Croly, Jane Cunningham (1829–1901)
Croly, Jane Cunningham (1829–1901)
English-born American writer and editor, founder of the women's club movement in America, and champion of women's right to work, who syndicated her work and created the first newspaper "women's pages." Name variations: Jennie June (journalistic pseudonym, sometimes spelled Jenny June). Pronunciation: Crow-lee. Born Jane Cunningham on December 19, 1829, in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, England; died on December 23, 1901, of heart failure in New York City; moved to United States in 1841, at age 12; daughter of Joseph Cunningham (a Unitarian minister) and Jane (Scott) Cunningham (a homemaker); married David Goodman Croly, on February 14, 1856; children: Minnie Croly; Viola Croly; Herbert Croly (founding editor of The New Republic); Alice Cary Croly; and a son who died in infancy.
Became first woman reporter at a U.S. daily newspaper (New York Tribune, 1855); became first woman syndicated newspaper columnist in America (1857); created first "women's pages" in a U.S. newspaper (New York World, 1862); formed women's club Sorosis (1868), serving as its president (1870, 1875–86); was instrumental in the founding of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (1889); founded the Woman's Press Club of New York City (1889), serving as its president (1889–1901); awarded honorary doctorate by Rutger's Women's College (1892), where she was appointed chair of journalism and literature.
Newspaper articles published in: New York Tribune, beginning in 1855; (New York) Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Messenger, beginning in 1855; New York Herald, beginning in 1856; (New York) Graphic Daily Times and Weekly Times, beginning in 1861; New York World, 1862–72; and (New York) Daily Graphic, beginning in 1873. Syndicated columns published, beginning in 1857, in New Orleans Picayune, New Orleans Delta, Baltimore American, Richmond Enquirer, Chicago Times, Louisville Journal, and other periodicals. Chief staff writer for Mme. Demorest's Mirror of Fashions, later Demorest's Monthly Magazine, 1860–87. Editor of Godey's Lady's Book, 1887–88, and the magazine of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (titled variously as the Woman's Cycle, the Home-Maker, and the New Cycle), 1889–96.
Jennie June's American Cookery Book (1866); Jennie Juneiana: Talks on Women's Topics (1869); For Better or Worse: Talks for Some Men and All Women (1875); Knitting and Crochet: A Guide to the Use of the Needle and the Hook (1885); Ladies' Fancy Work: A Manual of Designs and Instructions in All Kinds of Needle-Work (1886); Sorosis: Its Origin and History (1886); Thrown on Her Own Resources, Or, What Girls Can Do (1891); The History of the Women's Club Movement in America (1898).
Jane Cunningham Croly is memorialized in journalism history as the first syndicated woman newspaper columnist in America and as the initiator of newspaper "women's pages"; she is remembered by women's-studies historians chiefly as the founder of the women's club movement in America. Her contributions to club organization as well as newspaper journalism—a career she shared with her husband David Croly—were indeed considerable. But perhaps an equally important contribution in both fields was her tireless championship of women's right to work. At the same time other women activists of the late 19th century agitated for suffrage, Jane Cunningham Croly—known to most of her readers as Jennie June—believed that women's emancipation lay in their professional and financial independence rather than the vote. She also believed that women could combine a career with marriage and motherhood, as she did quite successfully.
Jane Cunningham arrived in America at the age of 12. Her Unitarian-minister father's support of the working classes—the same issue that would dominate much of her later writing—was considered too liberal by the community where he preached in Leicestershire, England, so the Reverend Joseph Cunningham moved his family to upstate New York (first Poughkeepsie and then the town of Wappingers Falls). Despite limited schooling, Jane was well-read thanks to her use of her father's extensive library. As a teenager, she taught school and wrote a semi-monthly newsletter for the congregation led by her brother John, another minister, for whom she also did housekeeping.
When her father died in 1854, however, 25-year-old Jane went to New York City to seek a more substantial income. She sold her first article to Charles A. Dana, then assistant editor of the New York Tribune, who hired her as a staff writer—the first woman in such a position at a U.S. daily newspaper. Rather than writing columns or essays from home, as other women newspaper writers did, Jane Cunningham reported stories and then wrote them on deadline from her desk in the city room; in this sense, according to journalism historian Ishbel Ross , she was a "forerunner of the [20th-century] trained reporter." From the start of her newspaper career in 1855, she used an alliterative pseudonym as her byline, taking her cue from contemporaries, including "Fanny Fern" (Sara Willis Parton ), "Grace Greenwood" (Sara Clarke Lippincott ), and "Minnie Myrtle" (Nancy Johnson ); she chose "Jennie June" from Benjamin F. Taylor's poem "The Beautiful River."
