Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. In the article below, inspired by the memory of Fran Lewine, Ritchie looks at how women fought to write the news.
So much attention has gone to the news of a woman frontrunner for her party’s presidential nomination that it has obscured the parallel story about how much of that news is being reported by women. Not long ago, women were struggling to gain their place in both politics and journalism. One of the pioneers in that effort, Fran Lewine, covered six administrations at the White House as an Associated Press correspondent, and spent the rest of her career as an editor and producer at CNN, where she was still working at the time of her death, on January 19, at age 86.
Women reporters in Washington actually date back to before the Civil War, but in 1880, when the congressional press galleries set formal rules for press accreditation, they eliminated the twenty women who until then had been admitted. Although gender was unmentioned, the new rules defined legitimate reporters as those who filed their stories by telegraph to daily newspapers. Since women in those days were assigned to cover social news rather than breaking political events, their papers required them to mail in their stories rather than pay high telegraph tolls. Male publishers, editors, and reporters, considered political news men’s work.
When Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady in 1933, she broke precedence by holding formal press conferences–and admitted only women reporters. This forced the major news agencies to bend their rules and hire women to cover her. However, it was not until World War II, when many of the men went overseas, that regular political reporting opened for such women as Helen Thomas, Sarah McClendon, and Eileen Shanahan, who stayed on the Washington beat even after the men returned to reclaim their jobs.
When public interest in the Kennedy White House skyrocketed, the AP’s Fran Lewine and UPI’s Helen Thomas trailed Jacqueline Kennedy so persistently that she once alerted the Secret Service that two suspicious-looking women were following her. Competitors on the job, Lewine and Thomas became allies in the movement to overturn the men-only restrictions of the Washington press corps’ “twin fortresses,” the National Press Club and Gridiron Club. At the Press Club’s “newsmaker luncheons,” visiting dignitaries took questions from the press, but women could cover these events only if they sat in a balcony and did not dine with the men below, and left as soon as the luncheons had ended. After a long campaign, the Press Club finally admitted women members in 1971, followed in 1974 by the prestigious Gridiron, which annually entertained the president and other leaders of government. Women reporters picketed Gridiron dinners, until they devised the more effective tactic of staging Counter-Gridiron events that drained away the Gridiron’s prominent guests. In 1978, Fran Lewine also joined six other women who filed a class-action suit against the AP, prompting major revision in the way the wire service hired, assigned, paid and promoted women on its staff.
The bylines of women correspondents and columnists now appear so routinely that readers take it as only natural that women as well as men should have a voice in the news. But that happened only because women reporters fought to be heard.