The early women who shaped science journalism

When Science News was founded in 1921, journalism was still a men’s domain, with women relegated largely to writing for the society pages. But women in the United States had just gained the right to vote, and more women in journalism were saying “no thank you” to the society beat, choosing instead to report on big issues of national importance.

Ruth Finney came to Washington, D.C., from California in 1923 as a correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. She covered national politics throughout her career. Bess Furman came to Washington from Nebraska in 1929 to cover the wives of elected officials for the Associated Press, notably Eleanor Roosevelt, who held regular press conferences. Furman continued to cover the White House after the Roosevelt administration, including for the New York Times.

In the late 1920s, another writer, Jane Stafford, joined Science Service (now known as Society for Science, publisher of Science News) to cover medicine.

That may not seem as glamorous as presidential events and nominating conventions. But I expect that for Stafford, who had always wanted to write and wanted to be a chemist, helping people understand advances in cancer treatment and public health was as vital to the public welfare as political machinations. And a lot more interesting.

Other women also joined Science Service in the early days — Emma Reh (archaeology), Emily Davis (anthropology and nutrition), Marjorie Van de Water (social sciences). Their work helped establish Science Service’s reputation for accurate science reporting. But the job wasn’t easy. Stafford, who would become a founding member of the National Association of Science Writers, was repeatedly barred from press events of the American Society for Control of Cancer because they were held at men’s-only clubs. “The University Club having been selected as the most convenient meeting place for the doctors, our hands are tied,” Stafford was told, according to a new book by historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, Writing for Their Lives: America’s Pioneering Female Science Journalists, published by MIT Press. LaFollette will be taking part in an online conversation about the book with Science News Executive Editor Elizabeth Quill on November 15 at 2 p.m. ET. Sign up with this link to take part:

Since the 1920s, the number of women in journalism — and in science — has expanded, but in neither case have women reached parity with men. Today in the United States, women make up 46 percent of reporting journalists, and just about one-third of the workforce in STEM fields. Other groups and communities are likewise underrepresented in these spheres. There’s a lot of work yet to do to make journalism and science more inclusive. Jane Stafford and other pioneering female journalists are one source of inspiration.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.