Dr. Eileen Wirth retired in May as chair of the Creighton University Department of Journalism, Media and Computing. She was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald from 1969-1980 and is the author of several books on Nebraska and Omaha history, including From Society Page to Front Page (Bison Books, 2013). She is a senior writer for Legacy Preservation of Omaha, an Omaha family history writing company.
In 1969 as I joined the Omaha World-Herald as one of its first women city reporters, my peers at Newsweek were revolting. They filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against their employer that ultimately was victorious. Women at the New York Times also sued for discrimination.
Meanwhile in Omaha, women journalists were holding potlucks to find under the radar ways to solve our problems. We wanted things like an equal chance to train for top beats and an end to sexism in news coverage. Little did the guys know that our nonthreatening hen parties had become informal consciousness raising gatherings! But a lawsuit in Omaha? Are you crazy? We liked being employed.
If you’re watching Amazon’s The Good Girls Revolt and wonder what happened in Nebraska, check out my book From Society Page to Front Page that was published by University of Nebraska Press in 2013, a year after the book that inspired the Amazon Original Series.
I wrote the book because national women journalists my age were telling their stories and I wanted to share our very different tale of breaking the barriers to women in news. Our story wasn’t as dramatic as a lawsuit but it was just as successful and it involved women who have gone on to important journalistic careers here and elsewhere.
When I approached UNP with the idea of a book on how Baby Boom women integrated the area media, the editors said they would accept it if I told the story of Nebraska’s women journalists back to pioneer days. I instantly accepted the challenge but almost drove off of I-80 heading home to Omaha because I had no clue if we had even had women journalists in Nebraska way back when.
During my three-year treasure hunt to find them, I met astonishing women. I knew Willa Cather had started her career at the Lincoln Journal in the 1880s but I had never heard of her friend, the remarkable Elia Peattie, whose World-Herald columns painted a picture of life in Omaha during that era. The columns ranged from accounts of packinghouse workers slaughtering hogs to satirical depictions of rich Omaha women observing morbid Victorian mourning rituals. Incidentally Peattie, a working mother with an invalid husband, was the first to predict a great future for Cather.
I also discovered two major suffragist journalists, one of whom published an important suffrage newspaper in Beatrice. I became close friends with Beverly Deepe Keever, the nation’s longest serving Vietnam War correspondent. Other women featured included one of the nation’s pioneer women White House reporters, the CEO of the nation’s largest African American broadcasting firm, and women who covered the Starkweather murders. A 103-year-old columnist from Overton (whom I interviewed over the phone) described being paid for her paper in chickens during the Dust Bowl when the farmers had no money. I learned about World War II’s “Rosie the Reporters” who signed contracts that they would be fired when the war ended. I talked to a future World-Herald department head who was hired as a secretary because the paper refused to hire women for city news for twenty-five years after World War II.
I fell in love with these women, most of whom have long been forgotten. Watch The Good Girls Revolt and then meet our Nebraska women journalists. I am proud to claim sisterhood with them. I hope you will too!