Lynn Sherr

Outside the Box: Women, Politics and Media - Nov. 28, 2006

Lynn Sherr
November 28, 2006— Ames, Iowa
Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics
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Sherr spoke at Iowa State University as the Fall 2006 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.

By an accident of timing and pure good luck, I have lived the glory years of network television journalism—when news was still recognized as a public service and when getting the story was the only thing that mattered, when we were reality TV. At its best it’s been energizing and humbling and very, very satisfying. I really like getting bad guys. I relish being part of the electronic hearth as I know we were on that miserable day in January of 1986 when we stayed on the air for 10 hours after the Challenger exploded, to reassure a heartbroken nation. I like, what’s not to like, saving lives. As I know we did after our 20/20 story on a woman from Victoria, British Columbia, who was actually curing young women stricken with anorexia. And I loved celebrating the millennium with the few, oh make that 10 or 20 thousand, Indian revelers in Mumbai and Bombay where a very wise fellow helped put things into perspective for me. I went on the air at midnight our time, which was one-thirty in the afternoon in New York and Peter Jennings, who was of course anchoring our wonderful millennium show when we did “Midnight Around the World,” said to me “Well, Lynn, everybody there looks very excited. Are the Indians really up for the millennium the way we are?” And I said “Well, Peter, I just spoke to a corporate executive a couple of days and I put that question to him. I said, ‘Sir, aren’t you excited? It’s the millennium.’” And he looked at me very calmly, and he said, “Well, you Americans are excited. It’s your first. We’ve had a few already.” That puts things into perspective. As a television reporter, I have had breakfast with giraffes. I have ushered Ralph Lauren, the man, not his clothes into my bedroom closet. I have been mistaken for Geraldine Ferraro on her campaign plane, and I have flown the simulator that let me pretend I was actually flying in space. I’ve done stories on the following things that can kill you: lettuce, lead in your teacup, the sun, raw shellfish, sex, hurricanes, cosmetic plastic surgery. Sorry about the last one.

As one of the first wave of women in the business, I have not only covered the feminist movement, I’ve been part of it. Stepping into jobs that did not exist until I got there, then chronicling the social revolution that has literally changed the rules of American society. Once upon a time in 1953, there were three broadcast television networks and three fledgling 15-minute evening news broadcasts, and one female correspondent. Her name was Pauline Frederick, a very distinguished correspondent at the United Nations for NBC. By 1964, Pauline Frederick has some company. There were by then half a dozen women on network television. One of them, Marlene Sanders, was hired by ABC and inspired this inimitable variety headline: “Tap Marlene Sanders as ABC Newshen.” It’s one word—newshen. N E W S H E N. You’re not going to find it in a dictionary, so I’ll give you my definition. Newshen: an archaic, vaguely dismissive term for a newswoman. Synonym: news gal. Coined when they were as rare as, well, hens’ teeth, generally conjuring up an image of an irrelevant but annoying busybody, despite having been applied to Lois Lane and other glamorous icons. I actually think there’s a certain macho logic to this if you think of a newshen as a grown-up chick.

The rarity of women in television newsrooms was reflected in the language of yet another headline. This one in the New York Times in, I think it was 1965. “CBS Network and WMEC TV Get Their First Girl Reporters.” Hands please, anybody here remember Walter Cronkite ever referred to as a boy reporter? So how come? What took us so long? The men in charge had a simple answer and the answer was authority. We just didn’t have it. No women had any authority whatsoever. Worse yet, no women’s voice had any authority. “Her voice,” said the then-president of ABC News—meaning any women’s voice—“Her voice is naturally thinner than a man’s, with less timbre and range.” This is 1964. “A women’s voice is not as appropriate for reporting crucial events. For hardcore news, the depth and resonance of the male voice are indispensable.” Then we have the man who was the president of NBC News who told Newsweek magazine in 1971, “I have this strong feeling that audiences are less prepared to accept news from a women’s voice than from a man’s.” What’s always bothered me about all of this is that it’s not clear to me that anybody ever asked the audience, you, what you preferred. It is simply the way things were.

It did get better but it took time. By 1974 the three American television networks had about a dozen women on the air. There were nearly 10 times as many men. Once I was walking down the street and a passerby actually stopped me and said, “It’s really nice to see a woman delivering the news.” By 1977 there were 25 women on network TV air, thirteen percent of the whole. By 1979 there were 39 women and a CBS News president had the good grace to say “I was just plain wrong.” There were also more women behind the scenes as camerawomen, as editors, as producers. There was indeed strength in numbers, and finally I could go on a road trip with my crew and find someone from whom to borrow a hairdryer.

