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Helen MacGill Hughes (1903–1992)

Author of News and the human interest story

Includes the names: Helen MacGill Hughes (ed.), editor Helen MacGill Hughes

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HELEN MACGILL HUGHES (1903-1992) published some of the best scholarly studies of news media among all those writing on the subject in the 1930s and early ‘40s. She extended the University of Chicago tradition of news analysis associated with her teacher, the sociologist Robert Park. Her studies of human interest stories are one of the highlights of Chicago-school communication study in the generation after Park, though they have rarely been recognized as such. She came of intellectual age at perhaps the worst time for women—during the Great Depression—and was forced to work at the academic margins until the women’s movement began having an impact in the late 1960s.

Helen MacGill was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, part of a remarkable, well-educated family with strong feminist proclivities. At a time when few women attended college, her mother, Helen Gregory, had earned two bachelors degrees and a Masters (she would later earn a law degree as well). She had been the only woman in her classes at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, and went on to jobs as a writer for Cosmopolitan (then a political magazine), the Atlantic Monthly, and the Toronto Globe. Gregory married her first husband and moved to California, where she bought and edited two small newspapers and turned them toward the cause of women’s suffrage. When her husband died, she supported herself and two young sons as a reporter at several newspapers in Minneapolis. She remarried a lawyer whom she had met in college, and gave birth to Helen. Helen’s parents were both politically active, and her mother corresponded with Jane Addams and worked to reform laws on women and children. MacGill attended the still-new University of British Columbia (UBC), though spent part of her third year at the University of Toronto, where her highlight was taking a class on human geography from the political economist and later media theorist Harold Innis. “His voice a monotone, Innes [sic] read his lectures without one glance at the class; but to me he brought some revelation of the science of social science,” she later remembered (1977, p. 74). MacGill graduated from UBC in 1925 with degrees in economics and German.

After hearing lectures in Vancouver by Chicago-based social reformer Winifred Raushenbush and her sometimes-collaborator Robert Park, MacGill decided to pursue a masters degree in sociology at the University of Chicago. She was one of only two female students and the only female fellow in sociology in 1925, when her classmates included the later-eminent sociologists Herbert Blumer, Louis Wirth, and Everett Hughes. She took classes from Park, Ernest Burgess, and Ellsworth Faris, and wrote an M.A. thesis on the urban ecology of South Side Chicago. MacGill married Hughes, and the couple moved to Montreal, where Everett taught at McGill University. Helen meanwhile began doctoral work at Chicago, spending a quarter in residence each year, and planning a dissertation with Park on human interest stories as popular literature. She stayed with the Parks while in Chicago, and she and Everett were said to have been Robert Park’s favorite students. Between 1930 and ‘32, while Everett was teaching in Germany, Helen studied the press there. Several years later, she wrote a series of articles on the history, social construction, and moral and political functions of human interest stories; her first publication analyzed German reports of the sensational kidnapping of the popular hero Charles Lindbergh’s baby (Hughes, 1936)—a notable study in comparative media analysis. Her published dissertation, News and the Human Interest Story (1940), is an overlooked gem in the historical and cultural sociology of media, and a generally sympathetic account of a popular genre dismissed by highbrow proponents of more ‘serious’ journalistic fare. Over the next several years, she published several more notable articles that probed the social definition of news and its connection to mass and more specialized publics. By this time, she and Everett were back at the University of Chicago, now with two young children. He had been offered a job on the faculty in 1938. ‘Anti-nepotism’ rules and patriarchy would prevent Helen from securing a similar position.

