Gwen Ifill – A First Woman in Television News

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, co-anchors of PBS News Hour

A special woman died in November of last year and her life is a model for all women. Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of New Hour on PBS, separated her professional life from her personal life, not even informing others of her illness as she was dying. It is unfortunate that often we do not get to know special people until they are gone. We know only the public persona, which in Ifill’s case was impressive enough, but we know little of their private selves.

A “preacher’s kid,” Gwen Ifill grew up in a family that watched news and news-related shows on television. Ifill saw there (in her own words), “No women. No people of color.” This did not defer her progress.

Ifill attended Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, a college founded for women, that still has a women-centered focus today. She graduated with a degree in communications and went to work for the Boston Herald American. She later worked for the Evening Star in Baltimore, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Tim Russert of NBC persuaded her to make the shift to television and in 1999 she became moderator of “Washington Week” (called “Washington Week in Review at that time). She was the First Black Woman to host a political affairs talk show. She was also managing editor of the program. In 2013 she and Judy Woodruff became the First Women co-anchors of “NewsHour” on PBS. They were also co-managing editors.

Ifill was the only first woman or black to moderate a vice-presidential debate, both in 2004 and 2008. She later moderated a primary debate between Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton, with her co-host Judy Woodruff.

There were several words that recurred in describing her and they provide inspiration for women who still strive to become First Women.

She had “courage.” She strode forward where no one had trod before. “I’m very keen about the fact,” she said, “that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal—that it won’t seem like any breakthrough at all.”

She embodied “fairness.” She pushed her interviewees hard, but always treated them respectfully, a model for those journalists that now think attacks are interviews.

And she represented “class.” She maintained her demeanor and professionalism.

These (and many more) were the ideals she conveyed to those around her. Having made her way up the ladder, she supported other women. The most touching tribute came from Ruth Marcus, a columnist at the Washington Post, who revealed that it was Gwen Ifill who recommended her for a commentator position at PBS.

Perhaps the greatest tribute came from someone who was not a work-a-day colleague. Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS News (for which she never worked) said she was “among the best we’ve ever had.” Another First Woman of stature and grave.

Irony in First Women’s Lives

The first six chapters of my book on First Women are drafted and my research keeps revealing ironies that intrigue me. I thought I’d share four ironies I uncovered in three of my First Women stories.

Irony One: Nellie Tayloe Ross was the First Woman governor in the United States. She was elected in the state of Wyoming, the first state to grant women the right to vote. Before she ran for office, her husband had been governor of Wyoming. When he died Tayloe Ross was left in dire straits, due to her husband’s poor money management. She possessed no other skills, so she solved her financial problems by running for his office. Later in Tayloe Ross’ life, this woman who got into politics because of her pecuniary circumstances, was appointed by President Roosevelt as the First Woman Director of the U.S. Mint.

Irony Two: Rebecca Felton was the First Woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. She was appointed by the governor of the state of Georgia, the first state to reject and fail to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote. This ironic twist, in fact, led to her appointment. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the women of the state were irate with the governor and he thought he would appease them by appointing a woman to an open seat in the Senate.

Irony Three: The state of Georgia gave us the First Woman Senator in 1922. In the 98 years since Georgia has never had another woman senator.

Irony Four: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the First Woman Senator who did not assume her husband’s seat; she won it in her own right. She was serving on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy as the witch hunt for communists began. A woman of principle, she wrote and delivered a “Declaration of Conscience” from the Senate floor. The declaration proclaimed that every American had a “the right of independent thought.” She signed the document along with six of her male colleagues. (She was the only woman in the Senate at that time.)

McCarthy was so enraged he removed from the committee. In 1997, Senator Susan Collins became the First Woman to chair the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Like Chase Smith, she is from Maine.

Future Ironies? As I continue my research and writing, I will be on the lookout for more ironies. Stay tuned.

 

 

New Congresswomen 2017

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-00-58-amCatherine Cortez Masto is the First Woman elected to the Senate from the State of Nevada. In addition she is the first Latina ever elected to the Senate. A Democrat, she replaced former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. She was sworn in this month, along with three other new women members of the Senate (all Democrats):

–Kamala Harris of California replaced outgoing Barbara Boxer;

–Tammy Duckworth of Illinois defeated Mark Kirk; and

–Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire defeated Kelly Ayotte

Another seat held by a woman, that of Barbara Mikulski of Maryland who retired, was filled by a man, bringing the net change of women in the Senate to +1. In the previous Congress 20 women served in the Senate; now the number is 21 women.

