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Frances Lewine; Pioneering Journalist With Associated Press

Frances Lewine was the Associated Press's first female full-time White House reporter. Her later role in a lawsuit helped change the AP's policies on salaries, assignments, promotions, pensions and hiring.
Frances Lewine was the Associated Press's first female full-time White House reporter. Her later role in a lawsuit helped change the AP's policies on salaries, assignments, promotions, pensions and hiring. (Courtesy Of The Washington Press Club)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

Frances Lewine, 86, White House correspondent for the Associated Press during the administrations of six presidents who led the fight against discrimination in the journalism profession, died Jan. 19 after an apparent stroke at her home in Washington.

Ms. Lewine, who since 1981 has been an assignment editor and field producer for Cable News Network, was one of seven women who filed a class-action lawsuit against the AP in 1978. It resulted in a $2 million settlement and forced changes in the wire service's policies on salaries, assignments, promotions, pensions and hiring.

"She was a largely unsung pioneer for women in journalism and role model for myself and thousands of other women who tried to follow in her footsteps," said Edie Lederer, the AP's chief correspondent at the United Nations.

Ms. Lewine, who would have been 87 on Jan. 20, was recovering from an operation for a blocked carotid artery two weeks ago but was about to return to her full-time CNN job.

A stickler for accuracy, she taught many young journalists the ropes and was known for staking out the Sunday morning talk-show sets to query newsmakers as they left.

"All the politicians who wouldn't stop for anyone else would stop for her, because they knew her," said Linda Deutsch, AP's legal affairs reporter. "She would ask the toughest questions, but with a smile on her face."

For years, Ms. Lewine and Helen Thomas, then of the rival United Press International, competed head-to-head on major Washington stories. The two wire services provided news to virtually every newspaper, radio and television station in the nation. Worried about being scooped by the other one, the two reporters kept each other in sight at all times.

"We were inseparable, very competitive," Thomas said. "At the end of the day, we always went out to dinner and were friends. But if either of us had an exclusive, it stayed an exclusive."

A woman who competed at the highest level of the profession when women weren't easily accepted as full-fledged news reporters, Ms. Lewine became the first woman to be a full-time White House reporter for the AP. But that position didn't come easily.

She came to Washington in 1956 to cover the activities of first ladies and the Washington social scene, and her "working attire was often an evening dress," she said. She found an apartment near downtown, and when big news broke, she'd be among the first to the scene.

"Say it's a Saturday and President Nixon has an Oval Office press conference, and you're there. You'd get kudos for what you did, but they'd never consider that you could do it again," she told author Kay Mills for "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page" (1988).

She was one of the leaders of women's efforts to gain admission to the National Press Club's luncheons, where newsmakers often gave speeches that resulted in stories. Women were relegated to the balcony, toting their own brown-bag lunches, while men dined in comfort below. "The slow drip drip method," as Ms. Lewine called it, took until 1971 to wear down the tradition.


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