In the lull between Christmas and New Year’s a high school classmate of mine, and regular reader of this blog, reminded me of the woman who was a photographer for our hometown paper, Betty Love.(1) The name rang a bell, but I knew nothing about her. I had decided to take the last ten days of the year off, so I had time to take a little dive down a rabbit hole.(2) I’m so glad I did. Love’s career was both singular and emblematic of the careers of many women journalists of the mid-twentieth century. I had no idea.
Love was an art teacher in Springfield ,Missouri’s elementary and junior high schools in the 1930s. In 1941, she took what was supposed to be a temporary job replacing the cartoonist at the Springfield News and Leader. (Given the timing, I presume the cartoonist she replaced had volunteered for World War II , though none of the sources say that.) Not surprisingly, her cartoons focused on the realities of wives and children on the home front, an unusual perspective for political cartoonists at the time. (4)
She was still the “temporary” cartoonist four years later, when the paper’s photographer, John Reading McGuire, was drafted. The paper’s editor, perhaps counting on Love’s artistic talent, handed her McGuire’s camera and told her she was now the photographer. She quickly taught herself the technical skills she needed to do the job, including how to develop film in the newspaper’s darkroom.
Love was the paper’s photographer for three decades, from 1945 until her retirement in 1975.
She was a photographer for a local paper, but her work was known beyond the Missouri Ozarks. One of her photographs helped change the rules governing news photography. In 1948, she was assigned to get a picture at the federal courthouse, where two prisoners were being brought in under the custody of federal marshal Fred “Bull” Camfil. Camfil told her she couldn’t take the picture. Love told him she had a first amendment right to do so. Camfil made the mistake of saying “The constitution be damned.” When Love continued to take pictures, the marshals threw blankets over the prisoners. Love's photograph and Camfil’s foot-in-the-mouth comment made the wires. The incident led to a ruling that federal marshals and their deputies could not prohibit photographers from taking pictures of federal prisoners on the public way outside of a courthouse.
Love was one of the first women newspaper photographers, a pioneer of the use of color photography in daily newspapers a charter member of the National Press Photographers Association, and one the original inductees into the Missouri Journalism Hall of Fame.
I was fascinated by Love’s story, but it raised a question for me. How many women like her were there, working as hard-nosed journalists at smaller papers at the same time that Sigrid Schultz and a handful of other women were making their names in big city papers? And how do you find them? *****
If you know of a woman who worked in your local paper in the mid-twentieth century as a reporter or photojournalist, I’d love to know.
(1) Thanks, Tracy!
(2) Who am I kidding? I would have gone down that rabbit hole regardless. I always do.(3)
(3) My new motto in this regard regard comes from Zora Neal Hurston: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.” (With a hat tip to historian and biographer Ray Boomhower, who recently shared this quotation.)
(4) At this point I drifted down a secondary rabbit hole on women political cartoonists and began to build a bibliography. Because I had a thought.
(5)Actually, now that I think about it, I have an idea or two about that. Hmmm.
In 2021, I read an article by art historian Bridget Quinn titled “What Should We Call the Great Women Artists?” I was already struggling with the questions of what to call Sigrid Schultz in the book I was working on.* I was fascinated by Quinn’s argument and taken with her voice. I immediately added her to the list of people I wanted to contact for my series of Women’s History Month mini-interviews the following March.** (You can see her interview here.)
Almost two years after that interview, I finally read Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Mad History (In That Order).
Here’s the short version of what I have to say: Wow!
Here’s the short version of what Quinn has to say: “The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has a story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.”
In the introduction, Quinn tells the story of how she came to realize that women artists had existed, even though few of them appeared in the Big Fat Art History Book that was used in almost every art history class taught in the United States in the last 50 years, H.W. Janson’s History of Art. She continued with the journey that led her from that revelation to the book in my hand.
The fifteen essays that follow are dazzling. Quinn is erudite, witty, and passionate. She places each woman in not only her art historical context, but her larger historical moment. By the second essay I had lugged my copy of Janson off the shelf so I could look at the art work Quinn references. (Yes, I recognize the irony.) When Jansen failed me, I turned to Google. She traces major themes across the essays: the recurrence of missing mothers and artist fathers, the similar challenges the women faced across the centuries, the difficulty of finding information on the artists. More, Quinn sets each woman within the context of her own intellectual and emotional journey, telling us how each artist entered her life and what it meant to her at the time. Her analysis is consistently insightful. Her interaction with each work is personal, and inspiring.
As you can tell, I am a fan. If you are interested in smart writing, women’s history, or looking at art from a different perspective, this one’s for you.
*It took me another two years to make a decision.
**I’m running the series again this March, with a fascinating line-up of creators working in the field of women’s history. Don’t touch that dial.
Bridget Quinn has written a full-length biography of one of the women she explores in Broad Strokes. Portrait of a Woman: Art, Rivalry and Revolution in the Life of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard will be released on April 16. I can hardly wait.
One of the challenges of writing history is deciding where the story starts. For me that not only means deciding where I begin telling the story, but how much of the backstory I need to understand. The short answer is, a lot. I am never comfortable making broad generalizations based on other people’s broad generalizations.
For The Dragon From Chicago, I spent a lot of time learning about the history of foreign and war correspondents. It had not dawned on me before I began working that overseas press bureaus as we know them were, like so much of life in the mid-twentieth century, an outcome of World War I. If I was going to understand the conditions under which Sigrid Schultz worked, I needed to understand how journalists covered the Great War.
I started with very general books on the subject, most notably Philip Knightley’s the First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Iraq.* Knightley’s book is a solid, accessible introduction to the subject. If I were a different kind of writer I could have stopped there.
I’m so glad I didn’t. If I had, I might not have discovered Chris Dubb’s two excellent books on American journalists in the Great War.
American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of Reporting (2017) is a deep dive into the experience of American journalists who reported on the war in Europe in which Dubbs argues that they redefined war coverage. (For what it's worth, I agree.) He looks at the journalists who covered both fronts before America entered the war in April 1917, including those who attached themselves to the German army. He outlines the development of an accredited news force attached to the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), in greater depth than Knightley. He follows the experiences of individual journalists, in the Balkans, in Russia, in the trenches of the Western front. My only quibble with the book is a personal one: only two of the World War I correspondents who later reported from Berlin made an appearance. I would have loved to see them through another historian’s eyes.
Dubbs briefly discussed women who managed to report on the war in American Journalists in the Great War. He covered the subject in greater depth in a second book, An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I (2020). Women weren’t allowed to become accredited war correspondents attached to the AEF, but some gained credentials as “visiting correspondents” for magazines and others made their way to Europe with no credentials at all. Dubbs covers the stories of more than thirty women who reported on the war. Their shared assignment was to cover the “woman’s angle” of the war. As a group they stretched that definition to include much more than their editors intended. (My personal favorite, mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, was the first journalist to visit the front line trenches.) An Unladylike Profession was less useful to me than his more general book, but I found it absolutely fascinating, for obvious reasons.
I give both books a big thumbs up for anyone interested in the history of journalism, the First World War, or kick-ass women.
* “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.” Senator Hiram Johnson. 1917. (In case it isn’t obvious from that quotation, Johnson was not a fan of the United States getting involved in the Great War. He was also a major player in the United States’ decision not to sign the Versailles Treaty and a leader of the isolationist movement in the period leading up to the Second World War, though he hated being referred to as an isolationist.)