Women’s History – All Year

Today is the last day of Women’s History Month, but by no means the end of celebrating women – or knowing what’s going on that affects women. Women’s eNews is published daily and keeps us all informed about women’s issues. It’s the brainchild of Rita Henley Jensen. That Rita’s own story demonstrates the power of the press is no surprise.

I got pregnant when I was eighteen and married the father, and I had my second child while I was with him. He was extremely violent, and I was able to leave him because of LBJ and the creation of Medicaid and Food Stamps and the AFDC program. I knew that I could leave that situation and take care of my children, and that’s what I needed to know. So I was able to leave. When I was accepted by Columbia Journalism school, I moved me and the kids to New York [from Ohio].

Rita was an activist from her first stories for The Lantern at Ohio State:

I was handed this story to do about an African-American woman in Ohio State University’s Law School who  lost custody of her child, her son, during a divorce, not to her ex, but to her father. The judge had made this very idiosyncratic off-hand decision with the explanation that since she was going to law school, she wouldn’t have time to be a mother. And since the Dad wasn’t around, he would give the child to somebody else to raise. Part of the evidence against her was that she took flying lessons on the weekend I was so outraged that this happened. This was crazy.

I had met the mother and the child, and then I called her lawyer, who was a professor of law at Ohio State. He explained to me, so eloquently, why this was outrageous, and it violated the law, and I thought this is so cool. I can interview these smart people, write down what they say, and tell other people. This is great! And he expressed it much better than I would. And that’s sort of the essence of journalism, anyway.

This continued in her first post-Columbia job:

I went to work at the Patterson News, but… I don’t know the words… but I was really so hungry for the story. And on the other hand, because I had been on welfare and, you know, in and out of marriage, I understood a lot of what was going on in Patterson, which is an extremely poor town… what was going on institutionally that made things worse for many of the residents.

And so I quickly began to win reporting awards, and one of the… I don’t know if you saw the PBS special, recently, about the girlfriend of a Deputy Sheriff being found dead, and the… with the Deputy Sheriff’s pistol in her left hand — she was right-handed — there was a big story in the Times magazine, and a documentary on PBS, and I’m like  “Oh, I so did that story!” I did that story in Patterson, and it was the Chief of Detectives whose wife was found dead on the kitchen floor with his service revolver in her left hand. And she was right handed. He ended up being prosecuted for murder, in part because of the stories we did, and hung himself the night before he was to be arraigned. So I’m like “Ach…” You know, it’s like this whole thing, years later, people actually… we wrote about it — other people wrote about it — but this was a big impact story about officers of the law who killed their loved ones with their own service revolver. It’s all very tragic.

and continued throughout her career as a reporter:

I would go back to the lies they tell about welfare mothers. And it’s like “Wait a minute! This is not true!” And, you know, it was not just about me, but all the women on welfare, and this is punitive, right? They have so many stereotypes, and they make laws based on those stereotypes, and that hurts lots of families. I can remember going to a party at a National Organization for Women’s member’s home — after a lobby day for better welfare payments. Her home was in the suburbs, and a state representative was there, and he came up to me and he said “Well, I can tell you what they do to prevent having babies.” I’m like… what? He said “They just put an asprin between their knees. Put an aspirin between their knees.” And he thought that was hilarious. And I did not. I think somebody, some current member of Congress said that publicly, recently.

And then it became part of welfare law, in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) legislation, that became part of the law, that welfare recipients could only go to school for one year. So that actually meant TANF… when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich got together to end welfare as we know it, I was unprepared for how severe it was. When originally, when they were talking about it, I’m like “Oh, he’s not going to do that because it would hurt too many women and children, but then the news about the proposed legislation — it was all about blacks and often men, and there was one story in the Sunday Times Magazine about Mary Ann and I think Amour, who lived in Cabrini Green, and was African American and had four children.

The last two, twins, were conceived when she was high on cocaine. They had a picture of her on the cover, and I’m like “This is so racist! This is such lazy journalism.  And it’s all beautifully written, right? And so reinforces every stereotype. She was overweight, etc.

The unfairness of mainstream reporting about women’s issues led to the creation of what is now Women’s eNews:

It took me several years. But then I got an opportunity with NOW, with the Defense and Education Fund. They wanted someone to create an online news service covering women’s issues. I’m like “That would be me.” Right? You know, they had a search committee, but I’m like “Yeah, that would be my job.” So they quickly agreed, and I got this job that, with NOW legal defense, that would allow me to do a startup, basically. And I had a blank computer screen and no idea, actually, how to do this, although I’d been online since the seventies, and sending e-mails, etc.

So I set out to interview people who would design the website, and I had no idea what the difference was, what design meant. And then I was quickly educated that there’s the design, i.e. the looks of it and how it works, and then the design of making it work. And the two work together, but they’re two very different jobs. So I hired the only company whose presentation worked during the interview. Everybody else’s froze, or whatever. That’s how I selected them. So we launched in June of 2000, and we have published every day.

Stay informed and celebrate women all year by subscribing to Women’s eNews. Read more about Rita and forty-nine other incredible women when 50 Over 50 is published – it was officially finished on March 8 – International Women’s Day – and went off to the editor today.

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