Fearless Female Journalists
Fearless Female Journalists is a set of ten short profiles of female reporters, photojournalists, and newscasters hailing from various times and places over the last two centuries.
Among the women featured is one of the early pioneers of modern journalism: nineteenth-century American newspaperwoman Nellie Bly, a daredevil stunt reporter. Nelly Bly is perhaps most famous for circumnavigating the globe in seventy-three days in an era before airplanes, but she also took on assignments designed to do good as well as to make a splash. For example, she got herself admitted as a patient to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in order to expose the terrible conditions there. In a later chapter, we meet Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian reporter who, despite her privileged origins as the daughter of diplomats, made the decision to risk–and ultimately lose–her life in order to report on the Russian occupation of Chechnya. (Politkovskaya was assassinated on October 7, 2006, at age forty-eight.) The book closes with a portrait of Thembi Ngubane, a young South African woman who recorded an audio journal about her life with AIDS as part of an effort to end the stigma around AIDS, as well as to push the South African government to acknowledge the tragic proportions of the AIDS epidemic.
The book is geared towards children–I estimate that it is most appropriate for an audience aged seven to eleven. The profiles are attractive and highly readable, complete with photographs and sidebars containing “fun facts.” The stories are entertaining and inspiring, and the selection of featured journalists reflects some variety in terms of era, type of journalism, and nationality (although the book still skews heavily toward heterosexual North American white women). Unfortunately, the book does have a downside–it is written from a “nice, liberal” standpoint, in which history is presented as an inexorable march towards progress, driven by a few exceptionally determined actors. This perspective glorifies individual high-profile “heroines” while erasing the history of communal struggle. It also obscures the reality that, in most cases, the few exceptional people who “make it big” do so not because they are more courageous or determined than thousands of others, but rather because they got lucky or started out with some “extras,” such as racial or class privilege.
The book reaches its nadir at the beginning of the final chapter, when it begins the profile of Thembi Ngubane by blatantly exoticizing her ethnicity: “Thembi Ngubane had a beautiful voice. Like her name, it was wonderfully African. Her voice flowed and lilted and swam around words, especially words with ‘r’ in them."
While I enjoyed reading Fearless Female Journalists and learning about the ten outstanding women profiled within, I could have happily done without the book’s uncritical, unconscious approach to the narrative of history and social change.