Not Exactly Brenda Starr

Brenda StarrToday is the third anniversary of Brenda Starr’s final appearance. Oh children, please don’t tell me you don’t know about Brenda Starr.

Brenda Starr was a drop-dead gorgeous newspaper reporter with a magnificent head of flame red hair. She was created in 1940 by Dale Messick, a woman who changed her name to mask her gender, in a comic strip for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. At the height of her popularity in the 1950s, Brenda Starr, Reporter was carried in 250 newspapers, and even as recently as 2010 the strip was appearing in 65 newspapers, 35 of them international papers. The final strip appeared on Jan. 2, 2011.

Even though we knew Brenda’s story with its glamorous international assignments and romantic interludes was pure fantasy, we young women reporters of the 1950s and ‘60s held a special place in our hearts for her. We joked to one another as we headed out to cover some silly society luncheon, “Yup, me and Brenda Starr.” Brenda Starr was a serious investigative reporter; she never covered society luncheons. Brenda Starr never had a journalism professor refuse to admit her into his class because “girls just get married and it’s a waste of my time to teach them” Brenda Starr was never relegated to a newspaper’s women’s department to write wedding and engagement stories because she “didn’t have the gumption” to cover “hard news.” And when Brenda and her longtime love Basil St. John finally married and had a baby girl they named Starr Twinkle St. John, Brenda’s career as an investigative reporter continued uninterrupted. No one told Brenda she should not work because she had a child.

If all of that reads like the disgruntled musings of a fugitive from the Ice Age of American Journalism, I’m sorry. For many of us who had been encouraged by our parents to go for non-stereotypical careers, encountering male resistance was a shock. Dale Messick herself had problems. While the strip was carried by the Tribune Syndicate, the Chicago Tribune’s editor initially refused to run it because its author was a woman. And if her illustrations showed too much cleavage or a navel, the papers erased them out. So yes, we’ve all come a long way, haven’t we, baby?

One of my daughters is a journalist now. When I was retelling for the 99th time how I blew my interview with The New York Times, that daughter said, “But didn’t you explain all that was going on in your life at the time?” (We were living in a hotel with a 3-year-old child while two giant dogs and a cat were racking up boarding bills back in California because we couldn’t find  someone who’d rent to us. Oh, and my father was hospitalized in New Jersey in an oxygen tent following a massive heart attack. The only reason I was in for an interview is because I was summoned.)  No, I didn’t mention any of that. Prospective employers did not want to hear that you had problems of any kind, especially if they thought you shouldn’t be there anyway. Women had to display an ability to DO IT ALL, and no whining.

Now here’s Katherine Zoepf in The New Yorker writing about taking her two-month-old son with her on assignment to Saudi Arabia. And an obituary for Patricia Ryan who rose from the typing pool at Time Inc. to hold managing editor spots at Life and People magazines. She was the first woman in 27 years to be appointed to a top editorial job at Time Inc.  Many women rose above the prejudice of male colleagues determined to keep journalism as a men-only bastion. They did it through talent and determination and by ignoring the naysayers. Much as Brenda Starr might have done.

4 comments on “Not Exactly Brenda Starr

  1. Lewis Dana says:

    The Pat Ryan obit was a double hit for those who lived through the palmy days at Time Inc. LIFE photographer John Dominis’s obit was on the same page of the Times as Ryan’s, a tribute to the epochal way things changed during that era.

    Ryan and Dominis were consummate professionals. One of them had to fight harder to get to the top.It was assumed that Dominis, as a terrific photographer, deserved terrific assignments. Ryan faced far bigger challenges, because, well, she had this little problem: she was a woman.

    Things were changing, but it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, nor did doors open magically. Way back then, Time Inc. was the classic old boys’ network.

    A smart woman could work her way right up to exalted station as head of Research (read WIlliam Brinkley’s “The Fun House” to understand how “it” worked). Those women were tough, competent, ingenious and to many of us, terrifying forces to be reckoned with. But Chief of Research was it.

    In the late 60s, my wife worked at Time Inc. for a remarkable, wonderful, wryly funny woman who had started as a secretary. Moved on to sales director. And kept on moving up on pure talent.

    And the times changed.

    She eventually became my boss, too. Hey, if you knew her, you’d have considered it an honor, as I did then and still do today.

    Then, in 1978, she became the first female Vice President of Time Incorporated. People wandered down the halls murmuring, “A lady Vice President, we’ve never had one of them. Ever. A woman, running a corporate division? She has budget control for God’s sake?”

    The times changed. For the better.

    • patnieder says:

      Didn’t they, though? Thanks for this expanded insight into the inner workings of Time Inc. I worked there the summer before my senior year in college as a typist in the Letters Department. But I never considered applying there for a job after graduation because I knew the most a woman journalist could hope for was a job as “researcher,” with the actual “reporter” (writing) jobs reserved for men. These days I’m thinking that the real heroines were the women who stayed and persevered.

    • Roger Keyser says:

      For the much better, I’d say. From my vantage point, working at AT&T, it appears that the glass ceilings for women have now finally disappeared.

  2. patnieder says:

    You may be seeing some of this in your field but until the appointment of a woman CEO to head a major corporation is no longer treated as stop-the-presses news, the ceiling remains. And let’s not forget the fact that, overall, women still make 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

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