If women lead, will more follow?

When I was growing up in Rockford, Illinois, the after-school ritual of snacking on microwave popcorn while watching “Gilmore Girls” was a sacred one. I don’t mean to invoke the cliché that’s so often trotted out by women my age in the journalism industry so early on this essay, but the series spanned a time period in my life (2000-2007) in which I became the journalist I am today.

The more I’ve pondered my place in this industry, the more I’ve considered the role that Rory Gilmore had in inspiring me as a young journalist. The way she assumed leadership roles with such grace and ease is something that hasn't been portrayed much in popular culture, as so aptly noted by Marin Cogan in this report from New York Magazine’s “The Intelligencer”.

Actress Alexis Bledel of the show, "Gilmore Girls" laughs at a press conference in 2006. (AP Photo/Lucas Jackson)
Actress Alexis Bledel of the show, "Gilmore Girls" laughs at a press conference in 2006. (AP Photo/Lucas Jackson)

The way that I see it, the problem surrounding “women in journalism” is two-fold:

1.) Women-specific media often panders to the most basic, consumer-driven aspects of what being a woman is all about (as imagined by the companies peddling products). Now, instead of simply living in a world of makeup and Skinny Girl cocktails, the reading material marketed toward women is anchored in this same false reality.

2.) Women aren’t published, quoted, hired or promoted at rates even somewhat on par with their male counterparts.
The first half of the problem is something I noticed early on in life. My first subscription was to American Doll magazine. Then I graduated to Teen Vogue (not exactly a smooth transition), which I would spend my own money on each month, invariably reading every page so as not to miss a thing. This was during junior high, a time during which I would devour three to four novels a week. Therefore, flipping through the pages of Teen Vogue was like thumbing a picture book. The images were colorful and striking, I had a burgeoning interest in fashion, and the thin volumes were an escape. I don’t think much has changed as far as women’s magazines go. I still read them monthly, and they’re always a treat, but I never finish one feeling particularly fulfilled or inspired.

The second half the problem has been more difficult to grapple with. Compare the reality of female representation in newsroom to what I saw growing up watching “Gilmore Girls.” Rory acted as an editor on her high school newspaper staff (which was run by another favorite female character—Paris Geller). Both Rory and Paris took turns as the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News.

Thankfully, my parents always encouraged me to explore leadership opportunities. I was never one to shy from taking on new roles, and I developed an interest in journalism early on (yes, even before “Gilmore Girls” was on my radar). After four years on the staff of my grade school newspaper, I moved on to high school, where I successfully started a school newspaper that exists to this day. Working for The Maneater at the University of Missouri was a natural next step. I brought all of my Gilmore Girls DVDs to school, and would watch them in between classes and reporting assignments. Under the guidance of some fantastic editors (both male and female), I found my passion and niche—magazine writing.

Starting my junior year, upon entering the magazine sequence, I was surrounded by women in my classes, both my peers and my professors. Despite noticing early on that the media available to me was lacking, the second problem of women and journalism is one I didn’t realize until this time, shortly before I would “enter the real world,” as they say.

In 2012, I was a junior in college. I was actually sitting in my magazine editing class (surrounded by other women, in a class taught by a female professor), when that year’s list of ASME finalists was announced. This is the awards year that most people in the industry remember as infamous for not including even one woman in a major writing or reporting category.

With the exchange of one covert text during that class, my friend Joanna Demkiewicz and I first verbalized the plan that we’re continuing to carry out to this day—a women’s magazine that could offer writers a platform to publish the kind of longform writing that would garner widespread recognition and award-winning potential, as well as offer women as readers an alternative to the women’s media available to them at the time.

The Riveter has evolved a lot since 2012 (we didn’t actually launch the magazine until almost a year later, in March 2013).

We continue to publish superb longform by women (such as this first-person report on how young children of color will change the course of the evolving civil rights movement by gaining more access to technology, or this largely first-person perspective on the Taiwanese Sunflower Movement). But we’ve also tried to inject the “longform” spin, one of unparalleled analysis and research, into the stories that fall under content areas found in a traditional woman’s magazine. For example, why read another article on how to get that perfect Cara Delevingne brow when you can read about the history of eyebrows as indication of social status.

I view my leadership role within The Riveter as multi-faceted. As co-founder, I make daily decisions, alongside Joanna and our newest partner, Natalie Cheng, that impact the direction in which The Riveter grows. Most recently, we decided that yes, although the market is saturated with women’s magazines, there is a still a void to fill in women’s media consumption. We could focus less on trying to make The Riveter appealing to everyone (something we thought was necessary in order to be taken seriously), and instead focus our efforts and intellect into making a magazine that elevates writing by women and gives women a superior option to what they’re currently offered.

This is the approach we used last month during our Kickstarter-hosted subscriber drive. On March 15, we successfully met (and actually exceeded) our goal of $33,000, which will enable us to launch a quarterly print publication schedule and greatly increase the size of our print runs. You can of course still subscribe to The Riveter via our website. Esquire has been a huge inspiration to us. It is an unapologetic men’s magazine that has a readership that wavers around a 70/30 male to female ratio. Readers of all genders flock to the publication for its class-act journalism (specifically longform journalism), and a witty voice that doesn’t patronize it’s readership the way that women’s magazines tend to do too often.

In my role as editor-in-chief, I work with writers daily who come to The Riveter at various stages in their careers. Those more seasoned appreciate the nuances of our mission and have expressed their appreciation for an outlet that recognizes the quality of their work and their value as professional writers. I feel especially responsible for the experiences of those writers just starting out (many not that much younger than myself, some a few years older). These are women who have really only experienced a professional landscape that resembles the one which inspired us to make something different.

“Where you lead, I will follow…” is the hook of the “Gilmore Girls" theme song, a diddy I find even more poignant today as I reflect on how the show influenced the woman and journalist that I am striving to become. There are women leading the charge in the innovating the journalism industry to be a more meaningful and hospitable place for their work and opinions. I’m privileged to work with many of them every single day, and I look forward to meeting many more to follow.

Kaylen B. Ralph is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Riveter magazine. Her essay is our fourth in a series chosen to highlight women in leadership in journalism.

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