Mary Stott, journalist and editor of the Guardian’s women’s page 1957-71

Mary Stott was a journalist for a number of Manchester newspapers before becoming editor of The Guardian’s women’s page from 1957-197. After retiring she was active in an organization called Women and the Media and wrote two volumes of autobiography as well as editing an anthology of writings from the Guardian women’s page.

Mary Stott was born in Leicestershire in 1907. The smell of newsprint was in her nostrils from birth as both her parents and her uncle were journalists. She later recalled in her autobiography Forgetting’s No Excuse:

When as small child I told my dolls “I have some copy to write now , I was only imitating my journalist parents, not indicating my destined future. That future was to be working in newspaper uninterruptedly for almost half a century, but it was also to be a human being with affections, passions and pursuits, and a child of my times. The strands of my life cannot be separated out; it is their interlocking, heredity and environment, work and home, that makes a pattern. Being a journalists’ child made me a journalist; having a working mother made me expect to go on working myself; being born female hindered me from becoming a the kind of newspaper journalist I would have liked to be; being a wife and mother probably made me a more effective women’s page editor.

Her parents were active Liberals and one of her earliest memories was of riding around in car wearing a green ribbon during the 1911 general election.

Aged just 17 she started work on the Leicester Mail as a temporary copyholder in April 1925, though the union would not let her join because she was a woman. She progressed to the reporters room and was then at the tender of 19 given the women’s page. She also learned the craft of sub-editing and layout.

In 1931 Mary was sacked from the paper as the economic slump deepened, but she got a new job just a few weeks later at the Bolton Evening News, reporting on meetings and writing a weekly “women’s diary”. After two years she moved to the Co-operative News in Manchester where she edited the Women’s Co-operative Guild pages as well as Women’s Outlook, the monthly children’s magazine Our Circle, the monthly Co-operative Youth and finally Sunshine Stories for very small children:

…I loved and venerated the women of the co-operative movement, whose courage persistence and loyalty seemed to me often heroic, for though most of them were under-educated and many were scarcely above the poverty line, they learned to speak in public, go on deputations, organize and preside at great conferences. To me the most remarkable thing about the Women’s Co-operative Guild was the training it gave in the art of government, its completely democratic structure.

There was no money for contributions, so Mary and her colleague Nora Crossley wrote practically everything themselves, including some of the fiction. They copied recipes from cook books and borrowed illustrations from other magazines. They also made-up the pages themselves, becoming experts in fitting in text and pictures. Mary was the obvious candidate to get the editor’s job when it became vacant, but her gender counted against her even in the progressive Co-operative movement.

In 1945 Mary went to work for the Manchester Evening News as a news sub-editor, She loved the job, writing later that: “I got to rather good at this swift cutting and piecing, this remorseless battle with the clock”. However, she was sacked in 1950 to allow a man to take the job. She devoted herself to looking after her daughter Catherine before going back to work for the Co-operative Press again as editor of Woman’s Outlook.

In 1957 the new editor of the Manchester Guardian, Alastair Hetherington, asked her to edit the newspaper’s women’s page, at the time called Mainly for Women.

The page had started in 1922 when it was edited by Madeline Linford. As Linford later recalled in a piece written for Mary in 1963, she had been the only woman on the staff of the newspaper and had been instructed by the editor C P Scott to start a women’s feature on six days a week. “…My briefing was lucid and firm,” she recalled. “The page must be readable, varied and aimed always at the intelligent woman… I saw her as an aloof, rigid and highly critical figure, a kind of Big Sister, vigilant for lapses of taste, dignity and literary English.” Madeline had recruited a talented set of contributors which included Vera Brittain, Leonora Eyles, Winifred Holtby and Evelyn Sharp.

During her stewardship of the page Mary also relied on contributions from readers, receiving upwards of fifty unsolicited manuscripts each week: “I reckoned myself a Guardian woman through and through so that my range of interests was likely to be shared by a fair proportion of women readers.”

