From an early age, pioneering journalist and author Kay Mills was drawn to journalism as well as history. Her “Log-O’-Life,” an extended baby book of sorts, is largely blank, but at fifteen Mills noted she wanted to be either a journalist or a US history teacher. Later, in an application essay for a fellowship at Stanford in 1976, Mills wrote, “Journalism, for me, has always been there. There was never a time when I did not want to be a reporter.” May Craig, a newspaper correspondent on Meet the Press, inspired her choice of career, as did her uncle and her father’s best friend, who were both journalists. Her uncle worked nights, and Mills thought it wonderful that he did not have to get up early in the morning. Most of all, however, journalism offered a shy Mills the opportunity to ask people questions and to write.
Early Years & Education
Kay Mills was born Mary Katherine Mills on February 4, 1941, to Morris H. and Mary S. Mills in Washington, DC. An only child, Mills was encouraged by her parents to do what she could, “without limits.” Their support was especially important to Mills because she suffered from a speech impediment. Her parents also instilled in her a love of history by taking her to places such as Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Monticello, and Gettysburg. Having the opportunity to visit these historical sites would impact Mills’s writing. In a speech years later, Mills remarked, “I think that has to have influenced the way I write history and the way I wrote journalism—you go out and see for yourself and you get real people in the story so it attracts readers.”
In addition to journalism and history, Mills also took an early interest in women’s rights and politics. When she was in elementary or junior high school, her mother and some other women staged a play about the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. Mary S. Mills directed the play, and the part of Elizabeth Cady Stanton was played by the only woman on the Montgomery County, Maryland, county council. Mills later recalled, “That play obviously made a powerful impression on me because when I became a journalist I started writing about women seeking political office almost as soon as they started running in substantial numbers in the early 1970s.”
Throughout junior high and high school, Mills worked on her school newspapers. There she encountered one of her first incidents of sex discrimination. Her high school journalism teacher appointed a boy as the editor and Mills the assistant editor of the Tattler. Mills did most of the work.
Mills graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase Senior High School in 1959 and went on to attend Pennsylvania State University where she received a BA in political science in 1963. While at Penn State she worked on the school’s newspaper, the Daily Collegian, initiating a series of science articles on student and faculty research projects. During the summers, she worked for United Press International (UPI) in Washington.
In 1965 Mills received an MA in African history from Northwestern University. After graduating, she sought a career in journalism and soon landed her first full-time job with UPI in Chicago, working as a broadcast news writer and covering the civil rights movement.
Mills then moved to the Baltimore Evening Sun where she was the first woman since World War II to cover hard news. During an interview later in life, Mills recalled, “When I first started out in the business, I ran away from covering anything that smacked of women’s page stuff because I wanted to prove that I could cover politics or I could cover whatever else … for years that was the only place we could work.” Mills would not let herself be confined. Her beat at the Sun included covering issues related to African Americans, education, and child welfare. All of these topics would continue to interest her throughout her career. Mills briefly worked as assistant press secretary for US Senator Edmund S. Muskie from 1970 to 1971, before joining the Washington bureau of the Newhouse News Service. At Newhouse she covered federal regulatory agencies and carved a niche for herself with stories on women in politics.
Journalism and Politics
During the late 1960s, Mills strongly opposed the Vietnam War and participated in a march up the Washington Mall. She recalled later, “That was the day I decided that you could not always be a neutral journalist—there were moral issues on which you had to speak out in some way.” She, however, developed a strong opinion that reporters should not be politically active and never participated in a demonstration again. She also refused to sign petitions and make political contributions.
In 1973 Mills met Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights leader she had been following since Hamer spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Mills was on assignment writing a series of articles about the civil rights movement ten years later, and she went to Mississippi specifically to interview Hamer. According to Mills, she “lit up a room.” When she returned to Washington, DC, and told civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot how dazzled she was by Hamer’s charisma, Guyot suggested she write Hamer’s biography. Hamer agreed to work with Mills on one condition: she needed to secure a publisher. Unfortunately, even with Hamer’s backing, publishers were wary of the idea and did not believe a biography of Hamer was worth pursuing. Hamer died in 1977, and Mills shelved the project.
A Difficult Decision
By the mid-1970s, Mills was becoming unhappy at Newhouse. After meeting and talking with Eileen Shanahan, an economics writer for the New York Times, Mills “realized how barren the Newhouse office was for feedback, encouragement, guidance, whatever.” Mills knew she needed to make a change so she applied for fellowships at Stanford and Harvard. Stanford offered her one but played hardball, expecting an answer from her before she interviewed with Harvard. In a quandary about what to do, Mills sought Shanahan’s advice. Shanahan provided the clarity Mills needed: “If you must go to Harvard, then you have to take your chances and you’ll have to turn down Stanford. But you tell me you want out of Newhouse. You want a fellowship. You’ve got one. Stanford says it wants you. Harvard says it might. And you have a problem?” Mills took the fellowship at Stanford.
