What Makes a Woman Important? Part 2

April 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Books, Careers, Profiles

Recently, WVFC asked Amy Hill Hearth—author of  Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years—this question: “What makes a woman important?”

We meant, “What makes an editor decide that a woman is important?” Twenty years ago, when Ms. Hearth was writing  Having Our Say, she was hit with a tide of negativity—indeed, ridicule—from her journalistic colleagues. No one would read her book, the naysayers maintained, because the centenarian Delany sisters, who had led quiet and respectable lives, were not “important enough.”

Well, what DOES make a woman important? Hearth posed the question to three veteran woman editors. Lucinda Moore, Editor No. 1, believes that critera haven’t changed much in 20 years (see part 1, “A Contrarian’s View.”) Happily, Editor No. 2, Kathy Kelly, has a more heartening take.

Kelly, 64,  is assistant managing editor for the metro section of the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal. She is also the co-author of a nonfiction book, I Would Find a Girl Walking.

Kelly notes the iconic stature of a few women in history—“the likes of Betsy Ross, Marie Curie, and Eleanor Roosevelt.”  Their achievements have been told and retold. But Kelly believes that “it is women like the Delany sisters, whose stories remained untold for years, from whom we can learn so much. Just as important as the scientist, the first lady, the astronaut, these women played an integral part in making inroads, breaking down barriers.”

Her newspaper, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, made what seems an unlikely choice last month in profiling Joyce Ebbets, widow of Charlie Ebbets, a famous photographer. He was an adventure hunter, fisherman, one-time actor, auto racer, wrestler, pilot, and photographer who was hired to chronicle Rockefeller Center’s construction during the Depression era. His photo of 11 construction workers taking a lunch break, dangling their legs over a beam 800 feet in the air as they built Rockefeller Center, first appeared in the New York Herald Tribune in 1932.

Why is the News-Journals profile of Joyce unusual? Because Charlie Ebbets had all the profile-worthy credentials. Still, Kelly’s newspaper found it noteworthy that his widow and their daughter Tami had fought hard to prove that he was the taker of the iconic photo (chosen for the cover of Time’s 2012 publication 100 Greatest Images: History’s Most Influential Photographs). For 70 years, the photographer who made that famous shot had been unknown.

“She and her daughter fought hard in 2003 to document the facts so that he could be honored for his life’s work by one of the world’s most respected photo licensing companies, Corbis,” Kelly noted. “Ebbets was at her husband’s side throughout their marriage and the raising of their family. Her work has been critical in seeing that he is recognized for his pioneering achievements in the field of photography. She has her own story to tell, just as the Delany Sisters did.”

The News-Journal was impressed by the patience and dedication Joyce and her daughter devoted to proving that Charlie Ebbets was the taker of that photo. In 2003, Corbis, founded by Bill Gates, acknowledged ownership of 17 photos taken by Charlie Ebbets. The steel-beam photo needed documentation, and it was Joyce’s job to go through boxes of records—even glass negatives—and thousands of photos to come up with proof that he had indeed taken it. She knew his material: From the beginning of their marriage on she had meticulously filed his slides and tearsheets. Tami quit her job as a nurse to sift through the photographs and to work on a book and a documentary on her father.


Ebbets with some of her husband's images. (Photo: Sean McNeil)

“Joyce’s dedication to her husband’s work proved invaluable, since she was able to provide detailed records proving he was on the other side of the lens documenting life in America. She is also a photographer and writer,” Kelly declared.

“It is critical for editors to let these stories be told, to fill in the gaps of history so long dominated by men,” she continued. “There is an audience to be inspired by their place in history.”

Next: an editor from New England tells us that at her newspaper, “interesting” trumps “important.”


What Makes a Woman Important? Part 1—A Contrarian’s View

March 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Books

Twenty years ago, I was hard at work on a book about two African American sisters who were both more than 100 years old.

The book was Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.  Neither the sisters—Sarah and Elizabeth—nor I had any inkling that this book about their lives would become a New York Times Best Seller—for 113 weeks, no less. (We would have been thrilled by one week). The book was adapted for the Broadway stage two years after it was published, and again for an award-winning television film.

