse was to forbid more journalistic ventures, until she saw that her daughter was paid $200 for the Dewey story and another $110 for the isochromatic plates in Carroll’s camera. Blythe offered Missy a regular job, if she wanted it. Her mother decided that the offer was acceptable, so long as Missy focused on “Church News,” the one savory beat in the city room.
As luck would have it, it was the beat with the scoop that launched Missy’s career. She had gone to choir practice at St. Paul’s one morning, when the priest told her that she was about to bear witness to a famous wedding secretly taking place. On November 9, 1899, a chapel housekeeper, a choir master, and Missy watched Admiral Dewey wed the socialite Mildred McLean Hazen. She knew she had stumbled upon big news. Not only was the couple well known in Washington society, but also because the unannounced service at St. Paul’s was not officially sanctioned: Dewey was not a Catholic. Amidst the excitement of the newlyweds’ departure from the church, Missy remembered her editors’ previous appeals for details and began collecting evidence. She gathered the prayer book used in the ceremony and the marriage license left for the rector to file with the Department of Vital Statistics and taxied to the World‘s office to photograph the items and return them promptly. Her editor was impressed: “You’ll make a great reporter some day…I don’t know a man who would have had the nerve to steal the marriage license of Admiral Dewey!” Missy took it as affirmation of her reporter’s chops. Now she had ins at the Post and the World and tried to land more scoops for both.
But perhaps the Dewey stories came too easily. Initially eluding the daily grind, poverty, and self-doubt of other cub reporters, Missy settled into their catch-as-catch can existence soon enough. The next several months felt like an endless grind of chasing down false leads, without the companionship of women friends in the newsroom. Almost all of her peers were young men, typically 18 to 25 years in age. Older reporters had moved on, either rising into permanent editorial or staff positions or opting out of the news altogether, unable to cope with the lack of security, the grueling pace, or the disappointment of stories leading to dead ends. She had been told that the newspaper game was for more strapping types, and, increasingly, strapping types with college degrees; more and more, lacking these credentials made it difficult for a blue-collar reporter to advance into the white-collar ranks of the newspaper business. Missy’s liabilities in this line of work were obvious; and yet remarkably, she remained determined “to make good in the game.”
She found American newspapers woefully provincial, so she looked for stories that other reporters weren’t covering. By the summer of 1900, people were dying in the Boxer Rebellion in China, but most Americans were unaware of it. Interest had picked up in the situation in Peking when American missionaries began relaying tales of retaliation against them, but communications from Asia were unreliable. A few of Missy’s colleagues were dispatched to the legations for news, but they returned with meager accounts. Washington city editors wanted more sources, and Missy took up the challenge of finding them knowing that she already had an advantage: Wu Tingfang, the Oxford-trained Chinese minister, was her mother’s chess opponent. Having refused to grant any interviews to the press, he agreed to speak with Missy for the sake of her breaking a story. He greeted her at the Chinese Legation in silken robes and directed her to a chair across from his. “This is China,” he pointed out, running his fingers over the onyx table top, veins in the stone representing various provinces, rivers, and boundaries. He talked of the first Christian missionaries and how they brought “the shadow of the cross” to his countrymen.
Missy thought she understood. The Boxer uprising was, from the standpoint of many Chinese peasants, a struggle for religious freedom, much like her ancestors’ in Bardstown. While other reporters struggled to obtain updates coming in from China, she heard straight from the minister about the cable he received that morning assuring him that all was being done to protect Americans in Peking. The minister gave Missy the cablegram and signed her notes to verify the authenticity of her story. It was an exclusive for which Missy earned double rates.
At much the same time she submitted her Boxer Rebellion story, the 1900 presidential race was heating up domestically. Admiral Dewey had thrown his hat into the ring, and William Jennings Bryan was, in Missy’s words, “making silver tongued and silver coined talk across the country.” Theodore Roosevelt, now the Governor of New York, was yet another Spanish-American war hero who Republicans considered as a possible candidate for president, though William McKinley remained the clear favorite for reelection. Any reporter with front-page ambitions had to attend the national conventions—for the Republicans in Philadelphia, and for the Democrats in Kansas City, and Missy was sent to cover both, for the Post as a “correspondent” and for the World as a “specialist.”
With travel expenses covered and double rates on stories, the compensation was unheard of for a woman her age—unfortunately, so was going to a large city unchaperoned. Sarah told Missy that she could go to Philadelphia if accompanied by her aunt and a maid, but Missy thought this too humiliating an arrangement for a cub reporter trying to prove herself to her male peers. She convinced her mother to let her travel less conspicuously with two of the wives of other Washington correspondents. As soon as she arrived in town, she planned politely to depart their company.
