May’s Woman of Ward 6 is Emily Edson Briggs, who won renown by writing a colorfully irreverent newspaper column in the mid to late 1880’s under the pen name Olivia, in which she presented the capital’s political scene as social entertainment.
Briggs was the first, and one of the best known, in a long line of Washington society reporters. She was one of the first women to acquire a national reputation in the field of journalism as a newspaper correspondent in Washington, D.C. Nineteenth century women faced major obstacles in their efforts to break into journalism.
Briggs was given access to the halls of Congress during the mid-1800’s, which allowed her to describe the people and events there, becoming the first society reporter as a social commentator.
She was born in Burton, Ohio in 1830; married John Briggs in 1853; and moved to Washington, DC, in 1861, when her husband was hired as an assistant clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives.
She developed a knack for observing and commenting on the political scene. A letter she sent to the Washington Chronicle, using the pen name Olivia, defending the efficiency of women in government employment, caught the eye of the paper’s owner John W. Forney. Her letter expressed her displeasure at the criticism being received by women working at the U.S. Treasury–and defended their right to work for the government.
Forney, who owned both the Washington Chronicle and the Philadelphia Press, hired her to write a daily column for both papers. She wrote under her pseudonym for more than 20 years. Her columns were fashioned as letters to the paper. While they touched upon society and fashion, they also contained political and social insights that set her apart from other women journalists of the day.
During the Lincoln administration, Briggs became the first woman to report directly from the White House, and later she was among the first to be admitted to the congressional press gallery.
However, she restricted herself primarily to society news and issues affecting women. As a woman she felt she should not – or could not – compete with men. In a column on Charles Sumner, she said: “This article is not written with the attempt to portray that which makes Charles Sumner the central figure of the American Senate. No woman possesses the gift to explore his mind …”
Although she wrote under her pseudonym of Olivia, she made no attempt to hide her true identity. Leaving the narration of actual events to male correspondents, Briggs said her aim was to “depict the delicate life currents and details.” She composed “pen pictures” of leading political figures, made up lists of those “matrimonial eligible” among Capital bachelors and covered White House festivities.
Equivocal on woman suffrage, Briggs nevertheless covered suffrage conventions in minute – if not always flattering – detail. Although she was one of the first women offered admittance to the congressional press gallery, she did not make use of the privilege. She felt that, as a woman, she was not really welcome there, and she gained news from her social contacts with political figures.
She covered everything from lavish society dinner to the impending battle for President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. She described the suffragists who testified before a congressional committee almost 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920.
Briggs gave up journalism to become a well-known Washington hostess. In her old age, she collected her favorite columns into a book, The Olivia Letters, which was published in 1906, four years before her death.
Valuable as a source of social history, The Olivia Letters contain reprints of columns on personalities involved in the Johnson impeachment trial and gossipy portrayals of other notables. Her writing suffers from typical Victorian failings – gushy sentiment and flowery metaphors. But it is valuable as a set of observations from the first society reporter. The Olivia Letters is available from East City Books, 645 Pennsylvania Ave., SE.
In the latter part of her life, Briggs lived at The Maples, the grand old home at 630 South Carolina Ave., SE, that eventually became Friendship House and, in 2015, a multi-unit residential development.
The Women of Ward 6 Initiative is a non-partisan recognition of Ward 6‘s women. In partnership with the National Woman’s Party, Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Hill Rag, the Ward 6 Dems initiative will culminate this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Marci Hilt grew up on a small-scale grain, poultry and dairy farm in Northwest Ohio. She is a retired communications coordinator and press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. She currently writs and edits EMMCA MATTERS and is treasurer of the Ward 6 Democrats.