When Donna Rouner began her career as a journalist at the Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa student newspaper, in the 1960s, she was enamored with the profession because she viewed it as one accepting of diversity.
But when she found out that she couldn’t join the Society of Professional Journalists, then known as Sigma Delta Chi, because of her gender, some of the romanticism died.
“It was humiliating not to be able to join the main professional organization,” Rouner said. “I was treated as though I couldn’t work in the profession as well as a man.”
She didn’t let it get her down though and began her life as one of the first activists in the feminist movement.
In 1968, Rouner and other women at the University of Iowa took it upon themselves to fight for gender equality within their profession and challenged the IU’s SPJ chapter. They were denied.
“Things in college were relatively open . we were treated in a fairly equal manner in class,” said Rouner, “But the workplace was awful – remember women received only a little more than 50 cents to the dollar a man received for the same work.”
“We fought it with the national organization,” said Rouner, “and we lost [there too].”
But a year later SPJ convention attendees in San Diego agreed to allow women into the organization and the Iowa chapter followed suit in the early 1970s. Rouner, however, was not satisfied and did not join up. But despite her silent protest, Rouner did participate in SPJ workshops and encouraged her students to join and participate in the organization’s job recruitment activities.
“I always admired I.F. Stone, who boycotted the Washington Press Club because he was not allowed to bring a black man to lunch there in the 1940s,” Rouner said. “I didn’t join SPJ for . 20 to 25 years as I was angry that I could not be a member.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Rouner taught at City High School in Iowa City where she was also an advisor for both the school’s newspaper and yearbook. While working there, Rouner took a leave of absence to pursue a master’s degree at Ball State University in Indiana.
It was 1974 and Indiana was filled with both racial and gender tensions, as apartment buildings in the state still posted signs proclaiming, “no coloreds.” Rouner was close to completing her master’s degree and wanted to study women in journalism for her thesis but the topic was too radical, too insignificant for her adviser.
Rouner’s adviser quickly “nixed” the idea. No one would ever hire her if she chose to write about women in the field he said.
“I might be labeled and find it difficult to advance,” Rouner said.
So she chose to study newspaper treatment of the Trail of Tears.
“I continued writing about women’s issues and such but my thesis was on American Indians,” she said.
Rouner still had obstacles, however, as many academics in the field disagreed with her illustration of Native American representation in the newspapers of the time and thought it was extreme.
“I couldn’t get my thesis published,” said Rouner, “I basically reported on how newspaper editorials treated Natives at the time. Treatment (during) the 1830s was horrible.”
Soon after her thesis conundrum, Rouner completed her mater’s degree and left her job at City High School to move with her husband to Wisconsin, where she continued to face adversity as a woman in a man’s field.
“It was not always easy,” Rouner said, remembering her experience at the Milwaukee Sentinel during the late 1970s and early 1980s. “My editors tended to give me ‘soft’ stories.”
Working at the largest daily newspaper in the state at the time, Rouner found she was given feature stories while her male counterparts reported on harder-hitting news such as politics and crime.
For Rouner, the journalism field’s historical tendency to stereotype women as human-interest authors who lack the knowledge or depth necessary for hard news reporting was manifested at the Sentinel.
During this time, Rouner also worked as a reporting instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she quickly realized her passion for teaching news reporting and decided to head back to school.
Rouner’s assignments at the Sentinel soon saw a change in focus after she decided to pursue a doctorate.
“I thought my newsroom was sexist, but then the state editor let me be the police reporter for one year in Madison during my Ph.D. program,” Rouner said.
Active in the academic community there, Rouner published newsletters for the university’s Women’s Studies Program and was a research methods and reporting teaching assistant as well as research consultant for computing and statistics for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication while studying for her Ph.D.
After graduating in 1982, Rouner worked as an assistant professor at Cleveland State University for four years advising the student newspaper before coming to CSU where she has been an assistant, associate and full professor, teaching technical journalism and communication as well as women’s and ethnic studies courses.
Treatment of women in the workplace and in education has changed throughout Rouner’s career.
Her controversial American Indian thesis is now on file at the Indiana State Historical Society and she is now a member of SPJ, though she does not consider herself to be very active in the organization.
Rouner also recently discovered that her former advisor, who fervently crushed her proposal to highlight women in journalism for her thesis paper, published a manuscript of his own on the very topic.
The times must have changed. But not as much as Rouner would like as she continues to witness and experience sexism today.
Recalling incidences when she has been the only woman on an academic committee, Rouner’s gender has not been something that is ignored or even accepted.
“The men [often] thought I was an administrative professional and therefore couldn’t contribute,” said Rouner, “I’ve been called names like ‘sweetie’ while serving on faculty committees.”
Active in the women’s, civil rights, anti-war, gay rights and environmental movements, she has realized her calling in life as a proponent of civil rights.
“Along the way I became an activist,” Rouner said.
Especially here at CSU where she encourages students daily to “to try to allow anyone’s voice to be heard, to try to work toward equal and fair treatment of peoples,” and hopes to motivate others “to approach diversity as a celebration.”
Dr. Ann Gill, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, commends Rouner for her devotion to education.
“Dr. Rouner is a very caring faculty member who is generous with her time mentoring junior faculty and students,” Gill said. “She has been a very engaged university citizen, participating in a number of service and outreach activities.”
Rouner’s words and actions have not been lost on her students and peers or her 16-year-old daughter Emma Rouner, who considers her mother to be a role model.
“My mom has taught me that women are strong,” Emma said. “We can do what ever we want, to the same [level] or better than a man.”
Staff writer Shannon Hurley can be reached at news@ collegian.com.