In the days prior to the first convention, Missy whet readers’ appetites with a story about Wu Tingfang’s journey to Philadelphia to witness American party politics in action, and once again the minister obliged her with an exclusive interview, graciously pausing between sentences to allow Missy time to scribble in her notepad. Her editor was amused as he dictated her notes to a stenographer. It was not just her creative spelling but her unorthodox questions that made her story unlike anything he had ever seen. He ran the piece the next morning as the lead: A political convention through Chinese eyes. Missy was rewarded with a $200 bonus, a momentous start to a promising week of political scoops. There was the drama of her birth state of Kentucky unfolding on the national stage, as William S. Taylor, the former governor-turned-fugitive, appeared at the convention in defiance after his indictment for the murder of his Democratic successor. Missy saw another potential headline when McKinley won the presidential nomination and Teddy Roosevelt looked as though he might bolt from the hall, if not from the Republican party. 925 delegates voted for his vice presidential nomination, Roosevelt’s vote the only abstention.
So many political dramas to cover—and yet Missy experienced the disenchantment of not being assigned to any of them. Though she proved capable of conducting intriguing interviews, her editor felt she was still too green to cover the main events of the week. Some topics were frankly too scandalous for female ears, he also reasoned. “God defend [you] against ever knowing enough politics to write a leader,” he joked, assigning Missy instead a story he thought more befitting: an exclusive on one of the two female alternate delegates at the convention. Not coincidentally, they were from western states, where women had the franchise and started filling party positions.The fact that my criticism pleased the men in the office, that they chuckled over my jibes, commended me for it, did little the next day to salve my conscience. I had done a mean, petty piece of work and I knew it.”
No doubt the assignment was her editor’s way of making a “political” story appropriate for a woman reporter, but Missy decided that it was a vote of non-confidence, hence tainting any assessment she might have had of the woman delegate she interviewed that afternoon. Her first impression of her interviewee, she later recalled, was of a “tall, aggressive, militant” person, “all that was meant by ‘new woman,’” and any goodwill that she might have shown dissipated as their conversation wore on: “I wanted her to talk about the forces and the influences which had brought her to Philadelphia. And instead she scolded me for wearing a dainty dress and a curl on the nape of my neck. I came partly to agree with her in the years that followed. But on the 17th day of June , this ‘new woman’ with her resentment of all things feminine, and her businesslike, aggressive manner, stirred resentment and animous[sic] in me.”
Missy was a cub reporter eager to please and to be accepted among male peers, so she embraced the conventional negative opinion of a woman unfeminine enough to call herself a feminist. In hindsight, she recalled the interview with great regret: “I went back to the office and wrote what I believe today to be the only unfair piece of reporting of which in my many years of journalism I have been guilty. The fact that my criticism pleased the men in the office, that they chuckled over my jibes, commended me for it, did little the next day to salve my conscience. I had done a mean, petty piece of work and I knew it.”
Later, when Missy worked for the New York Sun, she still felt the resentment that piece provoked in suffragists who she came to admire, including the formidable Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association. Missy’s feminism, which she never named, took time and experience to cultivate. In the moment, however, she only knew intuitively that making it as a political reporter required not looking disgruntled, unfeminine, or intentional in her success. She would have to quietly surprise men with her reporting, cover politics without appearing political, advance in the journalistic ranks by not letting on that she wanted to. Her editor expected stories on what senators’ wives were wearing to evening socials, and for now she would have to appear willing to write them until she had the chance to exceed expectations with a story written as a man would have written it. She pined for that opportunity.
As male colleagues covered the Republican National Convention well into the night, she walked back to the hotel with nothing in her notebook but observations from afar. Any run-ins with the major players in the week’s unfolding dramas were accidental. Waiting for an elevator on the eighth floor of the Walton Hotel, for instance, she encountered a group of senators that included National Committee Chair Mark Hanna and Teddy Roosevelt. The elevator hadn’t been working properly, and guards stood on each floor monitoring the number of people getting into the car. The party that collected on the eighth floor was too large, and an argument ensued: Who would get off the elevator? One of the senators summoned Missy to volunteer, and she refused. Roosevelt intervened, swearing the ridiculousness of the situation and insisting that everyone remain in the elevator, including Missy, who was far too petite to cause a problem anyway.
In an elevator car of important men, Missy had stood her ground. Still, she wondered if Roosevelt even recognized her as the girl on the horse from Rock Creek Park. So ended her stint as a correspondent at the Republican National Convention. Any dreams of glory she had for its Democratic counterpart had already been greatly diminished.
From American Queenmaker by Julie Des Jardins. Used with the permission of Basic Books. Copyright © 2020 by Julie Des Jardins.