'Skirting Traditions' tells story of Arizona's women journalists

In 1913, Angela Hutchinson Hammer went into partnership with a newspaper owner named Ted Healey to publish a newspaper, the Bulletin, in Casa Grande, Ariz.

Hutchinson was no stranger to journalism, as she herself had been publishing newspapers in mining towns in Arizona for the previous 10 years. Her “desert newspaper chain,” as she called it, was anchored by the Wickenburg Miner, which she published for eight years. But she was growing weary of Wickenburg’s politics, which she said were too heated and controversial for her.

So, when Healey’s invitation to become a newspaper partner in the growing town of Casa Grande came along, Hammer jumped at the chance. But it was to be a short-lived relationship.

As Scottsdale writer Lois McFarland recounts in a newly published book, “Skirting Traditions: Arizona Women Writers and Journalists 1912-2012,” Hammer soon discovered that Healey “was going around town telling people that the Bulletin was to be moved into the Chamber of Commerce building, and that he was making remarks about her ability to run a newspaper, calling her ‘the good little woman,’ and so she took matters into her own hands.

“Overnight she moved her printing equipment (she had been using a hand press since her big press was still in Wickenburg) out of the Bulletin building. The next day, when Healey went to the plant, he found an empty shop with only a subscription list lying on the floor, held in place by a rock.”

Score one for the female journalists of the new-born state of Arizona.

The tale of Angela Hutchinson Hammer and her newspaper career is one of 28 such stories about women writers in “Skirting Traditions,” which was written and edited by 18 award-winning members of Arizona Press Women as an Arizona Centennial Legacy Project. Six women served as editors of the 308-page book.

Women profiled include, in the earliest years, Sharlot Hall, Arizona’s first official historian, who came to the Arizona territory by covered wagon at the age of 11, in 1891; Cora Louise Boehringer, first woman elected to office in Arizona in its first year of statehood; and Mary Kidder Rak, author of classic stories of life on an Arizona ranch in the early 1900s.

Later chapters cover such writers as Maxine Marshall, founding editor of Saturday Magazine at the Scottsdale Daily Progress; writer and columnist Jana Bommersbach; and Pam Knight Stevenson, television documentary producer and oral historian.

According to Carol Hughes, one of the editors, the book has many ASU connections, including both the women who were profiled and those who write the profiles. Some graduated from ASU, others taught at ASU, and still others were staff members at ASU. Hughes is media relations officer for the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development and the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

The idea for the book came from Brenda Kimsey Warneka, the incoming president of Arizona Press Women in 2009, who was asked to come up with an Arizona Centennial project. The half-dozen APW members who signed up for the project became the co-editors.

It was a labor of love over a three-year period. First, the editors had to select the subjects for the chapters, then assign writers, then edit the stories.

The writers were faced with a daunting task: capture the life and career stories of amazing women in 2,500 words or less, describe their impact on Arizona, and include samples of their writing.

“Since most of us (the editors) are former journalists, accuracy was important,” said Hughes. “We checked every fact and footnote.”

The subjects were nominated by Arizona Press Women members, who submitted 500-word essays about their candidates. “We had to reject some because we had more women than space,” Hughes said.

Naming the book was one of the more difficult parts of the project, Hughes said. “We spent months trying to come up with a title. It is a history book, a women’s book, a writers’ book, and a book about the Southwest.”

The editors were struck by the number of times clothing – particular skirts – were mentioned in the chapters, so in an “ah-ha” moment, they realized they had their title – “Skirting Traditions.”

Wilma S. Hopkins, for example, who was born in 1917, and was a photographer and writer for the Tucson Citizen, began her career when women weren’t allowed to wear pants to work. One of her assignments was to climb a ladder to take a picture of the United Way contribution billboard.

“She was wearing a suit and says she wanted to avoid giving the town a view up her skirt,” wrote Jane Eppinga. So, she said, “That’s the one time I ... wouldn’t do something in photography. But I gave [the camera] to the reporter and he climbed up and shot it for me.”

In the 1970s, when pantsuits were coming into style, TV journalist Pam Knight Stevenson started wearing them to work, as did many other women. “It didn’t occur to me that would be an issue,” she told Marion E. Gold. But within a couple of weeks of working at KOOL-TV, her boss called her in and reminded her, on behalf of the station vice president, that “women were not allowed to wear pants at KOOL-TV.”

All in all, the stories add up to a panorama of tough, smart women who worked hard for what they believed in and made an indelible mark on Arizona as a territory and state. (Several are still busy with their careers.)

“These are women whom readers won’t soon forget,” Warneka wrote for a cover blurb. “What they had in common was their love of writing and journalism, and their ability to use the written word to earn a living, argue a cause, and promote the virtues, beauty, history and people of the Southwest.”

Arizona Press Women presented copies of the book to each of Arizona’s female governors – Rose Mofford, Jane Dee Hull, Janet Napolitano and Jan Brewer. Hughes said Mofford called her on the phone after she had read only part of the book.

Mofford’s take on “Skirting Traditions”?

“The more I read the more I like it,” Mofford said.

The book is available at all major bookstores and is priced at $22.95. For more information, visit skirtingtraditions.com.