Trailblazer for Women Journalists and Syndicated Columnist
Jane Cunningham Croly (1829–1901) was a journalist, editor, and women’s club pioneer, better known by her pseudonym, Jennie June. She was the first woman to syndicate her column in cities across the country. Croly’s writing often indicated that she believed a woman’s true place was in the home, but also supported women’s access to better education and employment opportunities.
Jane Cunningham was born December 19, 1829 in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, England, the fourth child of Jane Scott and Joseph Howes Cunningham, a Unitarian preacher. Her father’s unpopular beliefs reportedly led the family to move to the United States in 1841, when Jane was twelve. The family settled in Poughkeepsie, New York, and later moved to Southbridge, Massachusetts.
Jane finished her childhood in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Wappinger’s Falls, New York. She received her early education by reading widely in her father’s library. She lived and kept house for a time for her brother, a Congregationalist minister in Worcester, Massachusetts. She taught school there and wrote a semi-monthly newspaper for her brother’s congregation.
Career in Journalism
Jane first became interested in journalism as a student when she edited her school newspaper. Her father died, leaving her with no means of support; in 1854, at age 25, she moved to New York in search of full-time journalism work. One source describes Jane as “small of stature… charming in manner with attractive blue eyes and brown hair, but beneath her engaging personality dwelt an independent spirit.”
By the 1850s, four-page weeklies and monthly magazines were in full circulation throughout the country. After applying to several newspapers and being rejected, Jane was hired by a publication called Noah’s Sunday Times, which was edited by Mordecai Manuel Noah. At Noah’s, she began writing a women’s column called “Parlor and Side-walk Gossip” using the pseudonym Jennie June. The column focused on such traditional subjects as fashion, cooking and the arts.
Not surprisingly, Jane encountered many obstacles to her journalism career. There was great resistance from male editors about hiring a woman to cover news or do any serious reporting. However, she soon met David Goodman Croly, an editor at the New York World and a self-educated Irish immigrant who would later be credited with pioneering the format of the modern Sunday newspaper. He hired Jane at the World.
Marriage and Family
Cunningham and Croly were married on February 14, 1856. They had three daughters, Minnie, Viola and Alice, and one son, Herbert David, who would also choose journalism as a career. Perhaps Jane’s career might not have progressed so quickly without her husband’s support, but with a few opportunities her career progressed nicely.
By the following year, Jennie June’s column was very popular, and she is credited with creating the first woman’s page in a newspaper. She was also one of the first women to syndicate her column throughout the United States, in such papers as the Baltimore American in Maryland, the Richmond Enguirer in Virginia, the Louisville Journal in Kentucky and the New Orleans Delta in Louisiana.
In 1859 the couple moved to Rockford, Illinois, home of Jane’s sister Mary and her family, and Jane gave birth to her first daughter, Minnie. With the financial backing of Mary’s husband, the Crolys started up the Rockford Daily News, but the newspaper failed a year later, and they moved back to New York.
Pioneer for Women Journalists
While most women were expected to give up their careers after marrying, Jane not only continued to work, even after having children, she became a trailblazer for women in the field of journalism. Back in New York City in 1860, both the Crolys went to work for the New York World. David became managing editor, and Jane ran the women’s department (1862-1872).
Jane was also chief staff writer for Mme Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions from its founding in 1860 through its growth into Demorest’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1864. Demorest’s was devoted to women’s fashions; Jane became known as a fashion expert, and was widely quoted in other publications.
Like other women of her era, she was somewhat ambivalent about the proper role of women. Some of her writing seemed to express a belief that a woman’s major duty was to be a good homemaker for her family. Yet she was also a strong supporter of advancing women’s educational and occupational opportunities.
In 1864, Croly published her first book, Jennie Juneiana: Talks on Women’s Topics, a collection of her newspaper pieces in which she shares her opinions on the roles of women inside and outside the home. At the beginning of the book, she offers a word to the reader:
Dear Friend: Do not be angry that I have presumed to give you these simple thoughts in the pretentious form of a book. It was not my fault: I was able to do so, and I did it, – exactly how or why I cannot tell. I think I should not have done so, however, if I had not been conscious that¸ poor as they are, and written, some in sorrow, some in pain, and all in the hurry and excitement of a busy newspaper life, they contain nothing which can do any harm, and some things which may do a little good; that they are at least true, as the expression of thought, feeling and conviction; and from the very nature of the circumstances which will go straight to the locked recesses of some woman’s heart, as others have to mine.
Jennie June’s American Cookery Book
Croly managed her own domestic life and professional career by spending mornings at home, then going to the office at noon and working steadily past midnight. She was confident in her belief that women who wanted to have a home life as well as a career should take care if their duties at home first. As proof of this conviction, she published Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (1866).
This was a domestic manual dedicated to the young homemakers of America, but it also includes a unique collection of interesting recipes: under the heading “Secondary Meats” one recipe begins, “Take the lower half of a pig’s face…” and “Favorite Dishes of Distinguished Persons” includes Susan B. Anthony’s recipe for Apple Tapioca Pudding.
The Cookery Book was also a guide for women to create a well-ordered home life through planning and efficiency. In the chapter titled Housekeeping, she states:
Regularity is the pivot upon which all household management turns; where there is a lack of system there is a lack of comfort, that no amount of individual effort can supply. Forethought also is necessary, so that the work may be all arranged beforehand; done in its proper order, and at the right time.
