Editorial Women: Then and Now

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2019-03-13

A famous editor might sound like a contradiction in terms to some, but for those plugged into the literary world there are a few names that pop up time and again. In the past, as with many professions, most well-known editors’ names have historically been those of men, but thanks in part to the pioneering efforts of some very intelligent and driven women, there are now more well-known editorial women than ever.


Mary Shadd Cary – A Nineteenth-Century Trailblazer

Although her writing about temperance might not be as popular as it once was, Mary Shadd Cary’s literary contributions to the abolitionism movement and the struggle for women’s rights make Cary an important figure in Canada’s legal and literary history. Born in Delaware, Cary moved to Windsor to pursue a teaching career. In Windsor, Cary founded the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper dedicated to temperance, abolition, and the rights of women. Cary was the first black woman in North America to become a newspaper editor, and after moving back to the US, Cary also became the second black woman to earn a law degree in that country.


Doris Anderson – A Canadian Icon

That Doris Anderson isn’t a household name, especially in Canada, is a shame. Her efforts to secure legal equality for women in Canada resulted in the inclusion of women’s equality rights in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and her deft editorial work at the helm of Chatelaine steered the periodical away from being a repository for recipes and fashion advice. Instead, Chatelaine focused on women’s issues of the day, running a piece on legalized abortion in 1959 and one on pay equity for women in 1962. Anderson was a deft businesswoman as well as activist, tripling Chatelaine’s circulation during her time as the publication’s editor.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – Editorial Dark Horse

Considering the decades spent in the public eye as the First Lady to and subsequently the widow of President John F. Kennedy, it’s surprising that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis decided to make a professional move into publishing in her autumn years. Under the advice of her friend Jimmy Breslin, Onassis took a job as a consulting editor at Viking Press, and went on to become an associate editor at Doubleday. There she spearheaded such projects as Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, which sold over 500,000 copies and made it to the top of the New York Times best-seller List in 1988.


Irene Gentle – The Wave of Newspaperwomen

Female representation in newspaper editing has come a long way since Mary Shadd Cary’s day. Last year, Irene Gentle was named Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Star. Gentle previously made a name for herself working for the Star as a journalist, so her appointment is an obvious and sensible choice. Similar sensible choices in the appointments of Adrienne Batra as Editor-in-Chief at the Toronto Sun, Anne Marie Owens as Editor-in-Chief at the National Post, and Alison Uncles as Editor-in-Chief at Maclean’s shape the contemporary news market, each woman using her own distinct editorial focus to provide variety in Canadian news.


Ruth Smith – Activist and Editor

Similar to Mary Shadd Cary who used her position as Editor-in-Chief of the Provincial Freeman to argue for causes she cared about, Ruth Smith used her position as Editor-in-Chief of the Native Voice, Canada’s first newspaper for and by Indigenous Canadians, to argue for a number of causes in the years following the Second World War. A Coast Salish woman, Smith was born in Yale and attended the Coqauleetza residential school in nearby Sardis. In addition to providing the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia a strong voice in its community, the Native Voice gave Smith a soapbox with which she brought the needs of her community to the attention of the public.


Jarvis Brownlie – Redefining the Political Narrative

Jarvis Brownlie is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Manitoba who has written and edited a sizeable volume of material on historical and contemporary Indigenous perspectives. She recently co-edited, with Valerie Korinek, Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada. Using Sylvia Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties as a springboard, Finding a Way to the Heart examines the ways in which identity and colonization pertain to race and gender.


Many More

There are several more underappreciated women whose editorial voices improve their communities. Mary Shadd Cary never lived in a world that observed International Women’s Day, but the work that she and the other women named in this post did has helped innumerable women in their struggle for equality.



Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Mount Hope, Ontario. He can be reached at  


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