Jane wrote primarily about women's topics, including fashion and manners, and, because of the growing female readership of newspapers in the mid-19th century, she was soon contributing to several New York newspapers. At one of them, the New York Herald, she met reporter David Croly, whom she married on February 14, 1856. The next year, she began reselling her columns to newspapers in New Orleans, Richmond, Baltimore, Louisville, and Chicago—thus becoming the first American woman newspaper writer to syndicate her work.
In 1859, the Crolys moved to Rockford, Illinois, where David briefly served as editor and publisher of the Rockford Daily News and where their first child, Minnie Croly , was born. Within a year, they returned to New York City, where both David and Jane found work at a new daily, the New York World. In 1862, David became managing editor of the paper, and Jane began what would later be known as "women's pages," a regular section devoted to fashion, homemaking, shopping, and entertaining. While producing this section for the World during the 1860s and early 1870s, she took on several additional responsibilities, writing dramatic and literary criticism for various newspapers, serving as the chief staff writer for Ellen Curtis Demorest 's Mme. Demorest's Mirror of Fashion (later Demorest's Monthly Magazine), and authoring a cookbook. Croly continued to syndicate her newspaper articles and began to issue collections of them in book form.
Much of her newspaper and magazine work was what would later be known as "service journalism," offering actual instructions for cooking, sewing, and decorating, and giving shoppers specific information about merchandise. But she also offered broader advice to her women readers. She counseled mothers about the education of their daughters, complaining that the finishing schools of the day produced young women ill-prepared for life. In the early 1860s, she noted that:
A fashionably educated young lady knows all about the last new opera, and is able to give the correct etiquette for an evening party, but it is doubtful if she can tell the boundaries of her own country, or spell the commonest words with accuracy. … [Rather than] the studious cultivation of all the absurd nonsense concerning dress, style, fortune, … [w]hat we want is educational institutions which will teach girls what they ought to know when they take their places as women, and make them active, sensible, useful wives and mothers.
She believed that good health, common sense, and practical preparation led ultimately to women's long-term happiness, especially in marriage: "If [girls] can run, jump, skate, swim, ride, and mend their own torn dresses," she wrote, "they are in better condition to be married … than if they had been confined to a daily promenade in the most fashionable of bonnets."
Croly also turned her editorial attention to the circumstances of a growing category of young women: "working girls." She advocated better working conditions for women factory and shop employees while also promoting women's entry into the professions, maintaining that careers made women "self-sustaining, self-reliant, and respected." She urged her middle-class female readers to enter fields then just opening for women, including office secretarial work and department-store sales. Later in her life, she published a collection of her earlier newspaper columns on the subject of women and work, the 1891 Thrown on Her Own Resources, Or, What Girls Can Do, probably the first book of career advice for women. In one of those columns, she set forth her belief that the economic independence that resulted from working—not political power gained through the vote—was the key to women's equality:
This equal performance of contract between men and women, as between man and man, is the greatest step in advance that has been taken or conceded to women in this age of advancement. It lifts them out of dependence into independence; it gives them the equal chance; it puts money-power into their hands, and that is what women must have if they are to achieve a place in this money-worshipping world. … The reason why the inferior man is practically superior to a woman infinitely beyond him in all essential attributes, is because he has assumed his right to earn money, while she has not.
The silly pride which makes a virtue of helplessness, which considers money given better than money earned, is fast disappearing, and the pace becomes accelerated with every financial success achieved by women on their own account.
She dismissed the notion that women were constitutionally incapable of surviving in the business world, pointing out that—to the contrary—in their home lives women regularly proved that they possessed "the primary qualities necessary for success…—courage, persistence, elasticity, and mental grasp of a situation." Croly believed that "Work, and work for pay, is the motto of to-day for girls who wish to prove themselves true daughters of the nineteenth century, and ready for the responsibility which the twentieth century will be sure to bring."
I have never done anything that was not helpful to women, so far as it lay in my power.
—Self-written epitaph of Jane Cunningham Croly
At the same time, she also assured her readers that they could work and still be good wives and mothers. Indeed, in her own peak period of professional production, Croly was managing a growing household. During the 1860s, she had three more children: a son who died in infancy, another daughter, Viola Croly , and another son, Herbert Croly. (Herbert would later become famous in Progressive political and journalistic circles, as the author of the 1909 book The Promise of American Life and as the founding editor of The New Republic, begun in 1914.) Jane's fifth and last child, Alice Cary Croly , was named for the feminist writer of that name. Alice and Phoebe Cary were among the several women writers with whom Croly formed important and lasting friendships; others included Louisa May Alcott , Sara Willis Parton, Miriam Squire (Mrs. Frank) Leslie, Ella Wheeler Wilcox , and Kate Field .
