Page 1 news: a male club that still bars most women

AN encouraging sign of the times: Women are writing an increasing number of front-page articles in major newspapers. A not-so-encouraging sign of the times: Women still are not making much front-page news themselves.

A study of four newspapers - the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor - shows 30 percent more women's bylines in August, September, and October of this year than during the same period in 1982.

Yet there continues to be a lack of Page 1 articles and photographs featuring women. On average, only 6 percent of front-page stories in 1987 pertained to women, compared with just under 5 percent in 1982. And less than 11 percent of 1987 photos included women identified by name - up from 9.5 percent five years ago.

A few specifics:

In photos, the Boston Globe led, with 14 percent of front-page pictures featuring identified women - a figure unchanged from 1982. The New York Times scored 11 percent, down from 12 percent five years ago. The Washington Post also scored 11 percent, up from nearly 9 percent. The Christian Science Monitor, a compact paper that usually runs only one or two front-page photos, was fourth, with 6 percent - double its 1982 figure.

Moreover, many women pictured on Page 1 were there not as newsmakers themselves but as wives of newsworthy men: Nancy Reagan and the President visiting Alf Landon on his 100th birthday; Nancy Reagan and the President greeting the Pope; Jill Biden standing by her husband, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., as he withdrew from the Democratic presidential race; and Mary Ellen Bork accompanying her husband, Robert, during Senate hearings on his Supreme Court nomination.

Among women pictured for their own accomplishments, several achieved Page 1 status because of resignations. They included a downcast President Corazon Aquino leaving the palace after her Cabinet resigned; Elizabeth Dole resigning as secretary of transportation to campaign for her husband, Republican presidential contender Robert Dole; and Rep. Patricia Schroeder, tearfully announcing her decision not to seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

Front-page articles about women were similarly scarce. Leading topics included women's pay raises, women's concerns over the nomination of Mr. Bork to the Supreme Court, and issues facing Roman Catholic women.

Here the Boston Globe led again, with 7 percent of Page 1 stories centered on women or women's issues - up from 6 percent in 1982. The New York Times ranked second with nearly 6 percent, compared with 4 percent five years ago. The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor both scored 5 percent. The Post's figure was virtually unchanged from five years ago. The Monitor's was up from 3 percent.

Even when women do make front-page news, stories often treat them not as winners or equal competitors but as victims or problems. Patricia Schroeder, for instance, received more front-page coverage for shedding a few public tears than she did for running a brief but respectable ``testing the waters'' campaign.

Why, nearly a quarter century after publication of Betty Friedan's ``The Feminine Mystique'' and the beginning of the women's movement in America, are women still nearly invisible on the front page?

The most obvious explanation is that despite impressive gains, women are still not among the power brokers, the real movers and shakers, in government and industry. What has been called a ``glass ceiling'' - an invisible barrier that keeps them from reaching all but a few top posts in business - also hinders their ascent in politics.

No editor or writer can create news about women when there is none, or place on Page 1 a story that clearly belongs on Page 7 or 47.

Yet breaking or ``hard'' news is only part of the front pages of many papers. Another category, called news features or ``soft'' news, offers stories that are timely but not time-dated, reflecting social change and the human condition.

Notable examples in the 1987 study include a Washington Post story on Danish women approaching equality in that country's armed forces, a New York Times article about sexual harassment in the American military, a Christian Science Monitor profile of the first black congresswoman in Brazil, and a Boston Globe article on the Women's Alliance in Iceland, a feminist political party.

Still, the placement of these stories is often a judgment call. What one editor sees as a logical piece for Page 1, another might choose to place elsewhere - on the business page, for instance, or in the life style section.

Until the early 1970s, most newspapers relegated stories about women to the women's page, a predictable mix of features about food, fashions, weddings, and social clubs.

Then, with the rise of feminism and changing roles for women, women's pages gave way to life style sections bearing gender-neutral titles such as Living, Style, Tempo, and Scene. Social issues were In. Society news was Out, or at least less prominently displayed.

Women, it appeared, were finally coming into their own in print.

Today some women think those gains are being quietly eroded. During a Women in the Media luncheon at the National Women's Political Caucus convention in Portland, Ore., in August, members noted that some papers are now combining Living and Arts pages. These redesigned Living/-Arts sections, they said, offer less space for coverage of social issues affecting women and families.

Some readers also argue that editors still run profiles of prominent women in life style sections. One Boston paper was chided last month for running an interview with Norway's female prime minister, Gro Harlem Bruntland, in the Living section. Other papers have printed similar complaints from readers about the placement of stories on feminism and women in politics.

This continuing lack of front-page visibility comes at a time when urgent social issues such as child care, pay equity, and child support - issues affecting not only women but also men and children - remain unsolved. Continuing to consign them to the back sections of newspapers only reinforces widely held perceptions that these are women's problems, not societal responsibilities. It also postpones solutions.

One of the more hopeful signs comes in a count of women's front-page bylines. Among the four papers studied, the Washington Post led with 29 percent - up from 19 percent in 1982. The Boston Globe was second, with 22 percent, compared with 13 percent five years ago. The Christian Science Monitor ranked third, with 21 percent, tying its 1982 figure. The New York Times trailed with 14 percent, up from 8 percent.

As more women write the news and move into policymaking roles, they will be in stronger positions to encourage better placement of important stories. A survey last year by veteran newspaper editor Dorothy Jurney found that 76 percent of United States dailies still have no women in news policymaking jobs.

Women now make up 60 percent of students in journalism schools, according to Alisa Shapiro, projects director of the Women's Media Project in Washington, D.C. But she cautions that it will take 10 or 20 years before those women hold positions of power.

By then, perhaps glass ceilings everywhere will have shattered, allowing more women to rise to key positions. When that happens, front pages may no longer look like the journalistic equivalent of a locker room or an all-male club.

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