Since March is Women’s History Month in the US, we thought it a great opportunity to take a look back at the story of women in the field of publishing. Stories of female authors are more common (look at the enduring legacy and attraction to the story of Little Women), but lesser known to many of us is how women came to take up roles in a field that was predominantly known as a gentleman’s profession.
In the early days of the American republic, and even before the revolution, women often played a role in their family’s publishing endeavors, whether it was newspaper, magazine, or pamphlet publishing. They participated in all facets of the business, including writing, printing, publishing, typesetting, and engraving. However, women were not recognized as or legally allowed to become publishing professionals until the late nineteenth century.As a result, much of their work was unseen, and women who were leaders in these family businesses printed and published under a male relatives’ names. It is impossible to quantify the number of women working in publishing in these early days, but there are some names that have come to stand out to historians.
Elizabeth Timothy is often recognized as the first female newspaper publisher in America. She worked in partnership with Benjamin Franklin to publish the South Carolina Gazette in the 1730s and 1740s (after the death of her husband, who was Franklin’s original partner). As was typical of the time, the Gazette was not published under her name, but rather her son’s—who at the time was a mere teenager—but who legally took over his father’s business. There are a number of examples of colonial and early American female publishers who followed a similar path as Elizabeth Timothy’s—inheriting the business from a father or husband who died, and making all of the decisions, but “publishing” the work under the name of a male relative. One rare example of one who did not hide behind a pseudonym was Mary Katherine Goddard, the second printer to print the Declaration of Independence (and the first to include the names of the signers typeset into the copy). Her name appears right under “John Hancock” as the printer of the document.
After the revolution, the rise of the middle class as well as increasing literacy rates and leisure time meant that the American public clamored for more reading materials. To keep up with public demand, publishing houses professionalized their work, increasing their staff and considering themselves a business first and foremost. Some women began contributing as authors in newspapers and magazines focused on more “female” areas such as society pages and fashion. Women were hired by publishers to read newspapers to find sensational stories that could be adapted into novels. Women also began to work more prominently as editors and publishers of magazines and books, most clearly in domestic, children’s and fashion magazines, but in other areas as well. Throughout the nineteenth century the rise of large publishing houses and the middle class meant that more and more women sought out careers for themselves in publishing.
Yet publishing maintained a reputation of being a “gentleman’s profession.” The business was still built around an idea of who an editor knew, the “old boy’s networks” that made connections between authors, agents, and publishers. Books were acquired and businesses arranged in informal ways with those elite connections that men had fostered, through their families, college connections, and male-dominated business practices. Most women who worked at publishing houses were often employed only in lower-paying, clerical positions.
According to a 1916 career guide for girls “editors, the reporters, and the men who rewrite stories, must be able to work under the pressure in a way that is beyond the power of most women.”
By the 20th century, many women were graduating from colleges seeking out careers, and with that came public discourse around the “appropriate” types of careers for women. Many college graduates moved into traditional roles such as teaching and social working as careers, and there remained a stigma against many other careers. According to a 1916 career guide for girls “editors, the reporters, and the men who rewrite stories, must be able to work under the pressure in a way that is beyond the power of most women”. On the other hand, bookselling, according to an Atlantic Monthly article published at just this same time, was considered a “worthwhile and suitable profession.”
While the rhetoric discouraged women’s ambitions in publishing, that did not reflect the reality of the time, as publishing became more and more attractive to young women who were graduating from college with humanities degrees and looking to start their careers. Then, as now, the question of “what are you going to do with a degree in English?” was one that these young middle-class women faced. No matter how much society told them not to pursue publishing, publishing became increasingly populated by middle-class women. Indeed, 10 years after that 1916 career guide was published, one similar guide for women noted that publishing was the largest field taken up by Vassar graduates who had taken composition courses.
Women still often entered publishing houses as secretaries, lower-paying position with little hope of advancement. When men entered publishing houses in entry-level roles, those positions quickly changed from “clerical” to “editorial assistant” positions with greater chance of promotion.
While this influx of women in the publishing houses was an important step, women’s experiences still differed considerably from that of men. Young women were recommended to take stenography courses to get into publishing, so that they could prove that they had relevant skills. Men, of course, were not advised of this. Women still often entered publishing houses as secretaries, lower-paying position with little hope of advancement. When men entered publishing houses in entry-level roles, those positions quickly changed from “clerical” to “editorial assistant” positions with greater chance of promotion. Women with the same job title as men were still expected to perform clerical work that would not be assigned to young men.
