The Evolution Of The Sob-Sisterhood

If you ever note the preponderance of female bylines in print media and think contemporary journalism is now all but synonymous with women, bear in mind that it wasn’t always so. In the early years of the 20th Century, newsrooms were, for the most part, male spaces. The reporters in the Woman’s section (yes, there really was such a thing) of the newspaper were, of course, women, but the topics there were largely domestic…recipes, fashion, household hints, etc., along with the occasional foray into the suffrage movement.

Actually, the Woman’s section never really went away. Now it is called “Lifestyle” or “Modern Living” or “Trends” or whatever to obscure the fact that it is aimed at women. These days one must tread lightly when it comes to those bad old gender stereotypes.

In the old days the few women who covered hard news tended to stray from the who, what, when, where, and why dictates of the profession and veer off into human interest territory. The emphasis was more emotional than factual. Such women were known as sob sisters.

The term was coined in 1907 during the murder trial of Harry Thaw. That name may not ring a bell but if you’ve ever read the novel Ragtime (1975) or seen the movie (1981), you are already acquainted with Harry Thaw.

The heir to a railroad fortune amassed by his father, Thaw was accused of the murder of famed architect and man about town Stanford White. There was no question that Thaw had killed White. The incident occurred at a rooftop restaurant at Madison Square Garden (a forerunner of the current MSG, it was designed by White) in full view of numerous witnesses. The motivation was White’s penchant for underage girls, one of whom was Evelyn Nesbit, a Gibson Girl whose popularity would qualify her as a super-model today (plenty of images of her on the internet, so Google her and judge for yourself). Nesbit later married Thaw even though he had a history of mental instability. Unable to live with the fact that White had deflowered his wife when she was sweet sixteen, Thaw approached White from behind and pumped three bullets into him. Believe it or not, a performer was singing “I Could Love a Million Girls” at the time.

The Thaw trial was a cornucopia of sensationalism at a time when newspapers and the media were synonymous. The press had no competition when it came to reporting the news to the masses. The application of the phrase “freedom of the press” to radio, TV, et al was yet to come.

The original sob sisters (a/k/a the Pity Patrol) were the four women (Winifred Black, Dorothy Dix, Nixola Greeley-Smith, and Ada Patterson) covering the Thaw trial. Of course, Evelyn Nesbit was the picture of innocent victimhood and Stanford White was the villainous roué. Harry Thaw was…well, he was not portrayed as a white knight upholding the purity of womanhood. He was just plain nuts. In fact, he was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity.

While it might be argued that employing woman journalists was all about equity and inclusion, it was likely more about catering to, and possibly increasing, female readership. In fact, to a large degree the dispersal of information has always been the province of women. Consider the persistence of gossip, which has been around as long as the human female has had the gift of speech. Throughout most of history, gossip was spread by word of mouth. As technology developed, new means of spreading gossip arose. An acknowledgment of this is an old saying, probably dating from the late 19th century: There are three ways to send a message: Telephone, telegram, and tell a woman.

When Harry Thaw was on trial, New York City had, as near as I can estimate, 14 daily newspapers, so the competition for readers was intense. Women are more interested in reading about the people in the news rather than news per se, and gossip is always about people, not abstract ideas, not facts, not theories, not opinions. And if the people women read about are involved in scandals, so much the better. Sex scandals, of course, attract the most attention.

The Thaw trial opened up a can of worms about White’s sex life as well as those of a number of his peers who enjoyed the company of sweet young things – the cads! Of course, sweet young things have been known to be fond of sugar daddies, but no one would dare impute mercenary or hypergamous motives to innocent young females who, according to custom, were always portrayed as more sinned against than sinning. Even the hard-core prostitute was a “fallen woman” or a “soiled dove.”

Victimhood was the stock in trade of sob sisters. The Thaw case provided a classic melodrama right out of the Perils of Pauline, replete with an innocent heroine and a leering villain. Numerous Pictures of Stanford White show a resplendent mustache perfectly suited for twirling. Harry Thaw didn’t measure up as a dashing hero but you can’t have everything. For good measure, much like supporting actors a colorful parade of New Yorkers appeared as witnesses.

An ironclad law of tabloid journalism has long been “If it bleeds, it leads.” True, murders, train wrecks, natural disasters, and mine cave-ins were all headline-worthy, but nothing sold better than sex. A really good sex scandal allowed readers to sin vicariously while feeling morally superior to the unfortunate souls embroiled in the proceedings. The Thaw trial, of course, had both sex and violence.