The support and encouragement of other talented women led to Jane Cunningham Croly's second career, that of clubwoman. She had already demonstrated her talents as an organizer by calling a "Woman's Congress" of activists in New York in 1856. In 1868, after she and other women writers in New York were excluded from a journalists' dinner in honor of the visiting Charles Dickens, they founded their own club, calling it Sorosis (a botanical term). The goal of the new organization was to "promote agreeable and useful relations among women of literary and artistic tastes" and to provide "an opportunity for the discussion among women, of new facts and principles, the results of which promise to exert an important influence on the future of women and the welfare of society."
While Alice Cary was the first president of Sorosis, and other members served in that capacity during its early years, Croly headed the group through most of the 1870s and 1880s. Though founded by women writers—its other such members included Phoebe Cary, Kate Field, Fanny Fern, and Ellen Demorest—the organization was open to women outside the literary field as well. The club was widely criticized and ridiculed in the press, alternately derided as a silly feminine vanity and as an inappropriately masculine endeavor. In her 1886 history of the organization, Croly explained the significance of the group and the reason for the controversy:
The young members of to-day will wonder why all this fuss could have been made about a mere society of women. But they must remember that eighteen years ago social and secular organization among women did not exist. There were no State Aid Societies, no Women's Exchanges, no Kitchen Garden Associations, or Industrial Unions, or Workingwomen's Clubs, no Church or Missionary Societies officered and carried on exclusively by women. No purely women's societies at all, outside of the sewing circle. … [A]nd it was doubted, by many good men and women, whether a secular society of women, of different tastes, habits and pursuits, and with no special object to bind them, could hang together for any length of time.
But "hang together" Sorosis did. In its first two years, its membership grew from a dozen women to nearly a hundred, and the group became involved not only with professional concerns, but also with broader social issues, examining and publicizing problems including infant mortality, prison reform, and the health aspects of women's dress reform. Another ongoing activity of the club was its agitation for the admission of young women to American colleges. In its structure and its goals, Sorosis became a model for other professional women's clubs that were springing up across the country in the late-19th century.
During the 1870s and early 1880s, Croly continued her extensive newspaper and magazine work and published two books on needlework. From 1887 to 1888, she took the helm of the failing, 57-year-old Godey's Lady's Book, briefly holding a half-interest in the magazine. This proved to be her final staff move in journalism, as she became more and more involved in the cause of clubwomen. Her involvement did not flag despite the death, on April 29, 1889, of her husband, whose health had been failing for a decade. That same year, Croly founded the Woman's Press Club of New York City (serving as its president for the rest of her life) and helped to create the General Federation of Women's Clubs. For the next eight years, she also edited the first three incarnations of the General Federation's variously named magazine, first the Woman's Cycle, then the Home-Maker, and then the New Cycle (the magazine continued into the 20th century under still other titles, and other editors).
In 1892, Jane Cunningham Croly was awarded an honorary doctor of literature degree by Rutger's Women's College in New Jersey, where she served as chair of journalism and literature and became the first woman to teach college-level journalism in America. She remained active in club activities throughout the 1890s, publishing her History of the Women's Club Movement in America in 1898. The following year, she broke her hip in a bad fall, an injury that never fully healed and led to her physical decline. She died of heart failure in New York City on December 23, 1901.
Ashley, Perry J., ed. American Newspaper Journalists, 1873–1900. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 23. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1983.
Croly, Jane Cunningham ["Jennie June"]. Jennie Juneiana: Talks on Women's Topics. Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1884.
——. Sorosis: Its Origin and History. NY: J.J. Little, 1886.
——. Thrown on Her Own Resources, Or, What Girls Can Do. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1891.
Mathews, Fannie Aymar. "The Woman's Press Club of New York City," in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Vol. XI, no. 4. August 1891, pp. 455–461.
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vols. I–V. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.
Ross, Ishbel. Ladies of the Press. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936.
Croly, Jane Cunningham. The History of the Women's Club Movement in America. NY: H.G. Allen, 1898.
Woman's Press Club of New York City. Memories of Jane Cunningham Croly, "Jennie June." NY: Putnam, 1904.
Four collections at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College: Jane Cunningham Croly Papers, Elizabeth Ban-croft Schlesinger Papers, Strickland Autograph Collection (also contains photos and correspondence), and American Women Writers Collection.
Woman's Press Club of New York City Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
Carolyn Kitch , former editor for Good Housekeeping and McCall's, and Assistant Professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois