ALAMOSA — In 1941, as a war that would encompass the entirety of the world loomed on the horizon, three women – three newspaper women – from Alamosa made state history by becoming charter members of the Colorado Women Press Association (CPW). While women journalists working for newspapers, radio and on television may be a commonplace occurrence today, such was not the case 80 years ago. Far from it. The formation of the Colorado Women Press Association – an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) -- was both a statement and a declaration of the contribution women journalists were capable of making to news coverage and the vital role they could, and would, play in bringing the news to people across the nation.
In recognition of CPW’s 80-year history and in honor of their charter membership, a group of nearly a dozen journalists, both active and retired, with CPW traveled to Alamosa last weekend to present a plaque to the Valley Courier, recognizing Ellen Kate Dier, co-publisher and editor; Margery Dier, co-publisher; and Genevieve E. McDermith, society editor and reporter as being among the original members of the Colorado Press Women Association.
Dier, Dier and McDermith were three of 58 charter members representing thirty communities across the state, ranging from small towns on the eastern plains like Flagler, Ordway and Sterling to mountain towns like Grand Junction, Gunnison and Montrose as well as Boulder and Denver Metro along the Front Range.
“Looking back 80 years at the start of the Colorado Press Women,” says CPW President Sandy Nance, “what impresses me most is that 12 of our charter members were publishers and/or editors of their small-town newspapers – strong women. It’s no wonder that equality for women has been as basic an expectation of our members as our support for the First Amendment.” In addition to publishers and editors, charter members also included reporters, freelancers, a lone broadcaster, a few who managed the Denver Civic Symphony, did publicity for the Central City Opera, the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Public Library. “They taught journalism at the University of Colorado and Western State College and wrote textbooks. They worked in advertising and wrote poetry and plays,” Nance adds.
“Strong women”, indeed, as is evidenced in the words used by NFPW founder, Bertha Bless, in recruiting CPW members on the eve of World War II. “Press women,” Bless said, “have the opportunity of the century to create a thinking America that can lead the world out of its present chaos. We must save not only the right of the press but also America for Americans. Grassroots journalism represented in small town and country newspapers doesn’t know its own power. Press women have a weapon to shape the peace or destruction of the world.”
In the 1940s, women journalists fought an uphill battle just for the right to report on the news, leading to legendary reporters like Martha Gellhorn covering the Normandy landing only by hiding out in the bathroom of a hospital ship and impersonating a stretcher bearer or Ruth Baldwin Cowan reporting under the name Baldwin Cowan to hide her gender.
But during the war, just as many women -- replacing men in the workforce who had gone to war -- found good-paying jobs in industries where they had previously been barred, women journalists found opportunity in stepping in for newspapermen turned soldiers who were overseas. No longer relegated to writing about fashion or tips on housecleaning, many women reporters finally found themselves covering stories for their readers about the very topics that inspired them to go into journalism in the first place.
Granted, the battle for equality was by no means won in the forties, the fifties or even the sixties. At least one current member of CPW has her own story of fighting sexual discrimination in 1968. But there is more equality in that big tent known as “the media” than has existed before, and it is reflected in the diversity of Press Women, which Nance says includes professional communicators (both women and men) who are reporters, editors, broadcasters, public relations practitioners, publishers, advertising and marketing practitioners, college communications educators, graphic designers, photographers, freelance writers and others.
“While early causes included establishing rural libraries, today CPW works to help people sort fact from fiction on the internet. My only disappointment is that today our members represent only 11 towns and cities, while our founders came from 30,” Nance said.
Helping people “sort fact from fiction on the internet” is no small task, especially in the current environment. A 2021 report from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford reveals that only 29% of Americans trust the mainstream media.
However, that same report indicates that the local media enjoys significantly greater trust from the public. And that makes Bertha Bless’ 1941 call of recruitment (with a little editing) more relevant today than she – or anyone – could have imagined.
“[The press has] the opportunity of the century to create a thinking America that can lead the world out of its present chaos. We must save not only the right of the press but also America for Americans. Grassroots journalism represented in small town and country newspapers doesn’t know its own power.”
During their time, Dier, Dier and McDermith recognized the power of grassroots journalism and opened that door of opportunity. Eighty years later, CPW is continuing to hold that door open while hoping others will walk through and discover what is possible on the other side.
More information about Colorado Press Women can be found on their website https://coloradopresswomen.org