If women could move out of the clerical pool, they were also often seen as best suited to the work of copyediting and proofreading manuscripts, and even when they were editing, were referred to with the diminutive term “editress.” Women who became editors still often needed some direct connection in order to get their foot in the door for an interview. Take, for example, Louise Seaman, children’s book publisher at Macmillan in the early 20th century. When she was fresh out of college and looking for a job, she applied for a position at Macmillan and was refused, with head of Macmillan noting that the only work they had for women was as a file clerk or typist, which was beneath her social status. Indeed, middle class women struggled to find appropriate positions in publishing, with most book publishers hiring women for the lowest paid positions, and then also at higher levels due to their personal connections. It took years before Seaman was given another opportunity to interview, and this time only because a Macmillan manuscript reader happened to be married to a college classmate that she knew. She was hired in the trade advertising department, moved to the educational department, and then very quickly became the head of their children’s division, not because she had experience in children’s publishing, but rather because she was considered more of an “expert” in children’s publishing than others. She did not have any children herself.
And yet, a shift was slowly occurring for women in publishing. More and more over the course of the 20th century editorial positions and other roles that had been dominated by men began to be opened up to women. With the exception of the interwar period, when men returned from the war and women were expected to return to the home, throughout the 20th century women became more and more integral to publishing. As editors became known for shaping the tastes of the reading public through the books that they worked on and authors they published, publishing houses that were once formed as family businesses began to open up to many more individuals outside of those direct connections. One example of the prominence of women in publishing in the 20th century comes from our own archives. At Princeton University Press, R. Miriam Brokaw was hired in 1945, became managing editor in 1954, moved to the University of Tokyo Press, then returned to PUP in 1966 and became Editor and Associate Director. She is perhaps best known as the founder of the distinguished Princeton Library of Asian Translations. In 1974 she served as the president of AAUP (now AUPresses) – the first woman to hold this position.
Today, women make up the majority of those employed in publishing, but still tend to dominant in lower-level positions, and typically earn less than their male counterparts. And indeed, publishing professionals must also confront other issues of diversity and inclusion, as the field remains largely and monolithically dominated by white, cis-gendered employees.
The 20th century saw the transition from women in clerical positions into professional roles, and yet not all was equal. Many women faced wage and other forms of discrimination. It wasn’t until the women’s rights and feminist movements of the 1970s where women publishers organized to fight for more rights and equality in the workplace, with organizations such as WiP (Women in Publishing, a UK networking and activist group), and WISP (Women in Scholarly Publishing) being formed. Jane Chomeley, who has worked to collect oral histories of women who were part of WiP, recalled that even in the 1970s, “women who had graduated from Oxford with a first were asked what department they would like to be a secretary in.” According to the Association of University Press, In 1979, when WISP was formed, 65% of non-clerical university press staff was female, but only 13% of leadership was female.
Many of the trends experienced in the 1970s have parallels in the data about women in publishing today. Today, women make up the majority of those employed in publishing, but still tend to dominant in lower-level positions, and typically earn less than their male counterparts. And indeed, publishing professionals must also confront other issues of diversity and inclusion, as the field remains largely and monolithically dominated by white, cis-gendered employees. These expanded concerns remind us that while publishing may no longer be entirely a “gentleman’s profession,” there is much work to be done to have publishing truly represent the diverse breadth of our readers.
Lyndsey Claro is the Chief of Staff at Princeton University Press. She considers herself a “retired” historian, having received a PhD in History in 2011. She has worked at Princeton University Press since 2013.
 http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/05/women-in-publishing.html. While this article is focusing largely on US examples, similar trends occurred in UK, and in Canada. For more information about women in Candaian publishing, go to https://rsc-src.ca/en/impact-women-trailblazers-in-canadian-publishing
 Jacalyn Eddy. Bookwomen: Creating an Empire in Children’s Book Publishing, 1919-1939. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, pp 67.
 E. W. Weaver. Profitable vocations for girls. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1916.
 Eddy, 56.
 Ellen Gruber Garvey, “Foreword,” in Sharon M. Harris, editor, with Ellen Gruber Garvey. Blue Pencils & Hidden Hands: Women Editing Periodicals, 1830-1910. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004, pp. XVII.
 Garvey, XVII.
 Garvey, XVII.
 Livia Gershon, “A Woman’s Life in Publishing.” Accessed at https://daily.jstor.org/womans-life-publishing/
 Garvey, XIII, XIV.
 Eddy, 73
 Eddy, 75.
 Harriet Marsden, “A Gentleman’s Profession? The women fighting for gender equality in publishing.” The Guardian, 6 April 2018. Accessed at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/women-publishing-gender-pay-gap-wage-british-library-hachette-penguin-random-house-a8285516.html
 Regan Colestock, “Women in Scholarly Publishing,” accessed at http://www.aupresses.org/about-aaup/history/wisp-history
 See https://www.thebookseller.com/news/gender-pay-gaps-across-book-trade-reported-majority-larger-businesses-764276 and https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/81718-the-pw-publishing-industry-salary-survey-2019.html
 See (https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/08/09/483875698/diversity-in-book-publishing-isnt-just-about-writers-marketing-matters-too) and https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/