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The Secret History of Women and Journalism

I’m so happy to have author Fiona Veitch Smith as a guest today.

You may remember that I posted about her book The Death Beat a while back. I was fascinated with the fact that, in addition to her main character Poppy Denby being a journalist in the 1920s, Fiona is an experienced journalist herself. So I reached out to her and asked whether she may be interested in telling us a bit about being a women and a journalist in yesteryears, and she kindly accepted.

She presented me with an awesome article, which I can’t wait to share with you.
Read on!

Poppy Denby, 1920s Reporter

The Poppy Denby Investigates books are about a young, female reporter sleuth in the early 1920s. Poppy Denby works for a tabloid newspaper in London called The Daily Globe. She initially gets a job as an administrative assistant to the editor, but when the lead journalist dies under mysterious circumstances, she picks up his story and takes over the investigation – eventually earning herself an appointment as a ‘proper’ reporter. By the end of the first book she is working as the arts and entertainment editor, dabbling in a bit of crime reporting on the side.

Poppy, in some ways, is based on my own experience as a young, female journalist working on a newspaper in Cape Town in the 1990s. I covered a broad range of stories, including crime and, on occasion, murder. I also covered art and culture, as the area in which I lived and worked was one of the main arts quarters of Cape Town. So a mix of arts and crime was part of my daily experience (professionally speaking, of course!).

Back then, two-thirds of the news room and the entire managerial staff was male. I now teach modules in journalism at a British university and the students are 75% female. So women have come a long way in the profession. But in Poppy’s day, and certainly before that, women journalists were a rarity.

Awesome Woman and a Journalist of the 1800s and Early 1900s

Before the 1960s the women who worked on newspapers were mainly in secretarial roles. Those who did make it into the editorial department as writers were usually expected to cover domestic issues, celebrity gossip, fashion and so-forth. However, there have been some notable exceptions which gave me scope to develop the character of Poppy Denby.

The first woman in Britain to earn a salary as a journalist was Eliza Linton who worked for The Morning Chronicle from 1848 to the end of the 1860s. She, like me, was also a novelist. Unfortunately, she was renowned for her virulent anti-feminist views.

A supporter of women’s rights was journalist Margaret Fuller, who worked for The New York Tribune in the 1840s. She was also a leading advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a journalist she travelled to Italy to cover the 1848 Italian Revolutions. She was given the job by the editor of The TribuneHorace Greeley, who had no problem seeing the worth of women. He also appointed Jane Grey Swisshelm as the first female political correspondent to cover sittings of the US Congress. Horace (who shares his name with my grandfather) was partly the inspiration for Poppy’s editor, Rollo Rolandson.

Also in America was the incredible Nellie Bly, one of the pioneers of investigative journalism. Nellie went under cover for The New York World (edited by Joseph Pulitzer) in 1887, spending ten days pretending to be a mentally ill patient in a New York asylum. She exposed the horrific conditions in the asylum and her article – and subsequent book – sparked public outrage and reform. I had not heard of Nellie before I wrote my book The Jazz Files, in which a woman is held against her will in an asylum for seven years. Poppy and her friend Delilah enter the asylum in disguise, posing as nurses. It was only when the book came out someone told me that it reminded them of the real-life antics of Nellie Bly.

Nellie also went around the world in 72 days, inspired by the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days, and wrote travel articles about her experience. She raced against another woman journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, who wrote for Cosmopolitan. Bly and Bisland left New York on the same day, travelling in opposite directions. Bly won the race by four days.

WWI and the 1920s

In Sweden, women were prominent in journalism from the beginning. In 1901 The Swedish Union of Journalists was founded and had female members from the very start. However, after WWI, the introduction of the ‘women’s section’ in newspapers worldwide – funded by advertisers – ensured that female reporters were compelled to cover domestic issues.

This was a major setback for women in journalism as the First World War had provided the opportunity for a number of notable women to make their mark in the field, including the American, Winifred Bonfils, who wrote under the byline ‘Annie Laurie’. Before heading to wartime Europe, Bonfils made her name doing sensational undercover exposés of polygamous Mormon communities in Texas (where she disguised herself as a boy) and the appalling conditions of a leper colony in Hawaii.  Women journalists of the time were renowned for tackling difficult subjects of social injustice, and this is something that I pick up on in my Poppy Denby books.

Women journalists of the early time were renowned for tackling difficult subjects of social injustice. An article by @FionaVeitchSmit #history #women #press #journalism Share on X

During the 1920s strong-minded female journalists continued to break the mould, including Ester Blenda Nordström, the Swedish investigative reporter and explorer. Nordström made her name working undercover as a teacher in a Sami (Eskimo) community in Lapland, where she exposed racial injustice and abuse. The trend continued during the 1930s culminating in the start of the Second World War being broken by British war correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, working for The Daily Telegraph. In between her journalistic work, she helped run a refugee relocation programme, saving thousands of Jews and Communists from the Nazis. Hollingworth went on to be one of the leading foreign correspondents of the Cold War period.

For more information on the Poppy Denby Books and their background in the 1920s – including the history, fashion and music of the time – visit

Poppy Denby Investigates

Fiona Veitch Smith

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and university lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her 1920s mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction), was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee, was a finalist for the Foreword Review mystery novel of the year 2016/17. Book four in the series, The Cairo Brief, is out now. For more on the series visit

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  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted October 27, 2018 at 01:21

    I found this post fascinating, especially as I researched Warcos so encountered the likes of Martha Gellhorn. I even have Kate Adie’s Kindness of Strangers signed when I met her. I respect all those women reporters.

    When I started my journalism career in the early 1970s in the UK, there were a few women reporters writing exceptional material – but not the editorial staff I encountered. (When I learnt my typing skills, I was in the minority though.) However, twenty years later, I was writing for two female editors and most of my colleagues were female. But this was the equestrian world so acceptable – though I did encounter a few top-class female sports editors that were a match for any male.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 28, 2018 at 18:52

      Thanks for stopping by, Roland and for contributing your experience. I love hearing true life experiences.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted October 28, 2018 at 12:58

    Oh, this is really interesting! Thanks, both. We’re so accustomed to women in journalism now that it’s hard to remember what it was like in earlier times. These were ground-breaking people, and it’s good to have their stories.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 28, 2018 at 18:54

      Absolutely true. Stories like this remind us that nothing of what we have should be taken for granted. There were people who fought for it in the past. We should remember them.

  • Teagan R Geneviene
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 21:15

    Marvelous post, Sarah and Fiona. The old photos added a lot to it too. Happy New Year.

    • Post Author
      Posted January 1, 2019 at 00:47

      It is a great post. Fiona was fantastic.
      Happy New Year, Teagan!

  • Davida Chazan
    Posted January 5, 2019 at 18:45

    I’m reading an historical fiction novel about Nellie Bly right now – fascinating! Thanks for this!

    • Post Author
      Posted January 6, 2019 at 08:47

      Thanks for stopping by, Davida 🙂
      What’s more fascinating abotu history (at least for me) is the different perspective it gives us on things we now consider a given. The position of women in different fields is often one of these diverse perspectives.

  • Michael
    Posted October 31, 2019 at 10:48

    The position of women in different fields is often one of these diverse perspectives.

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