Archival photo of 19th-century journalist Miriam Michelson
Archival photo of 19th-century journalist Miriam Michelson

Rediscovering S.F.’s pioneering 19th-century ‘girl reporter’

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“The United States, founded upon the belief that a just government can exist only by the consent of the governed, is calmly making up for the bloody fifth act — preparing to take a nation’s life with all the complacent assurance of an old-time stage villain.”

Those words were written in 1897 by Miriam Michelson, covering the annexation of Hawaii for the San Francisco Call newspaper.

As a woman, a Jew and a reporter at a time when it was a man’s job, she was considered, in her lifetime, a novelty and a trailblazer, as well as a bestselling author of fiction.

Yet her works have been almost completely forgotten.

headshot of Lori Harrison Kahan
Lori Harrison Kahan

Lori Harrison-Kahan aims to change that. The Boston College professor has edited a new selection of Michelson’s works, bringing all but one of them back into print for the first time since they were published.

She’ll be speaking Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco in a 7 p.m. event co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Library.

“One of the things that struck me was how contemporary her work felt,” Harrison-Kahan said.

Michelson, who died in 1942, was both a reporter and a storyteller. Born in Calaveras County in 1870 to parents who emigrated from Poland, she grew up in Virginia City, Nevada, during the mining boom. Later, she worked as a “girl reporter” in San Francisco, where she wrote what was called “yellow journalism,” work that was sensational and personal, but motivated by the desire to make the world a better place.

In her fiction, she created heroines who were vibrant and independent, and her stories leapt off the page, with sparkling dialogue and acerbic commentary.

“Her writing is just really fun to read,” Harrison-Kahan said. “It’s fast-paced, it’s breezy.”

As a woman, a Jew and a reporter at a time when it was a man’s job, she was considered, in her lifetime, a novelty and a trailblazer.

One of Michelson’s works collected in the book, and the one that gives it its title, is “Superwoman,” a 1912 novella about a man who washes up on a woman-dominated island where he has to confront all his ideas of what makes a man. It’s told through the viewpoint of Hugh Welburn, whose masculine superiority is worn down under the pressure of an Amazonian-like tribe of women confident in their matriarchy. It was published only one year after women got the right to vote in California, but more than 100 years later, the themes of needing to battle chauvinism and prejudice still ring a chord.

“There was something really kind of empowering and liberating about reading her texts,” Harrison-Kahan said.

Cover of "The Superwoman and Other Writings by Miriam Michelson"Michelson didn’t identify as Jewish, something she associated with a religious outlook on life. But Harrison-Kahan thinks Michelson’s outsider status as the child of immigrants and a Jew — the press of the time referred to her as a “California Jewess” — definitely shaped the way in which she regularly gave voice in her reporting to underrepresented Californians, such as Chinese immigrants, African Americans and women fighting for the vote.

“When you look at her career, there’s no question being Jewish shaped how she saw the world,” Harrison-Kahan said.

Harrison-Kahan came across Michelson while reading an autobiography of novelist Edna Ferber, who said she was inspired by Michelson. Intrigued, she researched further and became captivated by her forgotten subject. It was a six-year project for Harrison-Kahan to collect the works for the book.

“The choices were very difficult about what to include,” she said.

One that made the cut was “In the Bishop’s Carriage,” a story about a saucy and clever thief named Nancy that Michelson later expanded into a book. It was a massive success at the time and was made into several movies, including one with silent film star Mary Pickford. It was so popular that Michelson basically lived off it, and readers of the time would have been surprised to hear it would one day be forgotten.

But despite her activism, reporting and fiction, Michelson’s influence was always more than just her words. It was also her life: The unmarried and independent Michelson provided a role model for others of how a “new woman” could make her way in a world of men by using her wits and her voice as “the only woman reporter working in a world of men,” Harrison-Kahan said.

The Superwoman: Miriam Michelson and Suffrage Activism

7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14 at Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post St., S.F. $15, free for Jewish Community Library patrons, institute members and readers of Alta magazine with online registration.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.