Florida Prof Unearths Sixth Floor Museum Talks by Dallas Journo Legend Vivian Castleberry

As the women's editor for the Dallas Times Herald for nearly 30 years, from the 1950s to the '80s, Vivian Castleberry revolutionized the section's coverage -- addressing domestic violence, for example, in addition to lifestyle pieces on decor and fashion -- and became the first woman named to the paper's editorial board. Still going strong as an advocate in the peace movement, Castleberry's recently become the subject of a book project by University of Central Florida journalism prof Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss. Voss wrote briefly about transcribing tapes from some of Castleberry's 2006 talks at the Sixth Floor Museum on her aptly titled blog, Women's Page Editors, but Unfair Park wanted more.

We asked Dr. Wilmot Voss about her experiences listening to the Texas icon, and she was happy to oblige, even providing us with some of her favorite quotes from the Sixth Floor tapes.

How did you become interested in Vivian Castleberry?

As a journalism historian, I like telling the stories of women (those not on the news side) and newspapers (anything other than the Washington Post and New York Times) that are often overlooked. Vivian was a real groundbreaker for women in journalism.

Why are you transcribing the Sixth Floor tapes -- in fact, why was Castleberry speaking at the Sixth Floor in the first place?

I wanted to learn more about Vivian. Vivian was covering First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy when the president was assassinated, so she has long been connected to the museum. She was so connected in Dallas that she was subpoenaed during the Jack Ruby trial but was never called. In this case, she was speaking about her role in the women's liberation movement at the museum. She was a real leader in Dallas when it came to feminism.

What were some of Castleberry's contributions to journalism?

She helped redefine women's news. For example, her section was the first in the state to write about child abuse and domestic violence. She was one of the first women to serve on the editorial board of a newspaper. She also was a role model as a working mother when it was unheard of in journalism. (She had five daughters.)

What have you found on the tapes that surprised you?

Just how many barriers that women had to overcome -- in the community and at the newspaper. Her inability to get a credit card at Neiman Marcus as a married woman -- only because of her role as a wife. As a single woman, she could have that credit card.

At the newspaper, she had to fight to use the terms "Planned Parenthood" and "Ms." In the 1970s, the male management would not allow the female employees to wear pants -- dresses only. It was only after the newly hired fashion reporter (fresh from Paris) came to work in a pantsuit that things changed. The following day, ALL of the women in Vivian's section came to work in pantsuits.

What is the sense you get about the era of journalism in Dallas when Castleberry was working? Does she talk about how the media landscape changed during her tenure at the Times Herald?

It was a tradition-bound city. Change based on race or gender was slow to happen. When Tom Johnson arrived at the Times Herald, change was on the way. He understood what Vivian wanted to do and supported her progressive approach.

In a larger sense, what were women's sections of papers about? Broadly, why/how did they become lifestyle sections? And is their content much different under the "new" moniker?

In the early days, the sections were about fashion, family, food and furnishings, along with society and weddings. But after World War II, the sections became more complex. In large part, this was because many women had worked on the news side during the war. When they returned to the women's page, they brought their experiences with them. They added their new perspectives to the traditional content.

Throughout the 1960s, these sections -- at many newspapers -- included news about pay inequities, discriminatory practices and domestic violence. By the 1970s, women's liberation leaders were calling for the elimination of the sections. They noted that the sections were segregated and argued that news about women should appear throughout the newspaper and on the front page. It was a great theory but it never happened in practice. 

Most newly named lifestyle sections typically became entertainment sections by the end of the 1970s. News about women was harder to find. As an example, women's sections had run stories about sexual harassment. The topic did not make it to the front page of most newspapers until Anita Hill's testimony.

Below, here's an excerpt from some of Voss' transcription work. Good stuff:

Vivian Castleberry, "Call to Action" series, Sixth Floor Museum, August
2, 2006. Transcription by Kimberly Wilmot Voss.

Vivian went to an American Press Institute seminar in the late 1950s that reinforced the changes she wanted to make in her women's section. The male speaker, "admonished us to go home and train our editors. For the part the journalism world is run by men who don't have a remote idea what women are interested in. You are to go home and promote your own sections and boy did I ever and boy did it get me in trouble."

At one point an editor said to her: "You are not the human interest editor of this newspaper." She responded: "If I'm not, who is?"

She said of fighting for better coverage of women's issues, "I came close to being fired a couple of times." For most of her career, her only support in management was Bert Holmes.

Speaking of the early years of the women's liberation movement, Vivian said: "Throughout history, women were told time and again that their concerns must be postponed while more critical issues were addressed. Women could wait. More than 200 years of being second-class citizens, they were tired of waiting."

Vivian noted that by the time Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, she "had been working to emancipate women for at least seven years."

Vivian was so proud of getting a Neiman Marcus charge card after graduating from SMU. At that time she was writing for a chemical magazine. She called the store after she got married to get a new card with her new name. The store, instead, cancelled her card noting that a married woman must have a card in her husband's name. This, despite the fact that he had been fighting in World War II and had no credit history.

In the 1970s, many women were initiating lawsuits over discriminatory employment practices -- often handled by the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL). Vivian was approached about suing her newspaper. She considered it but ultimately declined: "It was a very hard decision for me." The president of the Dallas WEAL responded: "Well, you have to be philosophical about this. Not every woman wants to be rescued from her velvet chains."

"My male editors were adamant that we turned up every day to work in dresses. The whole fashion situation had changed but their minds hadn't." Then, a new fashion editor was hired and she wore a pantsuit on her first day of work and no one questioned it since she was the fashion expert. Vivian said, "And the next day, every staff member I had showed up in pantsuits."

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