Women’s Page Journalists & Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Sandra Wesley, Betty Preston and Edee GreeneSandra Wesley, Betty Preston and Edee Greene. (Photo: Papers of the Penney-Missouri Awards, State Historical Society of Missouri)

In the early 1970s, a woman came to the door of a Fort Lauderdale, Florida women’s shelter with her young children. She had been brutally beaten by her husband. The shelter was not licensed to take minors, so she checked into the home while officials put her young children into foster care. The separation from her children was too much for her to bear and she returned to her husband to reunite the family. A week later, he shot and killed her in front of their children.

This brutal crime shocked Fort Lauderdale News women’s page editor Edee Greene. This was a time when there were few employment opportunities for women at newspapers outside of the women’s pages. The sections were a mix of softs news, like feature stories and occasional hard news about social issues. But Greene used her women’s page to change society.

The murder spurred Greene to action. She wrote stories and encouraged the community to provide better options for abused women. She was instrumental in establishing a home for victims of domestic violence that still exists today: Women In Distress of Broward County, Inc. Readers and community members raised money and the house opened in July 1974. It allowed children to stay at the domestic violence awareness shelter. The shelter continued to fundraise and created programs for women. Today, it is a prototype for domestic violence shelters across the country. It provides numerous services, including a 24-hour crisis line, emergency shelter, food and clothing, individual and group counseling, prevention programs for schools, and training for police officers and health professionals. When October officially became Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 1987, the impetus for that designation came from women’s page editors like Greene, who were able to bring attention to spousal abuse from the unique perspective their pages allowed.

Part of the catalyst for the Broward County shelter was a Fort Lauderdale task force, the Community Service Council, headed by Greene. Members of the task force studied the issue of domestic violence from various perspectives. They did a survey of Florida courts to find out which judges addressed domestic violence. They were shocked to hear that judges reported the crime was rare. Greene said of the survey results: “It did not occur to them that these women were scared to death.”

Often lost in the stories of domestic violence awareness history is the story of women’s page journalists. They were some of the first American journalists to write about the problem of domestic violence. Vivian Castleberry did the same in Dallas, as Marie Anderson did in Miami and Dorothy Jurney in Detroit. A review of the sections in newspapers across the country and oral histories of the editors showed that women’s page journalists were aware of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault. They then educated their communities with progressive information along with the traditional, non-threatening soft news of the women’s pages.

Sometimes they did so because either their own experiences or some dramatic event had made them aware of the problem, such as in Greene’s case. In other cases, it was because they covered women’s clubs whose members wanted to help the victims of domestic violence. Greene’s approach to women’s organizations was to coax the members into taking action on important issues in the community. She said to the journalism industry publication Editor & Publisher:

Often instead of making headlines out of some uncovered short-coming of the community, (the editor) investigates, then lays the facts before some organization that will set to work to correct the condition. The staff, then, reported on the work of the organization, letting its members take the credit.

The mix of women’s page editors and women’s clubs helped create an awareness of domestic violence during the 1960s and early 1970s. This led to programs and shelters in communities across the country. These women are often forgotten in the history of domestic violence awareness yet they were an early voice in educating the readers in their communities. A former colleague of Greene’s said, “She worked one-on-one with scores of women to tell them they could have a better life.”

About the Author

Kimberly Wilmot Voss

Kimberly Wilmot Voss, PhD, is a tenured associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, where she teaches media law and journalism history and coordinates the journalism program. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014). She is the winner of the 2014 Carol DeMasters Award for Service to Food Journalism given by the Association of Food Journalism.

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