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Women On The News, Then And Now (Hint: There Are More Now)

I'm struck by the perception that the battles are over, that the doors are wide open, that we should just get on with covering the news and forget about such ancient history as sex discrimination.
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The other day, in the midst of my book tour, someone in Kansas City asked me if I thought there were any obstacles left for women in television news. "Yes," I told him. "Understanding that it wasn't always the way it is today." As I travel the country, frequently being interviewed by female anchors, I'm struck by the perception that the battles are over, that the doors are wide open, that we should just get on with covering the news and forget about such ancient history as sex discrimination. Well, okay by me. But don't forget that history - don't for a minute think that there was always a seat for a woman on the six o'clock news. I know because I was there, and because I like to think I helped make those seats more available. One incident stands out. It was 1980, and I had been a correspondent at ABC News for three years. What happened next was the subject of a memorable headline:

Sherr Gives the 'Woman's Speech'
ABC correspondent criticizes Sexism in broadcasting
--Broadcasting, December 8, 1980

Speeches are part of the job description for most network correspondents. Some invitations come from groups who pay nicely for a glimpse of life from inside the box. Some come from nonprofit organizations who are trying to raise money with a celebrity presence. And some are assignments, occasionally commandments, from the suits on the executive floor. As the network representative to the latter, you are expected to do your bit, cheer for the home team, and smile.

One day I did a bit more than was expected.

An executive called to ask whether I was free to go to Hollywood, Florida, for a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a group composed of the folks who run local news operations. A group the networks like to please. A group that included the fine fellows who had once fired me from Channel 2. He added, almost as an aside, "They asked for a woman."

"Sure," I said, thinking that something was wrong with the terms of the request, something I couldn't put my finger on. But who was I to turn down a trip to the sun in December?

It wasn't until I sat down to write the speech that I realized how angry the invitation had made me. "A woman"? Any woman? Were we really interchangeable? Et cetera.

I pulled up my typewriter and pounded out some sentences, then telephoned some of my colleagues to get their input. Catherine Mackin, who had broken barriers as a tough political reporter at NBC, and then ABC, asked me to remind the local news guys that without good (female) reporters covering city hall today, they wouldn't have seasoned (female) anchors tomorrow. Barbara Walters worried that the women doing the morning newscasts at that time (Today, Good Morning America) seemed to be going backward, doing more light features while their male coanchors were interviewing the heavyweights. I drew on their complaints and on my own background, and when I put it all together, I showed it to my husband.

"Not bad," he said. "But you're letting them off the hook. You're starting too slow and being too nice. Drop the first paragraph and start with your second."

Larry, himself a television executive, knew these guys and what made them tick. He understood and supported my complaints. And he was a lifelong tilter at social conventions. He was also the best editor I have ever had in my life. Thanks to him, this is how I started my speech to the RTNDA on December 4, 1980:

Good afternoon.
I'm here today because you asked for "a woman" from ABC News.
At least we're past the point where you could ask for the woman from ABC News.

I listed all the other female correspondents they might have confused me with: Cassie Mackin, Barbara Walters, Sylvia Chase, Susan King, Rebecca Chase, Rita Sands, Doreen Kays, Ann Compton, Bettina Gregory, Royal Kennedy, Julie Eckert. Just for the heck of it, I threw in two women in management--Pam Hill and Karen Lerner. And I wondered out loud "whether you got the two Dans--Rather yesterday and Schorr tomorrow--because you asked for a man, or whether you actually asked for them by name. Or by talent."

More than one thousand people were registered for the meeting that week, and I bet most of them were eating lunch with me that day. I had sprinkled a few funny stories into the speech and I think I got a few uneasy laughs, but mostly they were very, very quiet as I ripped into all the things I found wrong with local television news. After giving them credit for having put more women on the air and behind the scenes ("You and your attorneys are to be congratulated"), I pointed out that women still held far too many--ninety percent--of the lowest-paid jobs. I criticized the "old boys' club" that still made all the decisions, said that women were still clearly unwelcome in the top jobs. I told them that women were at the lowest end of the TV pay scale, clustered in the clerical jobs. And I said there should be more women executives, because now:

...the only women in the staff meetings can be counted on the fingers of one hand, as far as the networks are concerned...perhaps on the figures of one mitten for the local stations.

And why must we still be subjected to those look-alike Lucy and Desi male-female anchor teams all over the country, when often just one person will do? Women can go to the prom now without a date--why not to the six o'clock news?

I speculated that if women were in a position to hire on-air reporters, they might look for brains rather than bodies. I pointed out that if they didn't get their act together, they would face more law suits, for sex discrimination or sexual harassment. I also railed against the tired old fixation with women's appearance:

Why, with all the overweight and balding and aging reporters on television who happen to be men, does a female correspondent still have to be slim and glamorous and wrinkle-free to get on the air?

Finally, I looked out at the clearly uncomfortable audience and wound up:

You asked for a woman, you got a woman's speech. I look forward to the day when you will invite me back as a reporter, so I can talk to you about reporting.

Thank you.

I was trembling as I left the podium. Maybe three people came up to me afterward to shake my hand and say they agreed that change was needed. But almost every man there ignored me.

Back home, I got fan mail from women in the business, hand-written notes that said, "That's real guts!" or just "Thank you." The wife of the news director at one of the ABC-owned stations--a mighty entity--wrote admiringly, "You pulled no punches. You avoided no controversy. You didn't try to be 'nice.' You gave a superbly well written, well delivered presentation. I heard one man say, 'She really nailed us to the cross.' Congratulations."

One of the RTNDA board members, bless him, said afterward, "She took us apart, brick by brick--and we deserved it."

Six years later, as real change started--started--to sweep through the networks and the stations, RTNDA invited me back. I talked about the progress we had made, and then I talked about the political stories I was covering. I talked about reporting. There were more women in the audience this time, and everyone--women and men--gave me plenty of applause. Sometimes it really pays to speak your mind.

--from "Outside the Box: A Memoir" by Lynn Sherr (Rodale)

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