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.