April 2006

Rebecca Graber

nonfiction

Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Woman Journalists edited by Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane

I will freely admit: upon learning of the existence of this book, parts of me tingled that are not usually excited by women. Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Woman Journalists -- the very title conjures a dirty, pony-tailed lady in combat pants with a pen behind her ear and a notebook in her hand. Though I adore the cover’s white-bloused, cigarette-smoking blonde with the typewriter, too.

The writers in the collection, edited by Eleanor Mills of the Sunday Times and Kira Cochrane, who left the Times to pursue a successful fiction career, are gifted throughout with a foreknowledge of both form and fight alike.

Within are examples of “women’s subjects” -- marriage and motherhood, sex and Georgia O’Keefe -- but also of the more traditional journalism concerned with politics and world affairs. The subject matter is therefore immensely varied and richly satisfying, in a very physical way. Anyone with an interest in journalism, politics or social issues will find quite a bit to chew on here.

The anthology is arranged by loosely defined categories, within which articles are presented chronologically. Each article is preceded by a brief biography of the author. Whether you read the book straight through, or dip in as your whim declares, the overall effect is to amplify how the same questions arise and drop out of the public eye, only to be resurrected as the next generation realises that things never really did resolve themselves to any great satisfaction.

The pieces have aged remarkably well. Nellie Bly’s “10 Days in a Madhouse” (1888) matter-of-fact description of her time in the Blackwell Asylum, feigning insanity in order to report on the wretched conditions within, feels as fresh and outrageous as it much have 120 years ago. Djuna Barnes’s 1914 article, "I was Forcibly Fed," is a pioneering and physically revolting piece of gonzo journalism (among the first of the genre). It is as much an example of the sheer perseverance of women suffragists as it is a reminder that the balance between political protest, human dignity, and the value of life has not yet been resolved in the face of Guantanamo and other embarrassments.

Emma Goldman gets a large bit of the attention (and for one who has never read her, Journalistas is a revelation), but then there is Zelda Fitzgerald noting the dis-apparition of the flapper, Eleanor Roosevelt telling us about her day, and Gladys Hall interviewing the incomparable Tallulah Bankhead, honest as a machine gun and worth the cover price alone. Andrea Dworkin is present not as a campaigner, but as a sufferer of chronic, debilitating pain -- this unspoken juxtaposition of intellectual power and physical weakness resonates darkly throughout the piece.

There is, to be expected, a heavy dose of goddess worship. Julia Burchill’s closing “Slimeballs Always Hate a Strong Woman,” is a good example, as an admiration of Margaret Thatcher’s composure while everyone else called her names. Such is British politics. Still, I suppose you have to admire Thatcher’s, well -- balls, for a lack of a similarly evocative term. (Which brings up the ponderous question: when will it make any sense to say “that lady’s really got a pair of labs on her”?)

And there’s Camille Paglia, countering our fabled infatuations with her deconstruction of the Diana mythology, and Eleanor Mills’s interview with corrupt politician Benazir Bhutto. No, this is hardly Cosmo -- though Helen Gurley Brown does make an appearance. Even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones column is given new weight, when seen in context of the relentless hounding women have received over the years. When is too late to have children? What is the role of marriage within society, much less within the couple themselves?

Beer and chips, chocolate and cigarettes -- who wouldn’t want to escape the big questions every once in a while?

But big questions there are, and not simply those which women have traditionally been alone in raising. Martha Gellhorn’s pivotal 1936 account of a lynching -- and the arbitrary way in which she found herself a spectator -- will imprint itself on the reader’s mind. Julie Flint’s report on the bestial conditions of a Kurdish camp in the first Gulf War could be so tragically well-applied to a number of current “humanitarian” efforts. And Rose George’s brutal 2004 article on gang rape is an unqualified stand-out.

There is room for improvement, as expected for a project of such scope. Apostrophes and commas appear to jump off the page, reappearing elsewhere -- sometimes in the guise of periods. Additional representation of sexual minority issues, and an expansion of the racial composition of the writers, would also be welcome. I was hoping Iris Chang would make an appearance.

But that is for another edition, I suppose. For the moment, Mills and Cochrane have succeeded in compiling a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking sampling of groundbreaking work. Indeed, the beauty of this anthology is that it contains, page for page, damned good journalism.

Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists edited by Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane
Carrol & Graf Publishers
ISBN: 0786716673
363 pages