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'Undaunted' tells the story of the women journalists who blazed a trail for others

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brooke Kroeger says her new book makes no claim to be an all-inclusive, but a rich torrent of names, stories and history follows - Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, Martha Gellhorn, Rachel Carson, Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem and many, many more women who have enriched and changed American journalism, including, it must be added, the NPR founding mother quartet of Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg. "Undaunted" is the name of the new book by Brooke Kroeger, professor emerita at NYU and formerly an honored reporter for Newsday, who joins us from New York City.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BROOKE KROEGER: Thank you so much for having me, really.

SIMON: What are some of the most absurd, obnoxious reasons male editors, executives and owners said why women were ill suited for journalism?

KROEGER: There were many reasons. A congenital inaccuracy. This was a big one that women were literally incapable of being accurate. There was a lot of objection to, especially in the Victorian years, having an escort, which many women needed for their safety, or the editors felt they needed it for their safety or their reputations. They couldn't send them out on night assignments, and on and on.

SIMON: There're so many names and rich stories in this book, so obviously we can just make room for a few today. But let me begin. Ida B. Wells.

KROEGER: The princess of the press, as they called her.

SIMON: She took on lynching. She faced bombing. She even reported stories critical of her publisher. What a genuine hero.

KROEGER: Yeah. She was really remarkable, and early. They were sort of unspoken subjects in the mainstream press that she had no problem discussing. And she used, you know, a database technique. She cataloged all of the episodes across the country. Both she and Ida Tarbell were really ahead of the curve on doing that. And so that's, you know, change in journalism. They really modeled how to go about doing work that's verifiable.

SIMON: Ida Tarbell took on Standard Oil. That couldn't be easy.

KROEGER: So she came out of western Pennsylvania. Her father was an oiler and the subject was very close to her 'cause she watched the way the monopolistic practices hurt local oilmen and really put Standard Oil under cloud. It's interesting. When the story is finally run - I think it's 1902 - don't hold me to that - there's a five-page intro explaining how she went about it, which is fascinating in itself.

SIMON: You talk about many women who have covered wars in this book. And I've got to tell you, one I admire especially is Martha Gellhorn, not just a great war correspondent, which would be enough, a great writer would go on to write novels, a figure in history. I'm not even going to mention to whom she was married, but...

KROEGER: I think she'd appreciate that.

SIMON: That's why I don't do it. I want to read something she wrote - Collier's magazine, June 23, 1945. This is at the liberation of Dachau.

(Reading) We are not entirely guiltless, we allies, because it took us 12 years to open the gates of Dachau. We were blind and unbelieving and slow. And that, we can never be again. We must know now that there can never be peace if there is cruelty like this in the world.

KROEGER: You know, her reporting on these themes really goes back to the Depression years, when she worked for FERA and was one of the people in that era going around the country to observe what the impact of the Depression was on everyday people. And so she really had already started to hone those techniques. And then very soon after that, she's in Spain for the Spanish Civil War and then on to Europe, to Czechoslovakia, through the whole north and just documenting the rise of Hitler. Remarkable.

SIMON: Would the revelations of what we now call #MeToo cases been possible without women in journalism? And of course, we mention the names of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and more, including women news executives.

KROEGER: I think what's interesting about #MeToo. I mean, all this material of the 2000s on is an epilogue because I don't think it's ripe for analysis yet. But one thing that's clear, you know, the #MeToo movement - the men who got caught in that web have not returned from grace. So there's a staying power to that. And then I started to wonder, you know, with all this violence we're seeing towards women journalists that is so pronounced online and moving into offline from online that's really horrific - you wonder if this isn't - like, what would be the reason for that in 2023? Like, why - I mean, OK, journalists. I get that. But why women? Why women particularly? And maybe it's part of that backlash. One of the patterns that the book explains, you know, ad nauseam - but that's just the way it is - is progress, setback, push, pull. I mean, that happens from 1840 to today. And we see that through these horrific episodes.

SIMON: I feel moved to ask you about Gloria Steinem.

KROEGER: So Gloria Steinem is not a big figure in this book because she was a journalist for a short time before she moved into full-dress activism.

SIMON: Yeah. But she got maximum impact, didn't she?

KROEGER: She sure did. And can I tell you a story that's not in the book.

SIMON: Please. Yes.

KROEGER: So when Barbara Walters died in late December, I was in the third edit and was able to at least get a line in to note the outpouring of women journalists at her passing, which, you know, was interesting. But in the stuff that came out during that time, NBC ran a clip that I didn't know about of her as a Playboy bunny. And I've done earlier work on undercover reporting. So I was very familiar with Gloria Steinem's undercover reporting on the Playboy Club. So putting together the timeline, I could see that the Walters piece came out just within weeks of the Playboy Club opening in New York.

So she gets the assignment to be a bunny at the Playboy Club for a day. So her story just goes into, she looks great in the costume; she shows us how to do the bunny dip; she tells us about the matron and blah, blah, blah, back and forth with Hugh Downs, where he comments on the costume. She does give him the side eye and then talks about how moral these clubs are and that they're getting a bad rap, et cetera. And then I realized that Gloria Steinem reported her undercover piece exposing questionable treatment of women in this...

SIMON: Yeah.

KROEGER: ...Construct just six weeks later. She's reporting it as "The Feminine Mystique" is being published by Betty Friedan. And then the Equal Pay Act passes. You know, it's almost like when Virginia Woolf talks about 1910 as the time that modernism happened and the entire world changed. This is one of those moments where the world changed, where you would look at this Playboy Club situation in an entirely different way. In Gloria Steinem's memoir, she says that for a long time, she hated having done that piece because it brought no good assignments. People just wanted her to do more and more prurient things.

SIMON: Yeah.

KROEGER: But she said in time she got to understand that that piece is outlasted the Playboy clubs.

SIMON: Yeah.

KROEGER: And she was able to change their practices toward examining the women and such as that.

SIMON: Brooke Kroeger new book, "Undaunted: How American Women Changed Journalism."

Thank you so much for being with us.

KROEGER: Thank you so much for having me, really. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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