Carol Sutton: Newspaper Pioneer

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

As a women’s page editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal in the 1960s, Carol Sutton was quick to recognize the importance of the Women’s Liberation Movement. She said her supervising editors did not challenge her progressive coverage although “sometimes I’d see an eyebrow arched.”

For example, when Louisville college students became active in women’s liberation, Sutton sent reporters to cover those activities and published a large front-page story about it. A male editor asked her if she was not overplaying the story. “No,” Sutton answered. “I think we’re on the threshold of the largest social change you’ll ever see in this country.” He looked taken aback and said, “OK.”

Sutton was a groundbreaking American journalist and a pioneer for women in newspaper management. She became the first female managing editor of a major U.S. daily newspaper  when she was promoted to the position at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1974.

Sutton was raised in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated from the University of Missouri with a journalism degree. She started at the Courier-Journal as a secretary and soon became a general assignment reporter. She later married a fellow reporter and raised two daughters.

In 1963, she became the women’s page editor at the newspaper and updated it to a progressive section. She desegregated the bridal page and raised the standards of her section’s content to be more than society news. By 1974, managing editor George Gill was leaving and a replacement was needed, paving the way for Sutton’s promotion.

Publisher Barry Bingham, Jr., said, “Any way we cut it, Carol kept coming out on top.” Her selection was a sign that change was slowly beginning. Four years later, a national study of 1,700 daily newspapers showed that women held 2.7 percent of managerial positions in daily newspapers with circulations above 25,000, and overall held 5 percent of supervisory editor positions.

Bingham told Newsweek that he had asked Sutton if the job, along with caring for her two daughters, would be too much strain. “I don’t think I would have asked that if she had been a man,” he said.

In her first months as managing editor, Sutton was deluged by requests from other media outlets as a “first.” With her new fame—including a 1976 Time magazine cover—Sutton spent weekends giving speeches to numerous organizations and press clubs. A traveling advertisement for the newspaper, she was encouraged by Bingham to accept “request after request.” The speaking circuit proved to be exhausting and she recalled, “Those seven-day weeks never quit.” 

Under her watch, reporters covered important stories such as Watergate and school desegregation. Yet, Sutton created a staff rift by wanting human-interest stories on the front page. Her interest in those types of stories, along with resentment by the male reporters, made her a target. “She did not get the support,” one of her reporters said. “They expected her to play the part of celebrity and also criticized her for not being around to mind the store. It became a downward spiral.” In May 1976, after less than two years, Sutton was removed from her position and reassigned as an assistant to the publisher.

Despite her short tenure as managing editor, she made a difference. Several years after Sutton’s time as managing editor, the Courier-Journal named another woman, Irene Nolan, to the position. Nolan, who worked for Sutton, was a direct beneficiary of her mentoring efforts and enjoyed a much less tumultuous tenure in the position. “Carol and her generation fought these battles for us,” Nolan said. “By the time we came along we expected to do these things.”

Sutton died on February 19, 1985, of cancer while still on the staff of the newspaper. She was 51 years old.

Photo courtesy of the National Women and Media Collection


Kimberly Wilmot Voss, PhD, is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida. She studies women and newspapers in the 1950s through the 1970s. She examines the women who worked in journalism at that time, as well as the media’s representation of women. This often means looking at the early years of the women’s liberation movement. She has published numerous academic articles in these areas. She is currently writing a book about Dallas women’s page editor Vivian Castleberry.