Bringing White House Power to Account: Feisty Women Carrying on a Long Tradition
I spent Saturday, January 21, 2017, in Washington D.C., in the company of hundreds of thousands of feisty women marching to have their voices and views heard. I want to write much more about that experience later — it was exhilarating, empowering, and important — but in the meantime, I want to call attention to some history I learned over the weekend.
Whatever your politics, the Trump Administration’s relationship with the Press surely has to be concerning. Official statements that rely on misleading or incorrect facts, shutting down critical news organizations with claims they are “fake news” and threats to remove the entire White House Press Corp from the White House threaten all of us and our right to ask questions of the President and his staff. No matter who is President, we need a strong and independent press to hold the administration to account.
Interestingly, it was often women reporters who led efforts to secure those rights.
An Uncommon Scold
Anne Newport Royall was the first professional newspaper journalist in the United States. She was also the first woman to ever interview a President. In 1825, she spotted John Quincy Adams swimming in the Potomac, something he often did early in the morning. Standing on the river bank, she asked for an interview and when he refused, she gathered up his clothes and sat on them until he gave in.
Royall didn’t come into her profession by a straight or easy path, but I am even more moved by the feisty courage she showed throughout her career. She was born in Baltimore in 1769 to a poor family. She and her mother were servants, but one of her employers, William Royall, who’d been a major in the Revolutionary war, appreciated her intelligence and made sure that she got an education and had access to his library. They were married in 1797.
15 years later, Major Royall died. His relatives disputed his will and left Anne Royall penniless. To earn her living, she became a travel writer and novelist in her early 50s. In Washington, D.C., she made a name for herself writing stories about powerful people in government that were often highly critical. Her reports were so stinging that her enemies had her charged and tried as a “public nuisance, a common brawler and a common scold.” She avoided a “public ducking” and was fined $10 instead, which journalist colleagues from another newspaper paid on her behalf. The experience humiliated her, and she left Washington for a time, but returned to launch two successive newspapers, Paul Pry, and later, The Huntress, which exposed political corruption and hypocrisy. She ended up interviewing the 9 Presidents in total over the course of her long and powerful life.
A Different Affair
Emily Edson Briggs, another pioneering newswoman, is one of the reasons why we even have a White House Press Corp tradition.
Emily Edson was born in Ohio in 1830 and raised in Chicago. She married John Briggs in 1854. In 1861, the Briggs moved to Washington when John became an assistant clerk to the US House of Representatives. Emily Briggs would often go to the White House with her husband when President Lincoln was in power. She became an acute observer of the social life at those White House events during a time of so much strife and tension.
In 1870, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Chronicle complaining of the treatment received by woman who were working for the Treasury Department. She used the pseudonym, Olivia, to defend their right to work. The owner of the newspaper liked her letter so much, he hired her to write a column under that name.
One of her first columns reported on Susan B. Anthony facing off against Congress. Olivia wrote:
“The great pumping power which this woman carries in her brain had lifted the blood into her cheeks, and her eyes blazed with the fire of early day. … [She] commenced by telling the gentlemen that they had it in their power to strike the word ‘male’ out of the Constitution. (Susan has a way of saying the word ‘male’ so that is sounds like the snapping of small arms.)”
She also began to give the public a much clearer sense of what happened at the White House, how things were done, how decisions were made, and even what parties were held and who attended. She justified this by saying, that private parties were no one’s business, but when the party occurred at the White House, it is
“altogether a different affair. It is public. It belongs to the people. When we go to the Executive Mansion we go to our own house… and the people have a right to know, through the columns of The Press, the exact state of the situation.”
She set the standard for the way the White House should be covered, and when information wasn’t forthcoming, she found ways to get it. She even interviewed White House serving staff and learned things that way until the practice was forbidden and the position of White House Press Secretary was established to channel and control information.
Briggs was named the first President of the Woman’s National Press Association when it was launched in 1882.
I’ve long admired Eleanor Fitzgerald Roosevelt for her accomplishments as an activist but didn’t know the role she’d had in freedom and equality of the press until recently.
Eleanor Fitzgerald was very shy as a child and felt physically and socially awkward. But she was committed to social justice causes as a young woman at a time when more and more women were just beginning to exercise political power. When her husband became Governor of New York he asked to her to step back from her public role, give up running her school, resign from all her Boards and stop being interviewed by the Press. She agreed, effectively muting her own voice. It must have been hard for her, I imagine.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, Eleanor wanted to have some influence on his political agenda so she offered to be his personal secretary. He turned her down, so she set about developing her own agenda instead. She started managing the White House as a business person would and reduced its costs to make it more efficient. She advocated for more women in positions of government and she studied the new social programs that were being implemented and tried to improve them. Over time, she became a force to be reckoned with and the Press sought her opinions in frequent interviews.
Eleanor Roosevelt knew, however, that women reporters did not have the same access to the President on certain occasions and needed to rely on men for their information. The Women’s National Press Club had been formed in 1919 to elevate women journalists confronting discrimination. Eleanor joined and began to hold women-only press conferences. This forced news organizations to hire more women and give women more autonomy as journalists to have access to the first lady.
It was a brilliant and beautiful move. More women reporters meant that more stories were being written from women’s perspectives. This helped advance causes that women were often aligned with.
Power and Purpose
Each of these women fought for access to Presidential power and used it to give insight and voice to their fellow women and to the public in general. Their courage and sense of purpose — their feistiness in the face of societal obstacles and institutional discrimination — are inspiring to me now.
Women are increasingly in positions of power today, but there is so much more we can and must do to battle conformity, injustice, and oppression while giving voice to ourselves and others. Many people left DC and the different marches around the country and the world filled with conviction but wondering what is next. I think the challenge before us is to not allow ourselves to be stopped or quieted, no matter what.
Keep hopeful and moving onward because from what I can see feisty women never will.
Sara believes feistiness is an important ingredient to cultivate in our organizations, communities, and societies to bring about transformation and progress.
If you’re intrigued, she recently released her latest business book that you can get here > Nimble, Focused, Feisty: Organizational Cultures that Win in the New Era and How to Create Them or go to www.nimblefocusedfeisty.com