Two First Ladies of Journalism: Ethel Payne and Mary McGrory


nullTwo books have recently been published about two influential women in journalism. James McGrath Morris’ biography of Ethel Payne has been published by Amistad, and John Norris’ biography of Mary McGrory is available from Viking today.*

It was quite interesting to read these women’s biographies more or less side by side. Both were formidable women, overcoming quite a few roadblocks to become the skillful and prominent journalists that they were.

I knew some of McGrory’s writing before reading about her. Her columns were filled with sharp observations, which made her reporting often very personal. Plus I’ve lived through a good part of the events she wrote about, so the behind-the-scenes anecdotes in this book were entertaining and informative. I had not been fully aware of exactly how groundbreaking her career was, so I am glad that the gaps are now filled. She could certainly put fear in people—often for good reason.

Ethel Payne was a completely new name to me, which is a shame, because her life is fascinating. Never mind that she made a career in a field dominated by men… she started her career when the civil rights era was in its infancy. In many cases, black and white were still segregated when she began her reporting; there were places she simply could not go (like the Press Club in Washington, DC). Presidents were not often prepared for her civil-rights-related questions when she attended their press conferences, which only made her more determined to keep asking them.

Both women faced obstacles when they first set out. Ethel Payne really wanted to be a lawyer, but this was not an option for a black woman during the 1920s and 1930s, when 7 out of 10 black women worked as domestic servants. It was her social activism that got her a job at the Chicago Defender, which ultimately sent her to Washington as its correspondent. Mary McGrory wrote book reviews for a decade before her employers decided to send her to the Army–McCarthy hearings, bluntly asking her first how likely she was to “run off and have babies.”

Yet both women broke through the barriers they faced. Ethel Payne received one of the pens Lyndon B. Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act. Mary McGrory became the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting. Both women come alive in these books, which are both worth reading.

While I found Norris’ biography of McGrory a little easier to read overall, I truly enjoyed the unique look at the Civil Rights movement that Morris’ biography of Ethel Payne offers its reader. It is a personal, on-the-ground perspective that has been missing from my reading up until now.

*I received copies of these books from the publishers.



    • I liked reading them both, but I really liked the look at the civil rights movement that I got from the Ethel Payne biography. It was more or less a happy coincidence that I read them so close together. It worked out well…

  1. Great post and fascinating subject, TJ! Even more so for reading them back to back. Was that planned or a happy coincidence? I have never heard of either of these two women (or the books). Both sound like they are worth reading. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

    • Thanks, Naomi. It was really fun to read these two biographies together. I read about Ethel Payne a few months ago, but revisited her biography when I read about McGrory, which I read partly because I wanted the comparison between the two women. Each can totally stand on its own, but reading them back to back was especially interesting, since their time as correspondents overlapped during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

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