Elinor Cogswell: Editor in Chief
The newspaper business has always been an old boys network. In the days before television, when newspapers were king and fast-talking beat reporters chased fire trucks and raced for bar payphones to beat their cross-town rivals, only a few scattered daily papers were led by women editors. Sixty years later, as newspaper reporters bang out their stories on PCs and rush them onto the internet, men still hold 86% of the top jobs in the newspaper business. It’s been a tough glass ceiling to break.
But in Palo Alto, newswoman Elinor Cogswell shattered that glass ceiling long before Rosie the Riveter, Betty Friedan or feminism reached full stride. The year was 1938 when Cogswell took over as chief editor of the Palo Alto Times --- the city’s highly respected and lone daily newspaper. And by the time she retired from journalism in 1959, Cogswell had spent four decades in all at the Times, fighting for causes as big as racial tolerance and McCarthy-era free speech and as small as the preservation of the tiny plot of grass downtown that now bears her name.
Elinor Cogswell was born in the frontier village of Klamath Falls, Oregon. As a small girl, she used to stand across the street from the Portland Oregonian and tingle with excitement as the papers were shuttled out to the news trucks. Pursuing her love of the written word, Cogswell moved to Palo Alto to attend Stanford University, earning a B.A. in English in 1916 and a Master’s in 1917. After graduation, and a year teaching with her mother in Maui, she returned to Palo Alto seeking a job. As it turned out, her timing couldn’t have been better. On the day in 1918 when she walked into the office of the Palo Alto Times, the city editor had just gone out on another drinking spree, never to return. Soon it was Cogswell who was covering city affairs on the three person staff of this small town newspaper.
In those early days, Cogswell reported on just about everything --- fires, murders, social news. She even put out the sports page on emergency occasions. And as the town began to grow, the paper also grew, and Cogswell’s duties increased. In the early 1930s she assumed the rather antiquated title of “Editor of Woman’s Interests.” Then in 1938, when the paper’s venerable editor Dallas Wood moved upstairs to
become executive editor of Peninsula Newspapers Incorporated, Elinor took over as the paper’s chief editor. When she did, she became the only woman in California to hold that title. Over the next 16 years, Cogswell would lead Palo Alto’s paper of record through the city’s most expansive era.
During her helm at the top, Cogswell saw her paper as a cause for good --- a watchdog protecting Palo Alto’s quality of life, as the city rushed forward in its expansion. As she asked on more than one occasion in her “EVC at Bat” column, “What effect is all this going to have on our charming, self-satisfied, self-sufficient community?” Cogswell kept the local drum beating on a variety of causes --- hobby horses she once called them. A December 1946 column, for instance, included a variety of wishes for the new year including: “relief of the housing problems for the low income families now living under slum conditions, better lighting of the streets in the now dangerously dark residential districts, those downtown public toilets I have been talking about for nearly two years, and first steps toward getting underpasses at California Avenue and other death-trap crossings in the area.” While she was not averse to writing on larger national and international matters, it was the fight for the people of Palo Alto to which Cogswell and her paper was most devoted.
And Cogswell was never ashamed to be a city booster. She was a champion for the city’s Chamber of Commerce, the Palo Alto Historical Association and Palo Alto’s reputation in general. Preserving her young city’s history was always important to Cogswell. In November of 1954, she rallied her readers to support the “adequate display --- and care --- of the valuable collection of Palo Alto historical material. This is now crowded into a corridor of the [library] basement, accessible only to those who venture down a dark flight of stairs and hunt out Historian Guy Miller among the stacks.” Of course, cherishing the relics of Palo Alto’s past was not necessarily a natural impulse for the residents of a California city just 50 years old. But having given up dreams of “bigger and better things in New York, Paris and other exciting places” to focus her career on a smaller pond, she seemed to possess a particular fondness for her adopted hometown.
Still, Cogswell was not shy in critiquing Palo Alto when necessary. In 1946, in the scramble for post-war housing, Cogswell wrote that there is “a widespread feeling that Palo Alto is shutting its doors in the faces of men who went through hell to keep such charming and smug communities secure. That’s an ugly way to put it, but I’ve heard a lot of people put it even more bluntly.”
And she was often concerned with the self-righteous air that Palo Altans put on in order to ignore the city’s thornier problems. In one column, Cogswell pointed to “the need for Palo Alto people to snap out of their smugness about ‘our superior little city,’ wake up to its shortcomings, share responsibility for them and participate actively in bringing about conditions that will make this community really superior.”
Despite such tough talk, Cogswell cherished her city and the newspaper that she saw as an agent to change it for the better. Stepping down as editor in 1954 to become the paper’s full-time editorial columnist she said, “The sadness would be greater if I weren’t going to have an office right off the news room. I’ll be able to hear what’s going on, catch the excitement of stories breaking and work in the middle of the familiar clatter.” It is in the middle of the clatter and commotion of that old Times newsroom where Elinor Cogswell will always be remembered. 
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Elinor Cogswell at her typewriter.
The old Palo Alto Times Building at Hamilton and Ramona. (PAHA)
A 1996 brown bag concert at Cogswell Plaza. (PAHA)
Elinor, at the Bat.