“I wanted to write.” This comment, from a 1966 interview with Chicago theater critic Claudia Cassidy, sums up the life motivations of so many of the women journalists and broadcasters who spoke with Studs Terkel about their life and work, and sometimes about the challenges of being a woman in what was still very much a man’s world. While they remained a minority of his guests, Studs did not shy away from inviting serious, smart, accomplished women onto his program. Scholars or students interested in the history of women and mass media in the United States (and beyond) will find much of value here, while many others will encounter what are just captivating conversations with fascinating women.
The oldest of these interviews is a 1959 conversation with someone whose name is still familiar: writer and social critic Dorothy Parker. Born in 1893, Parker’s voice itself (a great example of a mid-Atlantic accent) is both a pleasure to listen to and a relic from the past. This interview feels very much of its historical moment: a lingering caution of the McCarthy era is palpable in Parker’s discourse, as she expresses her frustrations with what she sees as a creative downturn in the culture. But from the vantage point of 1959, Parker seems to glimpse how much things were about to change, for society as a whole and for women in particular. “I think things are going to get better…. No I think they are going to get better in all branches, not just in writing, don’t you? “
Echoing this Betty Friedan era of second wave feminism, many of the (white, generally privileged) women profiled here voiced the frustrations of those unsatisfied with the prescribed roles of wife and mother. In a 1965 interview, journalist and social critic Marya Mannes discussed the conundrum for women who wanted to be creative in other than “biological” ways. “If you have a brain and use it, you are unfeminine.” We hear this theme again in a 1979 interview with essayist and poet Judith Wax, who began writing in her early forties with a satirical Watergate-inspired take on Chaucer, titled Waterbury Tales. When her children were younger, she explained, Wax dutifully followed the model of the ideal post-war upper middle class housewife. She was, in her words: “A wonderful housekeeper, and a terrific dinner party thrower. A stuffer of mushrooms, an arranger of parsleyed platters; a carrot curler.” But just like Claudia Cassidy, she had a secret: she wanted to write. Sadly, the world did not get much of a chance to see what Judith Wax would make of her late-starting career. Just a few weeks after this interview aired, Wax and her husband were two of many killed in a terrible commercial airline crash in Chicago.
Women working in broadcast media dealt with the additional obstacle that the female voice was perceived as incompatible with the delivery of “hard” or “serious” news. In 1984, Studs spoke with Lisa Sergio, the so-called “Golden Voice of Rome,” a pioneering (if complicated) women’s voice in radio. The aristocratic and polyglot Sergio became Mussolini’s first broadcaster in the early 1930s, before exile and relocation to New York, where in 1938 she was one of the first woman radio announcers and news commentators in the U.S. As Sergio recounted: “My job was that I was the only woman that they had at NBC…. And the reason for which they had me was because - they didn’t like women as you know; nobody liked women in those days. You didn’t have women. You had them do morning programs, really morning morning. But I was taken on to do so-called important things, to announce great singers, etc. etc. And the justification for it was that ‘Ah, but you see, she has been Mussolini’s assistant.’ To the devil with it.”
This prejudice persisted, but the women’s movement of the 1970s began to erode the old barriers. In 1970, Studs interviewed three young women of working-class origin -- Christine Fox, Annie Merrill, and Jennie Wilkes -- all employed as researchers for Thames television in the U.K. They struggled to be taken seriously in their jobs: “It’s awfully difficult for women to get on in television,” Christine Fox lamented in that first interview. A 1975 follow-up interview with the same women records the changes in feminist consciousness and for women in broadcasting in the intervening years. All three women had advanced professionally, and while obstacles remained, Fox summed up what had changed: “Now I think that women are not only supposed to talk about the home, and write the features page about washing up and so on. This has become much easier for women to move into. Women are reporting the news now, serious things like the news, which of course used to be only men, because you were only able to believe a man. But now there are women newscasters.”
The collection also contains interviews with women working in a kind of muckraking journalistic tradition. The archive has a couple of fascinating interviews, for example, with investigative journalist Jessica Mitford, British aristocrat and American Communist, who wrote exposés of the prison system and funeral industry in the U.S. In a 1977 interview, Mitford discussed her memoir, A Fine Old Conflict, in which she talked about her work in the civil rights movement and was unapologetic about her membership in and relationship with the Communist Party USA. Studs also interviewed Grace Halsell, who went undercover (Black Like Me style) as an African American woman in the South and then as a Navajo woman in the Southwest (and later as an undocumented Mexican migrant) to document racism and discrimination from the inside. Halsell’s tactics have not exactly aged well. Indeed, one feels the age of many of these interviews in the sometimes cringe-worthy discussions about race. On the other hand, one is also struck by the relative facility and willingness to speak language of social class in many of these interviews, something we have only recently begun to recover in our current political discourse.
Studs’s skills as an interviewer, and his ability to carry out what feel like conversations with old friends, is particularly in evidence in this selection. These interviews take women and their voices seriously, without condescension. Together, they document the real changes underway in women’s place in journalism and broadcasting and in society as a whole (at least among the more privileged white women featured here). To that end (and keeping in mind the 1959 Dorothy Parker interview where this essay began), it seems fitting to conclude with a 1975 interview with journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron. Along with a discussion of vaginal sprays and the Mexico City World Conference on Women she had recently attended, Ephron reflected on the significance of the moment, for her and for women generally, telling Studs: “It’s OK being a woman now. I like it. Try it sometime.”