None of this was supposed to happen. And it wouldn’t have, if I had listened to the dire warnings from colleagues in my profession. “No one will buy that book,” I was told, because the sisters “never did anything important.”

Sarah L. Delany (in 1920). Unimportant?

I, of course, disagreed, pointing out that Sarah L. (Sadie) Delany, the “big” sister of the pair, earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1920, followed by a master’s in 1925, both from Columbia University. She  was a groundbreaking teacher in the New York public schools. Her “little” sister, Dr. A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, was a 1923 graduate of Columbia’s School of De  ntal and Oral Surgery. She was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. These were astonishing achievements for women of their generation, especially black women.

Besides, it wasn’t just what they did that make their story engaging, it was what they said, and how they said it—insightful comments about how the world had changed (or not) since they were young; unvarnished opinions; and a perspective on a world that was gone. They were the daughters of a man born into slavery. They remembered the beginning of Jim Crow laws in their home state of North Carolina.

I had written a story about the then-unknown sisters for The New York Times, a 1,600-word feature that attracted the attention of a book publisher. Even at The Times there had been a lack of enthusiasm among all but one of my editors when I pitched the story. But nothing prepared me for the deluge of negativity—my husband remembers it as ridicule—while I was working on the book. Friends and acquaintances from many different newspapers and magazines told me I was making the mistake of my career.

“Would you run into this same negativity today?” WVFC’s editors recently asked me. “What achievements or accomplishments DO make a woman important in the eyes of an editor?” To find out, I posed these questions to three experienced women editors, who replied by email. Each, it turned out, has a different perspective, ranging  from that of an editor in the Washington, D.C., area who is discouraged about our progress to the view of one who believes we’ve come a long way to the surprising take of an editor in Massachusetts who has never found dismissal of women’s accomplishments to be an issue.

Rather than edit their thoughtful responses into a single story, it seems appropriate to give each her individual chance to “have her say.” First up, the contrarian.

Lucinda Moore has 30 years’ experience as an editor at Smithsonian magazine, an editorial consultant for the National Geographic Society, and a reporter/researcher at Time-Life Records.  She launched her own business as an editorial consultant in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area this year. And she is not impressed with women’s journey in the last 20 years.

Kim Kardashian. Important?

“Unfortunately,” Moore responded,  “I fear that you would encounter similar resistance today. Despite the success of female editors such as Tina Brown of Newsweek and Jill Abramson of The New York Times, men remain at the helm of most major publications. The domination of the industry by males fosters a cycle in which most of the stories covered continue to reflect a world in which men are typically the central figures in what is judged important and newsworthy.”

She points to slipping advertising sales, reduced subscriptions, and mounting Internet competition as the reason for periodicals’ adoption of  “gimmicks” that may further undermine the role of women in print. “Editors rely increasingly upon name recognition (commissioning or covering the established authorities with which the general public is already familiar) in an effort to attract readership and boost sales. Since men have been and remain the dominant focus in so many arenas, the result is often more articles by and about men. Even those women most likely to gain attention in print are frequently the ones who are already superstars in their fields or in the general society.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with covering our great achievers, she points out, “but editors would do well to remember that some of our most moving and memorable stories have come from people whose names we have never heard, but whose courageous lives and steady triumphs have quietly transformed not only their immediate environment but, ultimately, helped change the world.

“As long as top male editors remain reluctant to actively seek stories outside of what is comfortable and familiar to them, or what they feel confident their readership will readily approve, thousands of stories will remain untold, and a more diverse, multi-dimensional portrayal of women, as well as other under-represented groups, is likely to remain sporadic, at best.”

Long-term change in newspapers’ traditional focus on men’s accomplishments, she writes, would require that “editors go beyond merely seeking stories by and about women superstars, or seeking female subjects for special issues or topics. It will require editors to apply, on a daily basis, the same criteria to stories about women that has led to the creation of great journalism for centuries—strong stories and characters that entertain, inform, and enlighten the reader due to their inherent value and substance, their appeal to human interest, and their ability to present a unique voice and often overlooked point of view—not unlike the criteria met in Having Our Say.”

Trailer provided by Video Detective


Next week: An award-winning newspaper editor in Florida responds with a more heartening assessment. 

