Column: Old challenges in a new era

On my desk is a photo of Gwen Cash, Canada’s first female general reporter.

On my desk is a photo of Gwen Cash, Canada’s first female general reporter.

Cash began her journalism career in 1917 and freelanced for 65 years. She was known to smoke cigars, sunbathe nude – and wear pants.

According to a Saanich centennial publication produced in 2006, Cash lived on Richmond Road in Saanich and died when she was 95.

Though Cash was gone the year I arrived on this planet, other savvy veteran female journalists remain in our midst.

Lynne Van Luven, founding director of the professional writing minor in journalism and publishing at the University of Victoria, began her career as a community reporter in the 1970s.

While Van Luven has watched the details of the job change over the years, she’s seen the difficulties remain the same. The challenge: being taken seriously in a business that’s still largely run on male values, she says.

When Van Luven started out, she was described as perky. She had her bum patted in the composing room at her newspaper office. And as Van Luven describes it, nobody ever expected too much of the woman – except herself.

The sexual harassment may not exist in the same way as when she was first hired as editor of the Women’s Pages – which she soon renamed the Family Pages in an effort to broaden the scope of the section and take on social issues. Male values have since gone underground, she says. Difficult returns from maternity leaves, fewer opportunities and beat assignments are areas where the disparity is evident, she tells me.

Recently I was questioned on why the Saanich News beats seem to be divided along gender lines – a notion I hadn’t put much thought into since I enjoy my health, education, family and generally light life assignments as opposed to covering crime or council goings on – but it’s a question worth asking.

“I often say to my female friends, ‘what was that about?’” Van Luven says. “We were so crazy in the ’70s. We worked for women’s shelters and marched and did all of those things and now I feel like I’m watching history repeat itself.”

Last winter I read a post by American journalist Hillary Rosner on her blog Tooth & Claw she titled: “Their So-Called Journalism, or What I Saw at the Women’s Mags,” that should make any journalist angry at the state of the magazine rack.

Rosner, who has written for major science publications, was interested in freelancing a profile on a woman running a sanctuary in Borneo for orangutans affected by the destruction of rainforest, a result of palm oil production.

When she pitched the story to a major women’s magazine, she learned half of the advertisers directly contribute to the forest destruction by using palm oil in their make-up and beauty products and the editor, while sympathetic, was unwilling to take the risk and cover the issue.

Rosner goes on to chronicle the deliberate editing of quotes, selecting story subjects based on looks alone and requests for blatant fabrication in stories.

Rosner also tackles the lack of women’s bylines in long-form narrative journalism – the result of an apparent lack of interest from editors of women’s magazines to publish longer formats.

I doubt women who actually buy those magazines would be upset if they stumbled across an intelligent, inspired article within the pages of advertising and diet tips.

If you’re like Van Luven, you’ve given up on the women’s section of the magazine rack all together and if you’re like me you do the same, though you might occasionally pick up something like Esquire for a dose of A.J. Jacobs and some comedic misogyny.

I’ve been thinking about Cash this October during Women’s History Month in Canada. It’s also the United Nations’ first International Day of the Girl, a day intended to recognize rights and challenges girls face around the world.

These rights and challenges, I can say with confidence, range so far beyond any judgement or discrimination I’ve ever encountered in my easy little B.C lifestyle due to my gender. But it’s my job to ask and to wonder why the Van Luvens of the world feel we’re returning to the early days of the women’s lib movement. “The zeitgeist is just bigger than most of us,” she says.

Natalie North is a reporter for the Saanich News.

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