Los Angeles Times
A year after completing her fellowship, Mills moved to California permanently in 1978 to become an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times and later an assistant editor of the newspaper’s Sunday Opinion section. Shanahan was instrumental in Mills getting the job, which made her one of the Times’s first women editorialists, and often the only one on the paper. Mills knew she had made the right decision to leave Newhouse. During her first week at the newspaper, Mills wrote her mother, “I remain impressed with the people. . . . All are most cordial, competent and professional—what a lovely change.”
Mills did not take her new position lightly, realizing her voice spoke for other women as well. She recalled, “I decided that I was being paid to have opinions and that as long as I was fair to all sides in my writing, that I would indeed have opinions.” She wrote regularly on issues concerning education, the environment, civil rights, and women. She also wrote profiles of noted Californians, including Ansel Adams, Steve Jobs, Joan Baez, Wallace Stegner, and Charles Richter. In 1983 Planned Parenthood of America honored her with an Editorial Writing Award.
During the mid-1980s, Mills became involved with a new professional organization, the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS). She served as a member of the first board of directors and edited the group’s newsletter off and on for many years. Mills also enjoyed the yearly pre-gatherings that she and several other journalists, including Eileen Shanahan, would share before the annual JAWS meetings. She and her fellow journalists would spend time together, hiking in the outdoors at places such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Yellowstone National Park; Whitefish, Montana; and the Canadian Rockies.
In 1987 Mills took time off from the Times to work on a book about the history of women in journalism. She was motivated to do so, she later told the New York Times, because “I was trying to sort out why this profession I cared so much about really didn't return the favor for women—and I might add, minorities—for such a long time.” Early in her career, when interviewing for a job at Newsweek in 1966, Mills got a taste of the field’s pervasive sexual discrimination. In an oft-repeated tale, Mills recalled the words of the bureau chief who interviewed her: “I need someone I can send anywhere, like to riots. And besides, what would you do if someone you were covering ducked into a men’s room?” Mills could not articulate an answer at the time and lost out on the job. But several jobs later (and after experiencing more discrimination), she had an epiphany and began to formulate an argument to the bureau chief’s assumptions. Published in 1988, Mills’s groundbreaking work, A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page, became that answer.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s Story Finally Told
Three years later Mills left the Los Angeles Times to pursue writing and freelance work full-time. She decided to return to work on a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer after hearing the African American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson speak at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. In his speech, Jackson credited Hamer, among others, as one of the reasons for his being able to run for president. Mills realized that Hamer’s story was still relevant and perhaps richer for having been delayed.
Published in 1993, the critically acclaimed This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer was the fruition of a twenty-year-old dream for Mills. The book was the winner of the 1993 Christopher Award and the 1993-94 Julia Spruill Prize for the best book on Southern women’s history.
“What a Single Woman Could Do”
During the early 1990s, Mills was also at work on a book of letters written by her mother’s cousin Lucy Lee Lancaster to her ailing sister, Martha Lancaster, in 1925-26 while Lucy was attending the New York State Library School in Albany. While “A Sister’s Devotion” was never published, Mills notes in a draft prologue that the unmarried Lucy Lee was an avid traveler, taking trips ranging from Easter Island to Angkor Wat. She often stayed with Mills’s family outside of Washington, DC, before embarking on her travels. Mills wrote, “I realize now … that she was one of the people who planted in my mind what a single woman could do on her own. That was never her intent; she was simply living a life filled with curiosity. You want to go someplace, so go, she seemed to say.”
Writer and Freelancer
After the success of This Little Light of Mine, Mills next turned her sights to a general interest book on women’s history (From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women’s History in America, 1995) and a book on Head Start (Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start, 1998). While writing books, Mills also worked as a freelancer and wrote for a variety of publications, including, the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ms., Mother Jones, the Columbia Journalism Review, Governing, and the Progressive. Beginning in 2001, Mills wrote a series of education articles for National Crosstalk.
In 2004 Mills returned to the theme of civil rights with her final book, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television. The book focused on a fifteen-year legal battle challenging the license of WLBT, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, for not providing fair coverage of civil rights issues. Mills conducted extensive research and leaned heavily on knowledge of the Federal Communications Commission she had gained while covering federal regulatory agencies at Newhouse.
Mills began work on a long-threatened mystery novel in 2004. She traveled to France several times over the next few years to do research, mentioning her trips in her annual holiday letters. Her chatty letters were also peppered with references to tennis and Scrabble, two of her favorite pastimes. While her first mystery novel had yet to be published, Mills was at work on a second when she died in Santa Monica, California, from a heart attack on January 13, 2011. She was 69.
Kay Mills Papers
Measuring more than 16 cubic feet, the Kay Mills Papers largely consist of her news articles, story files, books, manuscripts, research files, and correspondence, as well as miscellaneous personal and professional papers. The collection also includes 170 audio cassettes, most of which contain interviews conducted by Kay Mills throughout her career.
Text and research by Elizabeth Engel.