The Woman Thing

By Eileen Douglas

I want to say a word about the woman thing. Now that the election is over and we’ve all had a chance to talk ourselves to pieces about the Hillary thing and the Sarah thing and the “woman as president” thing, I am taken back to the “woman thing” as it applies to our own species, namely journalist. And what that says about where we’re all going moving forward.

Anyone under forty will likely find this antediluvian, but I remember back in a high school speech class, at the beginning of senior year, when we all had to go around and announce what we wanted to be when we grew up, I followed a string of girls who said “homemaker” and a few more ambitious who said “teacher” by announcing that when I grew up I wanted to be “a network television news correspondent.” The entire class broke into laughter. Including the teacher. Happy to say, four years later, by the time I was a senior in college --- and a reporter on my local television station --- I found myself out for dinner one night with fellow news and broadcast colleagues. At the bar was the man who once laughed outright at my ambition. He was, as before, a high school teacher. It felt good to know I had been out reporting all day. He was where he was and had always been, and I was on the nightly news.

But none of this came easy.

At the college radio station, they had a rule. No women doing the news. Record shows, yes. News, no. My freshman year I got cleared to do the news, with one exception. I could be cleared, that is, put on the list. As long as I didn’t actually ever announce the news. Then we hit Thanksgiving vacation and the news director had a problem. The college radio station still needed to broadcast, and all the males who did the news were leaving for home. Given that going home for me meant leaving the dorm for my mother’s house down the block, he turned to me and allowed as how I could do the news “only while everyone else was away.” Once everyone came back to class, the “she can’t do the news” rule had already been shattered. So they let me keep doing it. The first “girl” --- and that’s how they put it --- allowed ---and that’s how they put it --- to do the news there ever.

The same was true for my first real television job. At the time, the CBS station had a woman, that is “a girl,” doing the news, a first in our city, and I would look at her with longing. Then my break came. The ABC station was looking for “a girl” and I was hired. At this point, stations around the country were beginning to have one woman here or there in the newsroom. But only one. You would never, never think that you could have two.

Even at my next job, as a print reporter at the local newspaper, the city desk was off-limits. I was relegated to the Woman’s Page, doing wedding announcements, luncheons and features. No one would call it the Woman’s Page today. Now it would be Lifestyles. But there was no hope of moving out to the main room where the real news was done.

As with low tide slowly turning back to lap the shore, inch-by-inch, little by little, there were changes. By my late twenties, I was a news director at my medium market radio station. A radical and progressive move by my general manager, elevating me from the ranks of “now acceptable for a woman to be” reporter/anchor. But this was still such a novelty I was presented at that year’s RTNDA convention as one of a rare new breed. The woman news director!

How times have changed.

By the time I reached New York and a big city newsroom a decade after leaving high school, we had women anchors, women reporters, women news directors and executive editors. We did not, however, have women sportscasters. I remember my friend Ronnie, over at the sports desk, loving sports, writing the copy for the guys to read, knowing as much as anyone ever could about the games and the players, and bemoaning the fact that as a woman they would never let her on the air. Again, even here now, how things have changed.

The woman thing, in our business at least, is no longer “a thing” at all. Women are everywhere, on camera, behind the scenes. Reporters, editors, executives, anchors, writers, sportscasters.

Which is how it should be. Thank goodness.

As a woman, early on, I always felt it was more important how smart I was (or wasn’t), how hard I worked, not whether I was a woman or a man. In my mind, of course I could do the job. If there were doubts, they were in other people’s minds, not mine. In fact, I always felt I had certain advantages as a woman, having to do with being sensitive to people and eliciting a genuine response in their answers to my questions. Whatever the advantages or disadvantages, no one today would question whether a woman could “do the job.” That’s old history.

And, I suspect, someday, after the “Hillary thing” and the “Sarah thing” are faded away, the “woman as president” thing will be old history as well. What came first with journalism will follow in politics at the highest level. With the question focused, as it is now with men, and as it should be for both men and women, not on the candidates’ gender, but on their competence, whether they are the kind of leader you want --- with the only distinction to make whether they are, or are not, ready for primetime.

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Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for “ABC-TV’s Lifetime Magazine,” she is the author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” and co-producer of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml: My Heart Remembers.” She can be reached at www.douglas-steinman.com.




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