[This article originally appeared in the Summer 1979 issue of Nieman Reports.]
…Louis M. Lyons, as Nieman Curator, continually struggled against the ban on women from the program. His correspondence with the University administration in the early 1940’s shows that he was frankly puzzled by its adamant position prohibiting women applicants. Eventually this musty, ill-defined tradition would fall to dust and brittle pieces when given a good shaking, but someone had to rattle it.
Lyons was not overly optimistic. In a letter to The New Republic’s Bruce Bliven as late as 1943—five years after the start of the program—he showed his pessimism. While recommending people for possible jobs at the magazine, he included a list of qualified women. “If this sounds as if I am in a strong feminist mood,” Lyons writes, “I am. I tried to break down the Nieman guards to admit women candidates this year and got my ears pinned back by J. B. Conant. I have a feeling that we are going to need more Anne O’Hare McCormicks and Dorothy Thompsons in journalism in the future. But I guess we aren’t going to bring them to Harvard. I don’t know why The New Republic shouldn’t do something about it.”…
When Lyons asked Conant about admitting women to the Nieman program, he recalled the president’s answer: “Why, you serve whiskey at those Nieman dinners, don’t you? Let’s not complicate it. It’s going to be all right, isn’t it?”
Conant had a crystal ball in his office with “No” painted on the bottom, which he consulted when approached on dubious projects. But Professor Schlesinger and Curator Lyons were not impressed. They hammered away until the president yielded with a parting admonition to Lyons: “The blood be on your head.”
Mary Ellen Leary was used to hesitation about letting women into traditionally stag domains. She was an experienced political reporter for the San Francisco News when she applied to the Nieman program. Frank Clarvoe, Editor of the News, nominated her for the Fellowship in 1943, and Lyons wrote back that he was greatly interested in the application and pleaded for time to check whether there was “an attitude against women as Fellows or a deep-rooted policy that really prevents their being considered.”
The cover of the March 12, 1948 issue of Fortnight, a California news magazine, depicted Mary Ellen Leary at her typewriter with her coffee cup nearby and her desk piled high with paper debris. In the magazine’s press section was a long story with a one column cut and the cutline: “A fine girl—except that she is a woman.” (I leave that for 1979 readers to puzzle over.)
The column began:
“The boys in Sacramento were pretty skeptical when the San Francisco News sent a woman to cover the 1945 Legislature. But last week, as she returned for her third legislative session, they recognized that the only woman political editor of a major daily paper in California knows her job.”
The article continued to describe Ms. Leary as “tireless…but deceptively frail. Her toughness, even her brass, surprise those who have not seen her in action. Yet when she enters a press conference late the boys all rise as though the queen herself has just stepped in. Such chivalry bespeaks respect plus a touch of ingrown, male envy.”
And those whiskey-ridden stag dinners came up again. It seems that the Capitol Press Association gave an annual stag dinner at the Governor’s mansion. Mary Ellen Leary had not been invited. The president of the association received forthwith a searing note from her: “As representative of the News I expect to be invited to every party, but as a woman I don’t intend to go to any of them.” The magazine reported that she won the battle, was invited, and later on even attended a few dinners.
In a long and thoughtful review of her 1945-1946 Nieman year Mary Ellen Leary recalls the advice of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in 1929 that if a woman wanted to write fiction she needed, at minimum, a room and 500 pounds per year.
Mary Ellen writes: “I would add, as a symbol of a new step in feminine recognition, this nearly 20 years later (1946), that for real equality now a woman must also have the right, or the possibility at least, of admission to Harvard.…
“…Curiously enough, Mrs. Woolf’s essay opens as though she had anticipated this very year of Nieman’s first acceptance of women. Her charming essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ on women’s limited opportunities through history, takes flight at the very point when she is barred from admission to the library of a famous English university.”
Virginia Woolf described her attempt to enter the library: “…[the] door was blocked by a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library accompanied by a Fellow of the college or furnished with a letter of introduction.…”
Mary Ellen Leary realizes the significance of her own admittance—as a Nieman Fellow—to the main reading room of Widener.
“Whatever distress this caused the patient puzzled clerks at the desk and whatever exceedingly small distraction it may have offered students of the other sex, the damage is adequately offset, I think, by the gain for women in all time, all kinds of activity, all future efforts at self-development and self-expression.
“Because Charlotte and I were Niemans, sloshing in quite ordinary fashion through Harvard Yard and up the icy library steps to enter Widener cloaked in every ‘privilege of the University,’ every other door becomes just a little easier for women to enter. I think we sensed this, while we defied anyone taking note of it,” Leary writes.…
Mary Ellen Leary and Charlotte L. FitzHenry were the first two women admitted as Nieman Fellows. This was in 1945 and today, until one looks at the time and the context, it seems odd even to note such an occurrence as something special.
Professor Jerome Aumente, 1968 Nieman Fellow, is Chairman of the Department of Journalism and Urban Communications at Livingston College, Rutgers University, and was a research associate at the Nieman Foundation in 1978 as part of a nationwide review of study programs for professional print and broadcast journalists.