Grace: A pioneering Nebraska journalist looks at women who paved the way for her - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:18 pm
Grace: A pioneering Nebraska journalist looks at women who paved the way for her

Eileen Wirth was a pioneer.

One of the first women city news reporters at The World-Herald when she came aboard in 1969. The first woman in public relations management at Union Pacific in 1980. The first woman to head Creighton University's journalism department in 1997.

As Wirth's baby-boomer contemporaries nationally started publishing books about what it was like to be a woman journalist in the era when journalism and other professions began cracking open their doors to women, Wirth decided to write about that era, too.

She wanted to narrow her lens to Nebraska, especially Omaha, where the reporting and editing opportunities were fairly slim. So she pitched this idea to the University of Nebraska Press, which gave her a conditional yes.

Yes, we're interested, but turn the clock back. Wa-a-a-a-y back, to the late 1800s. And see what you find.

Wirth wasn't optimistic. What had she gotten herself into?

She still remembered the gut-punch she felt when she landed at The World-Herald, walking into the newsroom and eyeing a lone woman in a sea of men (other than those in the Women's News department), clacking away on typewriters at Army surplus desks.

That lone news reporter was Mary McGrath, who spent a long career as a medical reporter, retiring in 2000.

Mary McGrath

But who came before?

Wirth reached for an old paperback of Nebraska women published during the nation's bicentennial. She had kept it for nostalgia's sake — it mentions her great-great-grandmother, German immigrant Walburga Wirth.

Walburga Wirth had landed in Nebraska with husband Anton and her young family in 1862. The Wirths bought a farm west of Nebraska City and endured prairie life. Walburga lost a daughter to pneumonia. She saved herself and a young son from nearly drowning in the Missouri River. She baked wedding cakes, took in a foster child and offered help to strangers.

Her courage and sacrifice, the book said, typified pioneer women.

Eileen Wirth flipped to the book's index and began noting names:

Harriet Dakin MacMurphy, who published newspapers with her husband in a handful of Nebraska towns. She handled the finances, circulation, proofreading and writing. Eventually, she landed at The World-Herald, writing articles on food safety that led to federal food-safety legislation.

Harriet Dakin MacMurphy

Willa Cather. Wirth had read “My Antonia” in high school like just about everyone else. But she didn't know that Cather, in the 1890s, wrote some 500 to 600 reviews and columns for the Nebraska State Journal. Or that she wrote them by longhand because the newfangled typewriters weren't always available.

And social convention demanded a male escort home — usually a copyboy. Cather also wrote for the Lincoln Courier and landed journalism jobs in Pittsburgh and New York City before writing novels.

Then Wirth dug through other sources, talked to archivists, interviewed former colleagues and unearthed details that showed what women journalists were up against way back when and how they prevailed.

Like how Maud Marston of Kearney landed a scoop — an interview with world-traveling Nellie Bly in 1889, despite a snowstorm that changed Bly's planned route through Kearney and caused Marston to travel some 600 miles to Kansas City.

Or how in 1902, female journalists in Nebraska rallied around E. Lena Spear, publisher of the Central City Democrat, who complained that visitors ignored her, assuming that whatever male was around was the editor. Her fellow journalists sent her chocolates.

Publisher Rosa Hudspeth's story didn't end well. In 1907, she finally gave up her gig at the Ledger in Stuart, Neb., because her pro-suffragist views alienated her readership. The women's social club dropped her, and her male colleagues in neighboring towns called her “that female amazon,” who was “as ugly and ungainly as her writings are vicious.”

Even though women contributors often were limited to writing about so-called women's issues, Elia Peattie pushed the rules a bit in her columns from the 1890s. Peattie tweaked Omaha's upper-class women for buying their finery outside Omaha and not locally. She visited South Omaha's brutal meatpacking plants.

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Wirth's book includes these stories and others: about women in broadcasting, women journalists of color and life at The World-Herald in the 1970s.

Wirth had clamored to get a news beat (religion, then social services). She had complained about sexist verbiage like this 1971 weather story that began: “Typical of a woman, Mother Nature can't make up her mind.” She wrote about issues of gender inequity: the women's athletic director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who was coaching for free while male coaches got paid, and inheritance tax laws that forced widows off their farms.

In writing the book, Wirth had sought to tell of the pioneer women who undoubtedly paved the way for others, like me, who came after them. These days, nearly half the newsroom employees are women.

What she didn't expect was to see the giants before her.

Wirth's book is called “From Society Page to Front Page: Nebraska Women in Journalism.”

Too bad an earlier woman journalist beat her to the punch with another apt title: “O Pioneers.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1136, erin.grace@owh.com

twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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