Frontier living is always ripe for a good lead. No matter what the era or setting, whether contemporary Lincoln or Willa Cather’s cozy 19th-century Red Cloud, Nebraska history is charged with women who dared to write. This fertile and somewhat unsung historical territory made it a delight to read and review Eileen M. Wirth’s “From Society Page to Front Page: Nebraska Women in Journalism,” provided by Bison Books.
Wirth’s book is a witty and newsworthy chronology of Nebraska’s women in journalism, beginning with the territory’s earliest pioneers and penetrating our modern day. It is one journalist’s attempt to retell both the harrowing and everyday tales of the women who came before her. A storyteller herself, Wirth reports on Nebraska women with both clarity and a critical eye. In the course of her book she visits the struggles of suffrage in tandem with housekeeping tips, echoing the gamut of women’s niche in frontier journalism.
Some of Wirth’s subjects settled into the traditional women’s beat as if into a warm bath, covering with glee domestic soft news and weddings. Some challenged the restraints laid by tradition and gender bias and rose to occupy bylines in the world’s most notable hard-news outlets. Others, still, chose the middle path, penning the articles, both domestic and political, that would call out from some of the country’s first suffragist newspapers. The paths that Nebraska’s women have chosen show no dearth of aspiration and do valiant justice to the region’s pioneer spirit.
In many ways, Wirth’s book serves as a progressive report on the state of woman journalists over time. Her sources reveal the evident gender and racial biases that are so at home in the history books, but the testimonies of these Midwestern women color the struggles in hues unique to a frontier setting. It is heartening to depart from the oft-covered journalistic bellwether of New York City and to examine the seeds planted in the heart of a nation.
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Despite this unique angle, the book’s progression remains in lock step with national news. Covering a period rich in social conflict, Wirth reveals in the region a surprising pattern of tolerance and progressive spirit that helped Nebraska’s women make way for important social movements that shook the country as a whole.
As a writer, Wirth is entertaining and forthright. She knows her social history and writes with flair to show how the inner-workings of Nebraska journalism mirror the needs of a growing nation. The book is peppered with women who made their lives bringing news to the prairie, but also spreads the legacy of those who planted their inquisitive seed in Nebraska and later took on the world. Her work stands as an exemplary study of local Nebraska history and substantiates the state’s role in the larger spectrum of world news. By the final page, the state is cast in a new and enticing light, blurring forever the line between the unfettered west and metropolitan America.
To wit, Wirth’s book is not a narrow primer of frontier journalism, but a chronicle of one state’s singular and powerful stamp on the whole of national politics. The figures that weave the book have unique influences that reach worldwide, yet in the end the women are all drawn together by a fine yet robust thread. They form a corps of ambitious and fearless professionals, possessing together as Nebraskans – to echo the notable Willa Cather – the precious, the incommunicable past.