Striking a happy balance between work and home has been a struggle for women for decades. Long before “having it all” permeated acclaimed sitcoms like 30 Rock and just about every women's magazine, it was the groundbreaking reality of journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, better known to her readers as Jennie June.
Jane Cunningham was born in England in 1829, but she grew up in the United States after her family emigrated in 1841. As a child, she ravenously ripped through the books in the library of her Unitarian preacher father. She also dipped her toe into journalism by volunteering on the semi-monthly newspaper her brother's ministry published in Massachusetts. After her father died in 1854, she boldly moved to New York City to seek work in the newspaper business under the pseudonym Jennie June.
June faced a steep climb. The publishing industry was incredibly sexist, with editors effectively barring women from writing anything but “soft” news intended for female audiences. Unruffled, June leveraged one article in The New York Tribune into a column for Noah's Weekly Messenger called "Parlor and Side-walk Gossip." The column took off, and by 1857 papers as far away as New Orleans were printing June’s work, making her one of the first—if not the first—female journalists to be nationally syndicated.
Jumping Out of Hoops
By the 1860s, she began writing for women's magazines like Mme. Demorest's Mirror of Fashions, Demorest's Monthly Magazine, Home-Maker Magazine, and The Cycle (which she founded). Within these pages, June ignored fashion magazines’ standard of celebrating traditional looks and spurning innovation. Instead, she used her platform to promote clothes that were both fashionable and functional. Her column "Talks With Women" suggested more "healthful" dress. June harbored a special hatred for bloomers, support hoops, and skirts that dragged on the ground, and favored cord corsets over whalebone ones.
June columns championing practical clothes resonated with readers, and before long, other fashion writers were quoting her views. She was doing more than just talking, though—June’s position as Demorest’s chief staff writer enabled her to put savvier fashions in women’s reach. The title offered a pullout dress pattern with each issue, which allowed June to give 19th century American woman the tools they needed to reshape their wardrobes.
Written Pep Talks
June wanted to inspire women to change more than how they dressed. Her “Talks with Women" series pushed other issues close to June's heart, including success stories of accomplished women, the importance of women in the workplace, women’s access to education, equal pay, and their value in the home. The talks were a hit with readers and newsstand owners—The American Bookseller praised them as “sprightly and sensible.” In 1864, she collected her columns for the book Jennie Juneiana: Talks on Women's Topics. The intro gives some sense of her warmth and wit:
Dear Friend: Do not be angry that I have presumed to give you these simple thoughts in the pretentious form of a book. It was not my fault: I was told to do so, and I did it, - exactly how or why I cannot tell. I think I should not have done so, however, if I had not been conscious that, poor as they are, and written, some in sorrow, some in pain, and all in the hurry and excitement of a busy newspaper life, they contain nothing which can do any harm, and some things which may do a little good; that they are at least true, as the expression of thought, feeling and conviction; and from the very nature of the circumstances which produced them, may contain words which will go straight to the locked recesses of some woman’s heart, as others have to mine.
A Balancing Act
Amid her "busy newspaper lifestyle," June was also a devoted mother and proud homemaker. By 1877, she was her family’s sole breadwinner after a quarrel with his employers and eventual declining health forced her husband to stop working. For June, "having it all" required careful planning. She devoted the first three hours of her day to her children and household chores. By noon, she'd be in her office, where her husband and children knew not to disturb her as she worked through the wee hours of the night.
That is, unless she and Mr. Croly had plans to socialize with their famous friends, a group that included Louisa May Alcott, Alice and Phoebe Cary, and Oscar Wilde. To that entertaining end, June gladly shared recipes with her readers in the form of magazines as well as Jennie June's American Cookery Book, which notably contained Susan B. Anthony's preferred method of making Apple Tapioca Pudding.
Surprisingly, June did not share Anthony's passion for women’s suffrage. Although June was outspoken on gender equality in her writing, she shied away from pushing for voting rights, which may have helped make June a forgotten figure of early feminism. Historians have suspected that June felt other issues—like access to work and education—were more pressing matters for women. Once those goals were achieved, she believed, "All the rest will follow."
Building a Movement
On top of her storied journalism career, June also founded a series of women's clubs where issues of gender equality could be discussed within a strong community. She called the first Women’s Parliament in 1856 and the second in 1869. After June and fellow female journalists were barred from a talk Charles Dickens was giving in New York in 1868, she created her most famous club, Sorosis, which sought “collective elevation and advancement.” The rise of similar groups across the U.S. urged June to found the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1890. In her book The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America, she succinctly explained their origins and importance: "The woman has been the one isolated fact in the universe. The outlook upon the world, the means of education, the opportunities for advancement, had all been denied her.”
June thought the social connection and support system these clubs could provide would be a cure to this sense of isolation and powerlessness. Her efforts earned June the nickname Mother of Women's Clubs. Meanwhile, her expertise and acclaim as America's best-known female journalist helped her pioneer another profession when Rutgers University made her the first woman to teach journalism at the college level.
June worked in journalism and within her clubs until a fall at 69 forced her to slow down for the last three years of her life. Her 1901 New York Times obituary hailed June as the “first American newspaper woman,” and in 1994 June’s tireless advocacy for all women earned her enshrinement in the National Women's Hall of Fame. Whether women chose a path in education, homemaking, employment, or all of the above, the important thing for Jennie June was that they were able to choose.