James Herbert Smith's book focuses on Connecticut women journalists
The door to women's equality in America, once tightly shut, has been slowly pried ajar, inch by inch, for decades now. Fortunately, in recent years, it's more like it's being kicked open with relentless celebration.
It seems very prescient, as this movement has accelerated, that longtime Connecticut journalist James Herbert Smith conceived and edited a new book called "Opinionated Women in the Land of Steady Habits." Comprising hundreds of published columns and editorials — on a comprehensive variety of topics — by 63 current and past female journalists from newspapers across the Nutmeg State, "Opinionated Women" is an ensemble project that fuses history and journalism in homage to a groundbreaking faction in Connecticut newsrooms.
"I'm still pondering where the idea for the book actually came from," Smith says by phone from his house in Bethel earlier this week. He laughs. "Maybe it was by osmosis. It certainly seems to have the right timing."
He then says the true genesis of the book came when his daughter Barbara Ann, the eldest of Smith's four girls, was born in 1969.
"I wanted her to have the same opportunities every boy had. When I was in high school, for example, girls couldn't play sports," Smith says. "Fortunately, all four of my daughters have followed their dreams."
In parallel fashion, Smith has witnessed a rising tide of women doing front-line work in the newsroom over the course of a career wherein he's served as a writer and journalist in Hartford, Bridgeport, Danbury, New London and more. Included in the volume are pieces by former and current Day staffers Lisa McGinley, Ann Baldelli, Bethe Dufresne and Maura Casey, as well as longtime contributing columnist Carol King Pratt and Day board member and ex-Hartford Courant writer Maureen Croteau.
"This is a book about and by journalists. I've been in this business for 50 years and, nowadays in newsrooms, half the writers are women," Smith says. "Before 1970, that wasn't the case. You might have a woman covering weddings or maybe something in features. And when they crossed over and began to cover politics and news and town beats — and did such great work — it was an inspiration."
Smith started the project in 2016, and "Opinionated Women in the Land of Steady Habits" was published last December by Mystic's Elm Grove Press. The earliest pieces in the book are by the Hartford Courant's Lydia H. Sigourney and date back to the 1860s, and most of the work spans the 1970s to present day.
"The Land of Steady Habits" is an old Connecticut political term, Smith says, that referred to the reality that the same men were continually reelected to state government — and to indicate that, in Connecticut, change doesn't happen very quickly.
"The phrase has sort of fallen by the wayside, but it was certainly based in reality and it's still there to an extent," Smith says. "I hope the book indicates things have changed — a lot."
Smith and three of the Day writers in the book — McGinley, Baldelli and Dufresne — will appear at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Mystic's Bank Square Books for a discussion and signing.
"I'm looking very forward to seeing Lisa, Bethe and Ann at the signing," Smith says. "They are three very different women with strong personalities and voices. That's one of the strengths of the book, I think. If you're writing an opinion for people to read, you're consciously putting yourself out there. That takes a certain amount of courage and conviction, and I knew off the top of my head this would be a pretty good book if I could pull it off."
Smith says he knew many of the journalists he wanted to include and knew of several more.
A comprehensive wish-list
"Then I did my homework," he says. "First, I went to all the newspapers and publishers and got permission and then spoke with editors to make sure I wasn't forgetting anyone. Eventually, I had a list and managed to get in touch with everyone."
Smith says that only two or three of the women he approached said no to the project but that "virtually every woman who wrote an opinion in a Connecticut newspaper for the last several decades was included."
He also left it up to the living contributors to select which of their pieces — typically two to four each — would be in the book.
"I made a few suggestions, and they'd usually say yes, but not always," Smith laughs.
McGinley, who is still a member of The Day editorial board and, during her time in the newsroom, covered arts and religion, worked in custom publications, and served as both city editor and deputy managing editor, says, "Jim's idea was interesting: Collect favorite columns from Connecticut women writers published in Connecticut newspapers. Some were written 50 years ago, some last year. They cover anything from fashion to politics to sports to lifestyles and each has a specific 'voice' that a regular reader would have recognized."
"Opinionated Women" is Smith's fifth book, and he says the entire project became and increasingly joyous experience.
"I was familiar with a lot of the writing and had a good idea what I was getting into," he says. "But the more I got into it, the more I found myself in awe of what I was reading. There are a lot of very personal things, presented very eloquently, that range from the political to raising children. Very frankly, I was proud of everyone in the book."
Smith also says there was a perhaps unexpected element of nostalgic that crept in as he realized the changes that are taking place in print media and in the roles played by daily newspapers in society today. It's a different world.
Perhaps McGinley puts it best. "(Jim's) aim may have been to showcase the accomplishments of women writers, but the result is also a bittersweet reminder that little Connecticut was rich with newspapers that were rooted in local communities and spoke the local lingo."
If you go
Who: James Herbert Smith, Lisa McGinley, Ann Baldelli and Bethe Dufresne
What: Discussing and signing "Opinionated Women in the Land of Steady Habits," a book edited by Smith and featuring a compilation of columns by women journalists across Connecticut including former Day writers
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic
How much: Free
For more information: (860) 536-3795