Only 50 women have ever served in the United States Senate. I realize we are late coming to the game, as we couldn’t vote for 60% of our nation’s history. But come on, we have had the vote for 96 years. We still only fill 21% of the seats in the Senate and twenty-two states have never elected a woman to the Senate.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-02-14-amThere are two new First Women in the House of Representatives: screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-01-26-amIlhan Omar of Minnesota is the first Somali-American lawmaker and Pramila Jayapal of Washington is the first East Indian-American to serve in the House.

There are 52 new members in the House of Representatives. One-half are Republicans and one-half are Democrats. A grand total of eight are women, 15% of the incoming class. Of those, two are Republicans and six are Democrats. There will be a total of 83 women in the House of Representatives, 19% of the body. This percentage means that almost half the countries of the world exceed the United States in the percentage of women represented in their governing bodies.

Although the numbers of women are discouraging, I found something encouraging among the incoming Representatives. In addition to the two First Women in the House, who represent minorities in this country, there is also a Vietnamese refugee going to Congress, Stephanie Murphy, formerly named Đặng Thị Ngọc Dung. Another newcomer, a gentleman from California, was born in Mexico and his father was a farmworker. Perhaps the congress is slowly beginning to reflect this country. Unfortunately for women, however, at the current rate of progress, it will be another century before women achieve parity in Congress.

 

Wonder Woman Firsts

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This year the United Nations selected Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador to promote gender equity. An uproar ensued, and the United Nations withdrew the ambassadorship because Wonder Woman was too sexy. Apparently strong women cannot also be sexy women.

Fortunately, the United Nations did not have the authority to compel the United States Postal Service to stop issuing a Wonder Woman stamp in October (with a preview at Comic-Con in July). In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman—she first appeared in 1941—USPS printed four power poses, representing four ages of Wonder Woman.

In the first row she wields a hammer. Although this image carries an allusion to Thor, it is intended to represent the Modern Age and show Wonder Woman’s “power and determination.” The second row represents the Bronze Age, with bullets bouncing off Wonder Woman’s bracelet as she fights injustice. In the third row Wonder Woman has her golden lasso close at hand, the instrument with which she compels her enemies to tell the truth. (Where is she when we need her so today?) Representing the Silver Age, and demonstrating her strength and speed, she “prefers compassion to the use of brute force.” Finally, we see Wonder Woman of the Golden Age, just as William Moulton Marston created her. Yes, you read that correctly. She was created by a man. It was his wife who suggested that Marston create a woman superhero, but it was Marston’s belief in a woman’s strength and ability to determine her own path in life that led Marston to imbue Diana Prince with power and dignity.

Nor did the United Nations have the ability to diminish the honor bestowed by Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. The magazine evaluated 50 Superheroes along a number of dimensions and Wonder Woman came out on top. Granted, the ten criteria used to evaluate the superheroes included Cultural Impact and Modern Relevance, where Wonder Women received perfect scores. Her overall score of 90.3 (out of a potential 100) just beat out Spider-Man at 90.0 and Batman at 89.7.

The United Nations also could not stop the production of a movie about Wonder Woman—the first movie about a woman superhero. To put this in perspective: Batman has had nine movies made about him and Superman has headlined seven. And to put icing on the cake: A woman, Patty Jenkins, will direct. Jenkins has the distinction of being the first woman hired to do a Marvel movie. She was to direct the sequel to Thor but “creative differences” led to another director taking over. Jenkins credits the studio for hiring her, even if she did not complete the movie. The movie about Wonder Woman is scheduled for release in 2017.

 

For more Information on Wonder Woman: I highly recommend Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Women’s Day – Election, 2016

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-4-08-46-pmBoth of the editorials in The Seattle Times today are about women, not surprising given that today is historic. For the first time since this country was founded we are voting in an election where a woman is a major contender for the Presidency.

Hillary Clinton is not the First Woman to run for President,but she is the First Woman to represent one of the major political parties. Translation: This is the first time a woman has the possibility of gaining the Presidency. So, it’s not surprising that one of the editorials in today’s paper was about her. The evidence of how far women have come, after slogging through centuries of battles, is apparent.

But, the evidence is also there for how much work remains, right there in the second editorial about how Harvard University cancelled the season for their men’s soccer team after the team produced “scouting reports” on the women’s soccer team, ranking them by appearance and ideal sexual position.

It is important that we not become complacent because a woman has the opportunity to reach the top of the government. After all, only 20% of the Senate seats are filled with women and a slightly smaller percentage in the House of Representatives—and men still rank women by their appearance and not their skill. We must remain vigilant if women are to be assured that their views and opinions are considered, that they can affect how this country treats its citizens and one another.

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Today’s paper also carried an obituary for Janet Reno. The article points out that she was the First Woman Attorney General in the United States, appointed by Hillary Clinton’s husband. It recounts her achievements and her mistakes. What it does not mention is her terrific sense of humor. She was an amazing woman, full of strength and an ability to laugh. I wish I could have met her.