Telling the Stories of Women and Girls

Sunday, I was in the middle of greeting a small gathering of 15 women and men as we prepared to leave on the Women’s eNews walking tour of New York’s financial district. We offer the tour every Sunday in March as one important way for us to celebrate Women’s History Month.

A male member of the group interrupted: “I have been on all kinds of history walking tours in the city,” he said, “but none included women.”

“That is exactly why Women’s eNews exists,” I replied. “The news media doesn’t include us either.”

The other half of the story is that two major foundations have understood the urgency of providing women the information they need to be active citizens and to serve as an example to other media. In addition, a host of smaller, family run foundations, often created by women, have donated general operating funds—gold to those of us trying to meet our mission and pay our rent—because they too understood the absolute need for a daily news organization that serves women.

The Ford Foundation has been a regular supporter since 2006, most recently for a series on the economics of being female in the United States. The current series is called She Pays the Bias Price and reports on how gender bias affects women’s economic well-being from pre-school to retirement. This week, the Ford Foundations grant will enable Women’s Enews to attend a conference on LBJ’s War on Poverty and ask tough questions backed up by data about the gender bias in anti-poverty efforts.

Since 2008, The W.K. Kellogg foundation has supported investigative reporting on African American maternal and infant health. The most recent series is called Healthy Moms, Healthy Births: Black Maternal Health in America. This support has permitted us to break the silence and misunderstandings about the tragic statistic that, since at least 1915, African-American mothers have died three-to four times as often as white mothers. Kellogg Foundation support has enabled the production of some of the most significant stories on this issue, including one that quoted a CDC statistician saying he stayed up nights, staring at the ceiling fan, asking himself why that statistic has not changed in a century. Another piece, relying on U.S. Census data and the Baby Friendly USA website’s list of approved hospitals (meaning they had been certified as such by WHO) reported that Baby Friendly hospitals were scarce in America’s black communities and the vast majority served non-urban mothers.

Kellogg had this to say about its investment in investigative reporting on women and infants’ health.

"In the ever-changing media landscape, including fewer newsrooms to dig deeply into critical issues that are tied to children's success, we believe it's essential to support niche, online journalism—like Women’s eNews—to document and explore the complexities facing children and their families today," says Joanne Krell, vice president for communications at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "Women’s eNews has been instrumental in uncovering key insights to improve black maternal health, which have been published for broader audiences in mainstream media outlets."

An unexpected outcome of our work is that we have trained hundreds of freelance journalists and waves of college students and recent graduates how to cover news through a gender lens. And as we have grown, we have also trained college interns in the basics of marketing and development.

I believe our non-profit enterprise rings bells with major and family foundations because the staff and the board are acutely aware of the bias price women and girls pay—in low wages and job segregation, inadequate health care and being the targets of violence—and the knowledge that media coverage is a requirement to reduce the need for direct services to ameliorate these costs.

And they are aware that wherever women are getting their news, the news is most likely not about them, unless they are celebrities. Women were 26 percent of human sources referenced in lead articles monitored in a year-long study of eight online news sites, according to Gender Report.

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy has produced research asserting “media representations of women in positions of power, such as female Senators or Senate candidates, seem to have the power to disrupt the cycle and increase women's interest in and engagement with politics." It goes on to cite research indicating that the participation and political knowledge gaps appear to shrink or even disappear where women see other women participating in politics (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001, Chapter 13). In states with no female Senator (or Senate candidate), for instance, 65 percent of men and only 51 percent of women can name one Senator. However, in states with a female Senator or female candidate for Senator, 75 percent of men and 79 percent of women can name a Senator.

In other words, if women in leadership are part of the story, women readers will follow. Support from the Ford and W.K. Kellogg Foundations enables Women's eNews to feature women in power and the power of women every day. This has permitted us to build a wide readership of educators, public policy advocates, political leaders and other news media. We also consistently and extensively cover issues touching women of color in the United States and have been rewarded with a large audience of African American women.

This gender gap in news media coverage of women in power and the power of women that Women’s eNews spans and thus serves to expand women’s participation in public life.

The out-of-balance reliance by news media on male experts is structural and reflects how news is defined: News reporters at large and small local media outlets routinely follow the fire departments, the police departments, the city council meetings, the planning boards, the mayors’ offices, the state legislatures and, the governors’ office. National reporters check in with the congressional press staffs, the White House and other significant national leaders. By and large, women do not hold these positions and the issues of special concern to women and girls are not topic A on the agendas. (Ever hear a school board discuss the reason that some female teens miss school could be the need to care for siblings or the lack of sanitary supplies? If so, please drop me an email.)

Foundations took on this challenge then when Women’s eNews launched 15 years ago was to define and find news that was relevant to women. The answer quickly emerged: civil society was where the action was and organizations advocating for women and girls were ideal resources and sources. The other answer came a little later. We would have to define what was occurring to women and girls—under the radar—as news; we needed to identify and sometimes blindly pursue what the story was and send reporters to chase it and publish it.

This structural issue is exacerbated by widespread imbalance of power in the nation’s newsrooms: Overall, white men have the decision-maker roles and women and people of color don’t, especially women of color. (Don’t let the gender of the anchor fool you.) This is true for newspapers, television, cable and internet news operations.

On the walking tour, our guest stood on the Susan B. Anthony-Elizabeth Cady Stanton corner and listened closely as I read aloud these words of Susan B. Anthony:

We need a daily paper edited and composed according to woman's own thoughts, and not as a woman thinks a man wants her to think and write. As it is now, the men who control the finances control the paper. As long as we occupy our present position we are mentally and morally in the power of the men who engineer the finances. Horace Greeley once said that women ought not to expect the same pay for work that men received. He advised women to go down into New Jersey, buy a parcel of ground, and go to raising strawberries. Then when they came up to New York with their strawberries, the men wouldn't dare to offer them half price for their produce. I say, my journalistic sisters, that it is high time we were raising our own strawberries on our own land.

The need so eloquently expressed by Susan B., as we call her, remains as significant now as it was in the 1860s when she was publishing the weekly Revolution. No need for us to sell strawberries from New Jersey, however, because of the support of foundations who are knowledgeable of the ongoing relevance of Susan B.’s words.

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