Mother of Women’s Clubs
In 1869, a pivotal event changed Croly’s focus and added a whole new dimension to her life. Croly and other female journalists were not allowed to attend a lecture by novelist Charles Dickens held by the all-male New York Press Club. This incident inspired Croly to form a women’s club – a “centre of unity” that sought the “collective elevation and advancement” of women.
A month later Croly founded Sorosis, the first organization in America that dedicated to greater acceptance and more professional opportunities for women. The women of Sorosis met over lunch at Delmonico’s, a venue chosen precisely because, like the city’s other leading restaurants, it did not normally serve women unless they were escorted by men. Sitting down to lunch at Delmonico’s was the club’s first victory.
Sorosis was the first professional women’s club in the United States; it attracted the most accomplished women of the day, and it supported women’s education and improved working conditions for women. It was a place where women could engage in free and frank discussion on various topics, where women could learn from each other through clubs since other traditional avenues of education were usually reserved for men.
Among its founding members were popular columnist Fanny Fern, and Croly prevailed upon her friend Alice Cary to serve as first president of Sorosis. Its object was to bring together women in the fields of art, literature, science and other such pursuits. Within a year, the club had 83 members.
Throughout her life, Jane Croly would often be the major provider for her family. Her husband quit his editing position in 1877 to spread the doctrine of Auguste Comte’s Positivsm, and Jane became the sole source of the family’s income. Her husband’s health began to decline soon after, leaving him an invalid until his death in 1889.
Aware of her dual roles as mother and journalist, and the changing status of women, Croly began to spend much of her life organizing venues for women to meet, learn and discuss issues surrounding their roles in society. As women’s clubs began forming across the country, they became a sort of learning center for older women.
General Federation of Women’s Clubs
As Sorosis approached its 21st year, Jane Croly proposed a conference in New York City, which brought together representatives from 61 women’s clubs. On the last day of the conference, the women voted to form a larger organization to support clubs throughout the nation and further their efforts to provide education, improved working conditions, health care and other reforms.
A committee was chosen to draft a constitution. The new constitution was adopted in 1890, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) was born. In 1901 the GFWC was granted a charter by the United States Congress. Croly also founded the Women’s Press Club of New York, and became its first president. Early meetings were held in her home.
Meanwhile, since the end of Demorest’s Magazine in 1887 and an unsuccessful attempt to revive Godey’s Lady’s Book, Croly founded a magazine for the GFWC, initially entitled Woman’s Cycle. That publication merged with the Home-Maker the following year and became the New Cycle (1893–96). Croly also served as the New York correspondent for a number of newspapers in other cities.
Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, her column appeared in newspapers in every state in the country, and she was considered the best known woman journalist in America. Two more collections of Croly’s columns were published in book form: For Better or Worse: A Book for Some Men and All Women (1875), and Thrown on Her Own Resources (1891).
In 1892 she was named professor of journalism and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, becoming the first woman to teach journalism at the college level. She spent the last years of her life writing her last major work, History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America (1898).
Croly encountered adversities during the last decade of her life. She suffered financially from the misdealings of a trustee. In the summer of 1898 she suffered a serious fall and broke her hip, and she never completely recovered her health. In 1900, it was announced that she was retiring from newspaper and club work. She made a trip back to England, to see the country of her birth after so many years away.
After returning to New York, Jane Cunningham Croly died of heart failure on December 23, 1901, at the age of 72. She was buried in Lakewood, New Jersey, beside her husband.
Jane Cunningham Croly worked tirelessly for her family in the home, and as a journalist, an author and an advocate for the betterment of women in all aspects of life. Her beliefs concerning education for women amid the increasing prevalence of their dual roles in the household and the workforce evolved over her lifetime.
She became more and more involved in supporting better working conditions for women, supporting professional female journalists, and personally advising and assisting educated girls looking for employment. Through her dedication to women’s clubs, she revealed a commitment to women helping each other obtain the education and other reforms that society had failed to support.
One of the first women journalists
Creator of the first woman’s page in a newspaper
A career woman before the phrase had much meaning
A newspaperwoman, columnist and magazine editor, all at the same time
Founder of the first professional women’s club in the United States, Sorosis
The first woman to teach journalism at the college level
The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America contains a hand-written dedication at the front that reads:
This book has been a labor of love; and it is lovingly dedicated to the Twentieth Century Woman by one who has seen, and shared in the struggles, hopes and aspirations of the women of the Nineteenth Century.
In the chapter titled The Moral Awakening, Croly states:
The broadening of human sympathy, the freedom of will, gave rise to a thousand new forms of activity; some of these an expansion of those which had previously existed; others opening new channels of communication; all looking towards wider fields of effort, a larger unity; a more complete realization of the eternal ideal…
Realization of this ideal brought a new conception of duty to the mind of the woman, unlocked the strong gates of theological and social tradition, and opened the windows of her soul to a new and more glorious world. The sense of duty is always strong in the woman. If she disregards it she never ceases to suffer. Her convictions of it have made her the most willing and joyful of martyrs, the most persistent and relentless of bigots, the most blind and devoted of partisans, the most faithful and believing of friends, and the only type out of which Nature could form the Mother.
This quality has made women the conservative force they are in the world, and gives all the more importance to the new departure, to the influences of the new sources of enlargement that have come into their lives. Thus it became a necessity that the quickening of conscience, the widening of sympathy, the influence of aggregations, the stimulus to desires and ambitions, should be accompanied by corresponding growth in knowledge and a love beyond the narrow confines of family and church.
The cry of the woman emerging from a darkened past was “light, more light,” and light was breaking… The early half of the century was marked by a crusade for the cause of the better education of women as significant as that for the physical emancipation of the slave, and as devoted on the part of its leaders.