When Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee died last week, he was, rightfully so, lauded for many things, including the Watergate investigation. He was also recognized for his creation of the Style section in 1969 and its groundbreaking role in lifestyle journalism. Yet, when looked at through the lens of journalism history, this accomplishment becomes something of an overstatement.
Prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the only place women could work at a newspaper was in the women’s pages, other than a handful of exceptions. These women were usually marginalized in their newsrooms yet beloved by their readers. The women’s page editors made the most of their situations and often innovated pioneering moves under the radar of their male editors.
The women’s page editors had already begun implementing changes to their sections well before Bradlee created the Style section (One of the most impressive was in Florida at the St. Petersburg Times which created the DAY section. What made this section unique was that it was headed by Anne Rowe. Most of the redesigned women’s pages were headed by men.) These sections were evolving as early as the 1950s at some newspapers and it was clear by the 1960s that change was on its way.
What happens when Bradlee is recognized for his work is that the women who were true groundbreakers get forgotten. Consider Marie Sauer (above) who headed the Washington Post’s women’s section prior to the style section’s debut. Her women’s section was a progressive mix of hard and soft news in a city where political decisions were often crafted at social events. It was she who wanted to change the name of the section in the 1950s to “For and About People” but was denied.
As a Columbia University School of Journalism graduate, Sauer came to the Post in 1935 as assistant Sunday editor. She became Sunday editor a year later and held that position until 1942, when she joined the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant. She was the first woman staff member of the Post to join the armed forces in World War II.
After her return in 1946, she became woman’s editor where she remained until her retirement in 1969 (and the launch of Style). Some people considered the women’s editor position to be a demotion for her; Sauer did not. According to a study that included an interview with Sauer, she saw this as an opportunity to provide news about “prominent women, average women, white women, black women—their fashions, their foods, their lifestyles, their fight for equal rights and civil rights, their involvement in community actions” that would “inform, amuse, challenge and intrigue.”
She earned several recognitions for her section, including the top prize for the women’s pages, the J.C. Penney-Missouri Award in 1963 and 1965. She was honored for her distinguished journalistic achievement by Columbia University in 1963. She also served as president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1952, at a time when women were not allowed to be members of the National Press Club.
She was also a dogged journalist. According to her obituary, Sauer would often instruct her staff on what to ask and who to talk to, such as requesting a reporter to, “See what the secretary of defense thinks about this.” In turn, as the obituary noted, this approach “won recognition as required reading for anyone hoping to understand how Washington worked.”
Sauer long believed in the value of hard news in her section, and in truth believed newsroom policies often restricted the scope of her section, and what it could or could not cover. Bradlee may get the credit for turning the Post’s Style section into more, but Sauer clearly wanted to improve the section in the decade before he made his move.
Had Bradlee done nothing, chances are the transformation of the women’s pages to lifestyle sections was predestined by both the messages from the women’s liberation movement to better integrate women’s news throughout newspapers, and the growth of the “sectional revolution” experienced at newspapers in the early 1970s.
A better model for who inspired the changes in soft news would be Colleen “Koky” Dishon at the Chicago Tribune. As the first woman whose name appeared in the paper’s masthead, she created more than 15 sections during her tenure beginning in 1975. Her ideas were quickly copied across the country.
Ben Bradlee was clearly a legendary journalist and should be lauded for all that he achieved. (His initial description of the new Style section was one that would put emphasis on arts and the private lives of celebrities, among other things.) Who should also be remembered were the true pioneers of lifestyle journalism: Marie Sauer, Anne Rowe and Colleen “Koky” Dishon. It is easy to heap praise upon men like Bradlee who already carry a legacy on their shoulders. But when that praise is not shared, it is also too easy for the new generation of historians to continue marginalizing the real pioneers.
Photo of Marie Sauer courtesy of National Women & Media Collection.