From 1944 on, Helen MacGill Hughes worked as an editorial assistant at the American Journal of Sociology. She was paid practically nothing (and given exactly one raise), but had significant responsibility there, owing both to her intellect and training, and to the fact that she worked for former teachers and classmates. Over 17 years, she edited accepted articles, planned special issues, handled publicity, and eventually became managing editor. Hughes also worked as a part-time correspondent for Time magazine (1944-48), where she wrote articles about science, education, and health tied to research being done at the University of Chicago. She worked as a free-lance writer as well, and among other pieces published a study of news coverage of anti-vivisection efforts as an instance “of a debate between a professional and a lay public” (Hughes, 1977, 77). In the early 1950s she worked with Howard Becker on his interviews with young drug addicts, and would later edit one story down into a notable1961 book, The Fantastic Lodge: The Autobiography of a Girl Drug Addict. That same year, she moved with Everett to the Boston area, where he had joined the faculty at Brandeis University. Helen gained part-time research positions at Harvard and Brandeis. In 1967, she was asked by the American Sociological Association to head a major series of sociological readings for secondary schools, and she went on to edit seven volumes (see 1970 Reading in Sociology Series). She also wrote the entry on Robert Ezra Park for the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (1968).

During the 1970s, Hughes became a more outspoken figure for women's equality in the professional sphere. She continually pursued adjunct teaching positions (offering a class on Public Opinion and Mass Media at Northeastern one year) as well as freelance writing, and published several autobiographically inflected articles on women’s status in academia. Hughes remained active in the American Sociological Association, and in 1980 she served as its vice-president while simultaneously serving as president for the Eastern Sociological Society. Her work, from the influence of human interest stories to the quality of high school sociology education, has been influential, and her efforts as a female trying to carve out a place in a male dominated sphere inspired many women sociologists coming of age in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1936. The Lindbergh case: Of human interest stories and politics. The American Journal of Sociology 42 (July):32-54.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1937. A genealogy of human interest stories. Journalism Quarterly 14: 1-6
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1937. Human interest stories and democracy. Public Opinion Quarterly 1: 73-84.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1940. News and the Human Interest Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Rpt. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1980.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1942. The social interpretation of news. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 219 (January): 11-17.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1945. Newspapers and the moral world. The Canadian Journal of Economics 11(May):177-188.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1947. The compleat antivivisectionist. The Scientific Monthly 65 (December): 503-507.
Everett Cherrington Hughes and Helen MacGill Hughes. 1952. Where Peoples Meet: Racial and Ethnic Frontiers. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Grinker, Roy R. and Helen MacGill Hughes. 1956. Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior. New York: Basic Books.
Hughes, Everett C., Helen MacGill Hughes, and Irwin Deutscher. 1958. Twenty Thousand Nurses Tell Their Story. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.
Hughes, Helen MacGill (ed.). 1961. The Fantastic Lodge: The Autobiography of a Girl Drug Addict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1968. Portrait of self-integration. Journal of Social Issues 21: 103-15.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1968. Robert Ezra Park. In The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 11, ed. David L. Sills, pp. 416-419. New York: MacMillan.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Cities and City Life. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Delinquents and criminals: Their Social World. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Life in Families. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Social Organizations. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Population Growth and the Complex Society. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1970. Crowd and Mass Behavior. Readings in Sociology Series with Foreword by Robert C Angell. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1973. Maid of all work or departmental sister-in-law? The faculty wife employed on campus. American Journal of Sociology 78: 767-72.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1973. The Status of Women in Sociology, 1968-1972: Report to the American Sociological Association. Washington, DC: ASA.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1975. Women in academic sociology, 1925-1975. Sociological Focus 8: 215-22.
Hughes, Helen MacGill. 1977. WASP/Woman/Sociologist. Society 14: 69-80 [includes extensive autobiographical detail]

Additional Resources:
Mary Jo Deegan. 1991. Helen MacGill Hughes, in Deegan, ed., Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 191-98.
Margirit Eichler. 2001. Women pioneers in Canadian sociology: The effects of a politics of gender and a politics of knowledge. Canadian Journal of Sociology 26(3): 375-403.
Susan Hoecker-Drysdale, “Women sociologists in Canada: The careers of Helen MacGill Hughes, Aileen Dansken Ross, and Jean Robertson Burnet,” pp. 152-76 in Ainley, Marianne Gosztonyi, ed. Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science. Montreal: Vehicule Press.
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