Even in today’s polymorphous perverse world a good sex scandal is hard to beat. Of all the legal travails Donald Trump is enduring, the most reported on are those involving sex. This is not surprising. Sex scandals have the most appeal since almost all people have had sexual relations and have some understanding or opinion of its physical and emotional attributes. Even virgins, incels, and celibates have fantasies about it.

While sex and violence slug it out for first place in readership, white collar crimes, though duly reported on, just don’t excite female readers. Wall Street has had its share of scandals, but few newspaper readers have any idea of what the SEC is, what it does, or how it operates. How many people could define hedge funds or derivatives? Not much potential for a human interest story there. Even people who might have been snookered by fraudsters and white-collar criminals don’t care about the details – just lock up the bastards! Ah, but sex, that is another matter. Tell me more! Every devilish detail!

Consider the case of economist John Maynard Keynes. In his day he was famous enough to inspire the adjective Keynesian, as well as the more recent post-Keynesian. During the New Deal, a newspaper article explaining Keynesian economics would be of little interest to most readers, but an expose of Keynes’ sex life (he had a string of homosexual lovers in his youth) would rivet them. Paradoxically, Keynes’ economic theories affected national policy, and hence everyone in America, while the sexual predilections of “the Father of Macroeconomics” affected only him and his willing partners.

Much like a soap opera, the Thaw trial was a daily drama. Biddies young and old checked in every day for new developments and would discuss the smarmy details with their cohorts. The potential for jury tampering was so great it resulted in the first-ever sequestration of a jury in the history of American jurisprudence. As a bonus, the trial resulted in a hung jury, necessitating a re-trial in 1908. “The Trial of the Century” (remember, this was the first decade of the century, long before O.J. was born) was a gift to newspapers, both in New York and nationwide.

As radio spread during the 1920s and television in the 1950s, sob sister stories that appealed to female listeners/viewers were given priority. Obviously, hard news, boring as it might be, never disappeared but it didn’t boost listenership/viewership.

It’s hardly going out on a limb predicting that one day newspaper sob sisters will be extinct, not because the sob sister approach has gone out of fashion but because newspapers are going out of business.

The advantage the old-time sob sisters had was that they did not have to be good-looking. The TV sob sister has no such luck. She must be telegenic. If she is not, her harshest critics will be women viewers. If her eyes are too close together or too far apart…if she has the slightest hint of an overbite…if she has a new hairstyle that is less than flattering…all will be duly noted by the local coffee klatsch.

Television, nevertheless, still has sob sisters, such as Oprah and the harridans on The View. In truth, there have been any number of male sob sisters too, typically hosts of daytime (when women dominate viewership) talk shows. Phil Donahue and Maury Povich are two examples. Guess we could call them boo-hoo brothers.

In the 1960s a movement known as the New Journalism was born. In effect, the journalist became part of the story and not an objective voice detached from the subject matter. Though purists scoffed, in the hands of talented writers, such as Norman Mailer (who played Stanford White in Ragtime) or Hunter Thompson, this approach was often informative and thought-provoking, not to mention entertaining. In the hands of less-talented writers, it was just annoying. Who cares if the author has a cold or is suffering from a hangover before setting out to attend some convention or city council meeting or press conference?

In more recent years, social media have been a game-changer, but not for the better. The old-school sob sisters attempted to evoke sympathy for the subjects of their articles. They could be people victimized by crime, injustice, or natural disasters. Today’s TikTok sob sisters attempt to evoke sympathy for themselves. In fact, they often turn on the waterworks while on camera. Some look fairly normal; others have nose rings, neck tattoos, overinflated lips, or eyebrows that Groucho Marx would envy.

The parade of videos includes women bitching about men (or the lack of same), their dead-end jobs, their dwindling number of eggs, not getting what they think they deserve out of life, being lonely…all the shocks the female flesh is heir to. If they are brave enough to include a Comments section for their videos, they are more likely to experience brickbats than bouquets. The former, of course, are usually dismissed as misogynistic.

If TikTok is banned in America, the modern-day sob sisters won’t go away. They will migrate to another platform and the evolution of the sob sister will continue. One fine day, however, our decadent society will finally hit the wall and the petty travails of the modern-day sob sisters will be the least of their worries.

Remember the time-honored reaction of an irate mother to a toddler’s tantrum: “I’ll give you something to really cry about!”

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: