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From Silence to Prominence; The Story of Women is Evident in Their Television Images

by Nichola D. Gutgold

Being First Lady seems like a dread for any woman who wishes to be known for her own achievements. Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams was so unhappy and desperate that most of the time she could be found indulging in chocolate and penning a biography titled Adventures of a Nobody. Eleanor Roosevelt carved out a life for herself as first lady, though the press pounced on her unorthodox role as she traveled around the country serving as the legs of her husband. But at least she had a voice.

To see the progress that women have made in society we need only to turn on our televisions and see that women are not only major figures in the news, they are major figures reporting the news, too. Hillary Clinton as a viable presidential candidate is major progress over the symbolic presidential aspirations of Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Pat Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley Braun. As she said, she is “in, and in it to win.” Being a front runner, even if she doesn’t win the nomination, is closer than any woman in American history has ever gotten to the presidency. And she was first lady. To be seen and heard is progress for women in politics and in broadcasting. From curvaceous weather forecasters hired more for their looks than their understanding of meteorology, women have become forces in television news. Women like Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley and Dana Bash, who are front and center reporting on the latest political developments. Crowley has become a presence on CNN, reporting on Washington politics. She has distinguished herself with witty, yet serious and intelligent coverage of the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, George Bush, Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Since the nomination of Jimmy Carter, she has reported from all but one of the national political conventions. Her strong, confident voice and insightful questions and commentary make her a fixture on the political scene. She is a self described “political junkie” who revels in participating in the campaigns and the other political rituals that she covers.

Dana Bash represents the younger broadcast journalist who grew up with role models, including her own father, who had long and productive careers. Though her career trajectory demonstrates her strong work ethic and persistence—she started out labeling archival tapes--she recognizes that several women in broadcasting who went before her have paved the way for her to be successful at the most difficult and prestigious levels of journalism. She recalls telling Judy Woodward one day as she prepared for a stand up report from the White House, “I’m standing here on the North Lawn of the White House because you stood here before me.” She told me that though both her mother and father graduated from one of the top journalism schools in the country, her father immediately landed a good job in television, while the best job her mother could find was as a secretary.

And we should remember some of the trailblazing women in journalism – women like NBC’s Nancy Dickerson whose son, John Dickerson is chief political correspondent of Slate.com. Dickerson was the first woman to cover the White House for television on a regular basis. She tenaciously studied speech at Catholic University while she was a producer at CBS with the hope that she could become a correspondent, though the idea of that was outrageous at the time. In 1965 Liz Trotta was television’s first woman assigned full-time as a foreign correspondent. She stayed with NBC for thirteen years, covering major stories in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 1962 Barbara Walters became a reporter for NBC’s Today show and is still a major presence—with a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame-- she has interviewed every American president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon. Many of the most controversial world leaders have sat down to tell their stories to her including Menachen Begin, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Anwar Sadat, Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, King Hussein of Jordan and Premier Jiang Zemin. Her tenacity and hard work were especially evident she was the first of the three big network news anchors to conduct a joint interview with Egypt’s President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Something that Walter Cronkite noted in his autobiography he “did not count on.” Lesley Stahl joined CBS as a correspondent in 1972 and was the first woman to co-anchor election night coverage. And of course, Katie Couric is making history as the first sole anchor of CBS Evening News. So, yes, we are seeing women make gains not only as major figures in the news, but as major figures reporting the news.

NICHOLA D. GUTGOLD is associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley Campus and is author of Paving the Way for Madam President (Lexington Books, 2006) and Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News (Lexington Books, forthcoming, March 2008)

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