Women in media — as in all industries in which the power structure is predominantly male — are not surprised. Almost half of women journalists globally have experienced work-related sexual harassment, and two-thirds have experienced “intimidation, threats or abuse,” according to a 2014 survey done by the International Women’s Media Foundation. (Yes, 2014 — three years ago.)
How did we get here?
The news media — an industry in which, especially in Washington and New York City, the social and professional lives of powerful people are inseparable — has a storied history of men belittling women and excluding them from access to power. Well into the 1970s, women operated at a disadvantage, excluded from key events and spaces and condescended to by their peers.
The Washington press corps played an essential part in silencing women’s voices and perpetuating misogyny, two ideas we still see deeply intertwined in society. As one female Washington reporter wrote to a colleague in 1954, “It is in an unfortunate truth that the chief discrimination against women reporters in Washington today is practiced by men reporters. Our male colleagues remain the most resistant to accepting us as equals.”
After decades of women trying to achieve equality in the Washington press corps, one of the most outspoken of them brought the issue to a head when she raised it publicly at a White House news conference.
On Nov. 29, 1961, Sarah McClendon, a freelance reporter for Texas newspapers, observed that the Kennedy family had declined invitations to racially segregated clubs and events. (The Kennedys wanted to be seen as champions of equality between the races; they felt no similar cultural or electoral pressure to promote equality of the sexes.) Then McClendon asked President John F. Kennedy an annoying question: “Now, I wonder if you don’t think it is simply fair that the president of the United States, members of his Cabinet, U.S. ambassadors and other officers of this government, should decline to speak at and participate in functions where women newspaper reporters are barred?”
The overwhelmingly male audience chuckled, as they often did at the mere sound of McClendon’s voice. (The fifth word of her 2003 New York Times obituary was “klaxon-voiced”; in reality, her voice was simply female.)
Men in Washington had kept some of the most important spaces for social and professional advancement closed to women: the Gridiron Club and White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinners, the Metropolitan Club and Cosmos Club, and the Overseas Writers Group. McClendon was referring pointedly to the National Press Club (NPC), where guests of the president often spoke and where, if women reporters wanted to cover official speakers, they had to do so from the crowded balcony overlooking the ballroom below, where male reporters and their male guests ate lunch.
Kennedy suggested that because the NPC was a private club, instead of questioning him, McClendon should present her views to the club. At that, the men in the room burst into loud laughter. They saw McClendon as ridiculous. She was always making trouble, asking presidents difficult questions, applying for membership to the NPC even though it barred women members.
But once McClendon raised it, the White House could not ignore the issue, and press secretary Pierre Salinger began quietly working behind the scenes to resolve it. At 9 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1961, Salinger met for coffee with John Cosgrove, then president of the NPC, and Bonnie Angelo, then president of the Women’s National Press Club.
Cosgrove emphasized to Salinger that the NPC did allow women to cover the luncheons and “takes pains to accord special treatment to these guests,” by which he meant seating them in the balcony. He also suggested to Angelo that the women stop, in his words, embarrassing guests who agreed to speak by publicly criticizing them. Angelo rejected the condescending advice, saying she saw no reason to do that. “This is our only way to fight,” she explained, “and we’ll continue our efforts.”
It was 1966 before women were allowed down from the balcony to cover events on an equal basis, and 10 years passed before they gained acceptance to the NPC as members. (These so-called balcony days provided the title to Nan Robertson’s fascinating 1992 book about discrimination at the New York Times, “The Girls in the Balcony.”)
But Angelo did get a concession on another front: the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA).
Women had been dues-paying members of the WHCA for decades and were still barred from the annual banquet. By December 1961 — with Kennedy having just established a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and growing a little embarrassed about attending so many stag dinners — the Washington correspondents finally began to relinquish the power that came from such exclusions. According to an interview that Angelo gave the historian Maurine Beasley about 10 years ago, Salinger had convinced Kennedy to spread the word that he might not accept the WHCA annual dinner invitation if women were excluded.
It took a threat from the president for male reporters to allow, begrudgingly, a handful of women to attend their dinner. Controlling space is about power, and men — even progressive reporters — rarely give up power voluntarily.
In the past 40 years, reporting has become less gendered. We no longer speak of newspapermen, lady reporters or news hens. You’d be hard-pressed to find a male reporter criticize a colleague for her “brassiness,” as did a London correspondent of this newspaper in a 1963 letter to the home office.
Many of these changes followed the larger cultural shifts of the 1970s. A groundswell of feminist activism coalesced with top-down policy initiatives to create tangible differences in women’s lives.
For instance, in the 1970s, women working at Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, NBC, Reader’s Digest and the Associated Press filed official complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Most of the companies settled the suits out of court, promising small amounts of back pay and affirmative action plans. While the top echelons of the industry remain male-dominated and a wage gap persists at all levels, there are clearly more opportunities for women.
And yet, there are also more opportunities for misogynists — male and female — to hate on women reporters. The Internet delivers to women journalists publicly and in real time the abuse that Sarah McClendon and her colleagues faced in person or through private hate mail for simply doing their jobs. According to a 2014 British study of Twitter attacks, “Journalism was the only category where women received more abuse than men, with female journalists and TV news presenters receiving roughly three times as much abuse as their male counterparts.” Klaxon-voiced is one of the politer adjectives women who speak up are called today.
We live in a “moment” when women’s voices are being heard. The silence-breakers are the people of the year. But we also live in a moment, long in the making, when the nation’s tolerance for misogyny still seems boundless, and when a hatred of women’s voices persists.