Internet Dating 303: Making Contact

You’ve overcome your lack of confidence, your worries about getting duped, and all the other common online-dating fears that have kept you out of the game. You’ve read my recent primer on getting started with Internet dating. You’ve sorted through many ads, applying the recommended techniques for recognizing “red-flaggers.” At this point you may have found someone whose profile appeals to you, or maybe someone who sounds appealing has written to you. Now what?

First, develop a thick skin. Right from the start you must learn to chalk it up to kismet if someone doesn’t write back. The man-to-woman ratio is usually stacked in favor of the former, and many men you write to will not respond simply because of the sheer volume of inquiries they get.

But there are other reasons they don’t respond. The person you are writing to may already be involved with someone (in which case he should make his profile  “inactive,” but people don’t always get around to doing that quickly enough). He could be away, busy, or otherwise engaged. (Sometimes someone will respond to an inquiry after a long delay for one of these reasons.) You may be mystified that you haven’t gotten a response; however, the perplexing silence is not a reflection of your value, but of the other person’s situation—this was simply not meant to be.

Stay hopeful. Nevertheless, it can be discouraging and hurtful if a long time goes by without your making a connection. This can be one of the biggest challenges of Internet dating—how to remain optimistic without letting your fantasies get the better of you, leaving you vulnerable to hurt and disappointment. I recommend that you plan on a very low yield—figure that for every connection you attempt, there is only a 10% chance that it will lead to a date. It’s important that you stick to your quest and try to cast as wide a net as good judgment will allow.

What do you say when you’ve been contacted? I recommend following some of the dictates of polite social intercourse. If you are initiating the dialogue, ask yourself what interested you in this man’s profile. Mention that topic, and follow up on it (for instance, “You mentioned Greece—I’ve been there a few time, too. What was your favorite spot?”) These innocuous questions can be icebreakers that lead to more revealing details and more intimate discourse. This is also a time when you can either show some humor, testing the other’s responsiveness, or even attempt to be vaguely flirtatious. (I don’t recommend writing a flirty profile, however, lest it attract the wrong element.)

At this point, some potential candidates will lose out by revealing something that’s unattractive to you, or because they sound a lot weirder than they did in their profile. However, if your prospective date passes this first test, the next issue is whether to continue emailing or move ahead to phone contact—or even to meeting in person.

Only fools rush in. Many men want to leap into face-to-face contact, citing the ineffable element of “chemistry” (read: sexual attraction). Eager as you may be to meet, it is at this point that some essential vetting process should occur. Question, gently, some of the details of your date’s biography, history, background to see if it sounds plausible and hangs together.

One of my clients who had a very successful Internet contact  (leading to marriage) may serve as a useful example. She is someone who, raised in a country rife with political oppression, had very strong feelings about freedom vs. oppression. She met someone online who seemed like-minded, as well as compatible in other ways. When she started corresponding with him, she was able to establish that they knew a number of people in common, partly as a result of their shared values. She found this very reassuring, since she was a newcomer to Internet dating.

The Internet is good at making unlikely matches. This case also illustrates another important advantage that online dating offers. Although this couple had these friends/acquaintances in common, none of their mutual contacts had any idea that either was looking for a partner. Left alone, their friends would never have come up with the idea of introducing them. In fact, Internet dating allows a much greater sorting process than traditional methods might allow. While The New Yorker’s “Looking for Someone,” last July, accurately surmises that this process can “turn people into products,” everyone knows that surveying what’s widely available gives shoppers a more accurate sense of what’s on the market, and, more important, what’s appealing to them.

Stumbling on happiness. Internet dating is like setting out to buy a house. House-hunters will begin with some sense of what style they want, how much they can spend, what area appeals to them. However, the process often helps shape their vision as they go along. The more they see, the more their vision becomes refined. You may discover, through your Internet quest, that what you thought you liked isn’t leading you to discover what you find appealing in reality. (See Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard researcher who demonstrates that people actually have very little idea what makes them happy, and often are surprised by this.)

Open-mindedness is key. While it’s true that as we age we usually have a clearer sense of our likes and dislikes, you may be surprised if you really explore. And, if you are like most people, you have probably made a good share of mistakes in the romance department—in which case trying something new makes a certain amount of sense.

Next: Internet Dating 404: Getting Together