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