This is the third in our series of articles in which writer Amy Hill Hearth asks magazine and newspaper editors what kinds of accomplishments make a woman “important enough” to be the subject of an feature article.  

Ruth Bass signing books in Stockbridge, MA.

Today’s response is from Ruth Bass, 77, an editor with decades of experience at The Berkshire Eagle, a daily newspaper in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Ms. Bass is the author of ten herbal cookbooks as well as two historical novels, Sarah’s Daughter and Rose, and she’s working on another novel. She entered the newspaper world way back in what we thought were the old chauvinistic days. So her optimist point of view surprised us.

The Eagle has always been open to stories about women, as long as their stories were compelling.

“Starting back when I was a graduate student in journalism at Columbia,” she noted, “I would have to say that the newspaper world was in my experience not closed to any kind of story about women. The criteria would not be—then or in my later days in the 1980s and 1990s as Sunday editor—whether  they were important, but whether they were interesting. Perhaps I was lucky—first, because Columbia was a pretty liberal place, and so was The Berkshire Eagle, where I worked in various capacities, off and on, from 1956 to 1996 (with time out for about 15 years of child-raising).

“In those early days at The Eagle, I was the only city reporter— police and court—who was female. No one thought I should be singled out to write stories concerning women, nor did they rescue me from anything gory or horrifying on my beat. I was just part of the team.

“But those of us women who were in newsrooms in those days were as much pioneers as the women who settled Plimoth Plantation, sometimes feeling as if we were alone in a wilderness and knowing that even though we were treated close to equally on assignments, we weren’t paid equally, and our opinions on the issues of the day were perhaps received less seriously than were the male views.

“As for ‘important,’ one of my first front-page stories as a reporter was about a woman who wasn’t important in any way.She was a wife and mother earning a second income for her family by selling a line of plasticware. Her only reason for getting on Page 1 was that she was interesting. Very. She was blind.

Does a woman have to be Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel to deserve coverage? (Photo: Associated Press)

“So, the question still remains about the differences between then and now, and one of the major ones is that no one feels compelled to write about this woman or that being the first female to be elected, to climb a mountain, to ride a bicycle backwards, or whatever. As an editor, I still chose “interesting” over “important” and was often able to persuade my fellow editors to do the same. And I don’t recall any instances when I was Sunday editor of The Berkshire Eagle (1990–96) that we dismissed a story because someone, male or female, wasn’t “important.” In fact, I have no sense of gender being a consideration in choosing stories. Men, however, were more likely to be hired.

“It would seem that the problem today is that the media seems to be glassy-eyed about women who have become celebrities for reasons either admirable or despicable, which may signal a return to the kind of situation where an editor says, ‘She’s not important.’ Then one has to hope the pendulum is ready to swing toward a sane center.”

 

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  • Kathryn April 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Charlie Rose profiled Jane Fonda last fall because of her book PRIME TIME. She offers women AND men encouraging words about that third act she knows from stage work is important theater. Two earlier interviews, both in 2006, emphasized her quest for genuine faith and a relationship with a man where both show up, warts and all. In these conversations, she reiterates the greater importance, in her experience, of a woman being — rather than interesting — `interested.` Perhaps because her realms are different from most, and the world has found her ever fascinating, she came to this humility in response to no longer finding it as useful or worthwhile to garner fame as a celebrity; rather, perhaps — as Charlie Rose noted — she seems genuinely `curious` and in awe of life and the world. That she is a diligent worker in all she does impressed him. She admits she is careful about her looks; she has had some cosmetic surgery under her eyes. Exercising more gently (there is a new work-out DVD for women in their third acts) she eats for health (“something dark green every day“) and it is her work and writing that involve her at levels with other people she most takes pride in being granted and is grateful to soak up. The saturated Lady Jane Seymore Fonda, her given name at birth — vintage, going on to venerable. And, by the way, interesting indeed.

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  • Cheryl April 12, 2012 at 7:58 am

    I’ve always thought of my many women friends who have lived rather ordinary lives EXTRA-ordinary women. Extraordinary. Just dealing with the day to day issues, life-changing in both good and bad ways, is worth notice. And because there are so very many of us, we often go unnoticed. Thanks for noticing. Cheryl

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