Fought her way out of poverty and into an award-winning career in journalism
By: Linnea Crowther
12 months ago
Over and over, Rita Henley Jensen's friends and colleagues describe her as "a force." They call her formidable and extraordinary. Jensen used those strengths to fight her way out of poverty and into an award-winning career in journalism, working all the while to amplify women's voices and advocate for their health and welfare.
Born Jan. 1, 1947 in Columbus, Ohio, Jensen built her success from an unlikely starting point: She was a teen mother with an abusive boyfriend who later became her abusive husband. She remained in that marriage for six years before leaving on the heels of her husband's threats to kill her and their two daughters.
Alone, in her mid-20s and with children to feed, Jensen relied on welfare and a waitressing job and "tried not to eat much myself" in order to save precious pennies, as she recounted in an essay in the book "Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions." Determined to rise out of poverty, she borrowed money and applied for scholarships to attend the Ohio State University, beginning her college education at 25.
Jensen received her bachelor's degree from Ohio State in 1976, then completed a Master's at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.
Jensen's award-winning journalism career began with her first job out of graduate school, working as a general assignment reporter for the Paterson News in Paterson, New Jersey. While at the newspaper for just two years, she won eight awards for her investigative journalism. She moved on to write for the Stamford Advocate, the American Lawyer, and the National Law Journal, as well as freelancing for news outlets including the New York Times, ABA Journal and Ms. Magazine, before creating the organization that became her crowning achievement.
Women's eNews was born from Jensen's desire to fill a hole in traditional media coverage of events and issues. "I was a prize-winning investigative reporter," Jensen told Sheryl McCarthy in a 2011 interview for CUNY's One on One, "but I began to say, 'I have to focus on what's going on with women, because no one else is.'"
Founded by Jensen as a project of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1999, Women's eNews became an independent organization in 2002. Jensen described to McCarthy the Women's eNews approach to news coverage: "We will not endorse a candidate, but we will report the issues from the perspective of women's interests. We had a recent piece about the health plans: Do they really cover the issues most concerned to women? We'll cover the war as it concerns women. The thing that's going around right now about children's health coverage – that also covers pregnant women, but you haven't heard a word of it in other media. So we'll be covering that as that controversy continues."
Women's eNews has been widely honored with awards including the Casey Medal for Meritorious Reporting. It was among the 100 Best Websites for Women named by Forbes in 2013, and About.com readers named it their "Favorite Women's Rights Blog or Website" in 2012.
While serving as editor in chief at Women's eNews, Jensen began a years-long investigative project focusing on maternal mortality rates among African American women. Those rates, she found, are substantially higher than they are for white women: Across the U.S., African-American women are three to four times more likely to die due to pregnancy and childbirth-related complications than white women. In some states, they’re as much as 14 times more likely to die of those causes than women of other races. It's a statistic that has improved for women of other races in the past 100 years, but not for African American women.
Digging into the causes and repercussions of this phenomenon became a passion project for Jensen, and in 2016, she left Women's eNews, retaining editor in chief emerita status, to work full time on what became the Jane Crow Project. A book, "Jane Crow: Why the Mothers Are Dying," was in progress at the time of Jensen's death.
Of Jensen's work with the Jane Crow Project, Jensen-Vargas noted, "Her groundbreaking journalism can be indirectly attributed to the saving of African American lives by bringing the attention of the high mortality rates of African American moms and babies in the U.S. to the attention of the U.N. and the New York Task Force, which has resulted in the establishment of a department in New York City specially appointed to resolve that issue."
Jensen received many awards and honors for her work, including being named by the New York Daily News in 2004 as one of the "100 Women Who Shape Our City." In 2016, the Women's Economic Forum included Jensen among their Women of the Decade awards as an "Iconic Thought Leader of the Decade in Media." Her other honors include the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Alumni award, the Alicia Patterson fellowship and the Lloyd P. Burns Public Service prize.
As Jensen's career advanced, she never forgot the days when she struggled in an abusive marriage and then as a single mother. The experience led her to be an advocate for women, speaking frankly about her background – her bios always mentioned that she was a domestic abuse survivor – and pointing out injustices against women. In a 1995 article for Ms. Magazine, she said that her work only began with reporting the facts about women. It continued with fierce advocacy: "I think we have to raise hell any way we can."
Jensen's longtime friend and colleague, Susy Schultz, president of Public Narrative and founding president of the Association for Women Journalists – Chicago, spoke to Legacy.com about how Jensen's impulse to raise hell made her a powerful force for women. "At times, people thought that Rita was difficult, but she was passionate, and she wanted to change the world. Really, difficult women often change the world."
Jensen is survived by two daughters, Ariel Jensen-Vargas and Shasta Jensen, and four grandchildren, Anthony, Emily, Henry, and Jane.
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