Agness Underwood: ‘Tough as Nails’ Trailblazer Extraordinaire


Submitted by Hailey O’Hara

Hailey O'Hara
Hailey O’Hara is a junior at Olympia High School. Photo courtesy: Hailey O’Hara

The sheet would carefully be drawn away to reveal the mangled body of the victim. A second of horrified silence would fill the room, and panic would follow: many a news reporter would race out the door, story and notebook utterly forgotten, sprinting pell-mell to a nearby bush to throw up; others would completely shut down, their gaze glassy and their mouths stretched wide in horror. Not Mrs. Agness Underwood. While reporters around her would be struggling to keep bile from rising towards their throats, Underwood would be dropping cynical jokes, never once revealing a glimmer of emotion. At one particular murder case, when investigating the murder of a famous actress named Thelma Todd, Agness reportedly joked “Can you imagine what any of these guys would have given to be under a sheet with Thelma Todd?” There was a reason Underwood was one of the first well known woman crime reporters: she was tough, she was wickedly clever, and she was willing to annihilate the glass ceiling, should it ever keep her from success. In short, Agness Underwood was a full blown knockout, a trailblazer no one seems to know about.

Should trailblazers like Agness Underwood be remembered?

“Often, society or perhaps your own family, or social circle, tries to tell you what you can and can’t do, but you have to follow your own heart”. Kristina Lotz, Publisher of Thurston Talk states. Lotz continues by saying “When I was an undergraduate, I took a journalism class as part of my English Major. At the time, journalism was still very much a male dominated career and my teacher, a man, begged me to stay in and focus on journalism. But I was young, shy, and intimidated by everyone. So I didn’t”. Would this outcome have been different if Lotz was exposed to individuals like Agness? This is the reason trailblazers are so important: they pave the way for others.

“I wish I had seen more women scientists” Vivika Swanson, one of the leaders of the feminist club at Olympia High School adds. The mere act of seeing someone similar to you pursuing a dream you want to pursue is nothing less than colossal. “I have two girls, and I want them to see women who do not always conform, who do not always fit in the box,” Stacy Udo, Olympia High School’s librarian says.

Swanson seems to agree, stating “I wish I saw more women in leadership roles and positions of power, taking up space”. Does Mrs. Underwood not fit all these requirements? How many lives (even in the most subtle of ways) could have been altered, simply by having obtained knowledge of an individual like Agness? Lotz closes by saying “if it’s your dream, pursue it. Don’t let someone tell you you can’t make a living”.

Underwood was born December 17, 1902. By the time she was six, her mother had passed away, and she was surfing through relatives and even foster families for nine years, until finally dropping out of high school her sophomore year, and leaving for LA. From the beginning, she was a scrapper. Despite her lack of education, Underwood was sharp, fierce, intelligent, and possessed an iron grip work ethic. Underwood began her journalist career in 1926 as a switchboard operator. Even the simple job of managing a switchboard set her soul on fire. From that point on, her passion became clear. Underwood advanced quickly through the business, and became one of the top crime reporters in her field. She was never phased by a dead body, or traces of blood, and would go to almost any length to obtain a story. By 1946, she was appointed city editor of her newspaper, a position she retained for seventeen years, longer than any other editor ever retained at that time (of any gender). Underwood was a fierce, story wielding trailblazer in the newsfield, who rightly deserves to be remembered as the trailblazer she is.

Featured photo credit: Diane Waiste

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