The page led directly to creation of women’s organizations. In February 1960, for instance, Mary published a letter from Maureen Nicol living in Eastham, Cheshire, who wrote that “perhaps housebound housewives with liberal interests and desire to remain individuals could form a national register, so that whenever a one moves one contacts like-minded friends.” She received 400 letters in one week in response and led to her set up the National Housewives Register. Other organizations that the page acted as a midwife to included the Pre-school Playgroups Association, Invalids at Home and National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependents.

Fiona McCarthy arrived in Manchester in 1964 to work as Mary’s assistant. She later wrote:

Mary set out to create a page which “depended mainly on warmth, sincerity and personal involvement”. With extraordinary speed, it established its identity, reflecting, to an uncanny degree, the attitudes and personality of Mary herself. I can think of no other editor who built up such direct rapport with her readers, or who saw such possibilities in them as contributors. At a time when feminism in Britain was just dawning, Mary was acute in her judgment that what women cried out for was the sharing of experience, the sense of real people writing on her page…… Mary established her own power base, an influential and idiosyncratic female sub-state. She knew from her own experience the struggle women had in balancing love, family and their professional lives, and she ran her page with a dogged sense of purpose in opening out the possibilities for women, forming supportive networks, creating solidarities.

In the late 1960s and early 70s the women’s page reflected the emerging women’s movement. Jill Tweedie, who started working for the paper in 1969, later wrote that to be “young, female and a hackette when the Women’s Movement was getting into high gear was very heaven, the icing on the Sixties cake, which for all its excitements , hadn’t done much more for women than shove us into bed with a lot of stoned hippies playing rotten guitar.”

In March 1971 Jill reported for The Guardian on the International Women’s Day march in London, which was a key event in the emergence of the new movement:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversion will come later, as fall-out comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went, unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering, and bawdy and prim and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley, frost-defying sex.”

As well as her journalism Jill also wrote the fictional Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist which, with a nod to the nineteenth century epistolary novel, took the form of a series of letters between Martha and her younger and more liberated sister, Mary. This was later adapted for TV by Jill and Christopher Bond and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1984 with Lynn Redgrave as Martha and Sarah Neville as Mary.
Jill worked for The Guardian until 1988. She died from motor neurone disease in 1993. She is commemorated in a group portrait at the National Portrait Gallery with fellow Guardian Women’s Page contributors Mary Stott, Polly Toynbee, Posy Simmonds and Liz Forgan.

Mary Stott retired in 1971 and was given an honorary fellowship by Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan University. She remained active after retirement, helping to found Women in the Media, for instance. In February 1973 Mary led a march by the organisation to 10 Downing Street. They were not received but the duty policeman, Sergeant Garnham of Cannon Row, said that two of them could deliver a written message. The women had pens but not a sheet of paper between them. The sergeant tore a page from his notebook and they left a note for Ted Heath.

Mary wrote two volumes of autobiography, Forgetting’s No Excuse (1973) and Before I Go (1985). She also edited an anthology from the women’s page covering the period 1922-35 and 1957-71 called Women Talking, which was published in 1987.

Mary Stott died in 2002 aged 95. Lena Jager in her obituary of Mary in The Guardian in September 2002 wrote:

“Part of her strength – and perhaps why so many men read her page – was her belief that discrimination, in any form, was a total sin. She cared about poverty, unemployment and disability, wherever lives were diminished. She tried hard to win equality for women, but not as an isolated problem. She could be combative in all her campaigns, but never a bigot.”

In July 2007 the Guardian introduced the Mary Stott prize to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s pages, and the centenary of Mary Stott’s birth, the Guardian women’s page. Anyone aged 18 or above can enter – the only requirement is that entrants have plenty of editorial ideas for Guardian women. The prize is a week spent editing the women’s pages in the Guardian’s London office commissioning and editing features, choosing the pictures and writing the headlines.

Article by Michael Herbert

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