Newspapers are a rich source of information for researching women in world history during the last few centuries. Newspapers began appearing in the early 17th century in Western Europe, and by the early 20th century, they had become common throughout the world.

Newspapers, especially dailies and weeklies, contain an enormous amount of information. Reading newspapers from different times and places, historians learn about current events from local, regional, and international perspectives. They also learn what is important to publishers and readers of certain newspapers at a given time. Historical newspapers allow scholars to analyze trends across time or compare coverage of daily events in different newspapers within a city or across the globe.

Newspapers tell us about attitudes toward race, class, and gender at particular points in time. Begin by looking at the stories that appear on the front page. Do certain stories dominate? In the 17th century, many kinds of information appeared side-by-side on a front page and the relative importance of each story may not be clear. By the 20th century, newspaper layout featured headlines in large type, and increasingly photographs, that served to highlight events and issues considered most prominent or marketable.

Then examine the organization of the paper and content of the entire newspaper. What is considered “newsworthy”? Whose stories are being told? Who is telling the story? Women very seldom were listed as authors in the news section until the late 20th century, but they may have played important roles behind the scenes.

Under what circumstances do “society” women appear in a newspaper? Working-class women? Are male and female criminals described in similar language? Male and female victims of crime? Are certain sections of the newspaper aimed at women or men, such as style, sports or business sections?

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Advertisements and classified sections are also very revealing. Advertisements for runaway slaves and indentured servants in American newspapers, for example, provide insight into slavery, labor, and gender, as well as clothing, skills, and strategies for survival and escape. Employment notices reveal assumptions about gender and work. For many years, American newspapers offered “male” and “female” sections in the want ads; jobs were listed for either men or women, but not both. What jobs are categorized as male or female across cultures and time?

What products or services are advertised in various sections of the paper? Advertisements about clothing, cosmetics, and hygiene directed at women tell much about a society’s standards of beauty. What is considered fashionable for women? For men? How are women’s bodies represented? What strategies are used to entice readers to purchase clothing or other items? How much do products cost? Who could afford to use or wear them?