I want to point out here this was not just about television or news or blondes. In November of 2000, I had the great good fortune to do an interview with Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose brilliant mind and true grit helped make women equal before the law when she was a lawyer. But in that interview in 2000, she took me back to 1993 when she was first appointed as the second woman on the bench of the Supreme Court to the equally liberated Sandra Day O’Connor. As Justice Ginsburg told me this story, “The National Association of Women Judges with great foresight, of course, had a little celebration at court when I took my seat, and they presented a gift to Sandra and a gift to me and they’re both t-shirts,” she said, “And hers reads I’m Sandra not Ruth, and mine is I’m Ruth not Sandra.” Justice Ginsburg also said with great glee, “Now I went through the entire last term, which was what my seventh year on the court, with no one calling me Justice O’Connor. It took six years,” she said, “But now that to me was a sign we’ve really made it. That they know there are two women.” I also asked Justice Ginsburg if with two women on the court there was, in her case, safety in numbers. “Oh yes,” she said. “In the most literal of ways, when I became a member of the court, they rushed a renovation in robing room, and it was to create a women’s bathroom equal in size to that of the men’s. I, of course, worry they will shrink it back now that there was only one woman on the Supreme Court. ”

Fighting for facilities was only part of the problem for women in political life, as we started to take our place in Congress and other public offices in 1972—and 1972 was a watershed year for all of us—but we still had plenty of obstacles to overcome. I’ve always admired a young lawyer from Colorado who made her first run for the House of Representatives that year in 1972. Her name is Pat Schroeder, and her motto became: I have a brain and a uterus and I use them both. Pat Schroeder told me a couple of years ago that when she was quoted as saying that on television or in the paper, her mother called her up and said, “Did you really say that?” Pat said, “Yes, Mother, I said that.” Thank goodness for Pat Schroeder.

But this was not just about numbers. It was not just about getting in the door. It was about producing a better product, better reflecting the country, covering the news, and presenting the audience with a more textured, more accurate sense of the world we inhabit. Having women in minorities at every level of decision-making at a news organization or in public life is simply a way to ensure that our interests and our issues and our attitudes are included in the fabric of daily journalism without which I think you have a very one-sided product indeed. Granted that all of society has opened up in the last 30 or 40 years, it is still the case that until women showed up in newsrooms or legislatures, there were no major stories or laws on childcare, on sexual harassment, on women’s rights. We are the ones who lobbied to combat the evils that were savaging our bodies: breast cancer, rape, battering husbands. We are also the ones who insisted in putting other successful women on the air so that little girls and little boys could know that women can do anything in the world—which brings us back to the elections.

First, a little history. It was only 150 or so years ago when women in this country were ridiculed or jeered or, worse, jailed for daring to do everything from speaking out against slavery to keeping their own names when they got married. When the bold activists started agitating to take their place in society and, oh my goodness, even to ask for the right to vote, society just couldn’t take it. Men were aghast. Some women, deeply threatened. At the Women Suffrage Convention of 1900, when we still didn’t have the right to vote, your very own Carrie Chapman Catt called it the three “I’s”. She said everything women did to improve themselves and society was called, and I quote, “first indelicate, then immodest, and finally impracticable.” Catt argued that objections were, in fact, incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial. It took 72 years starting from the time of the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, but we finally got the right to vote.

But when the 19th amendment passed and was ratified in 1920 the great dreams of the suffrage leaders did not quite materialize. The theory had been that newly enfranchised women would flock to the polls in droves, that the female voice would usher in an era of reform and good works—well, not so much. Very few women did vote at first, and those who did tended to vote like their husbands. Then, as Lily Tomlin has pointed out, women discovered after all their work that they had no one to vote for but men. In fact, the only way some of the first women got to hold political office was when someone else, like their husbands, died. Seems awfully tough on the men. Actually, the first woman in the U.S. Senate, Rebecca Felton of Georgia, was appointed to fill the seat of a deceased man—not her husband—and served for a total of one hour. Cut to November 19, 2006—not only did we gain record numbers of women in office, but at least eight senators won because of women voters in Missouri, Montana, and Virginia—three states where the change from Republican to Democratic senators shifted the majority in the Senate. Female voters were responsible. Ditto the Senate races in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Maryland, where the election of the Democratic senators was accompanied by a measureable gender gap, and so that Harold Ford, Jr. who lost in Tennessee was also the preferred candidate for a majority of women.

According to the noted pollster Celinda Lake, women lead the way for change, early deciding that the country needed to go in a new direction, especially when it concerned the war in Iraq. Other priorities for the women who set the agenda for this election: healthcare, retirement security—which includes childcare and early education—equality for women, raising the minimum wage, and rebuilding areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

And here’s something else to chew on—a large number of voters said that electing more women to Congress would change the scandals and corruption that have overwhelmed Washington. I’m a little wary of that one. I’m wary of it because, again, looking to history as the pattern, back in the 19th century there was a branch of suffrage movement that saw women as the natural reformers, basing their campaign on getting us the right to vote on the so-called moral superiority of women. We’re not really. We’re not. But my hero Susan B. Anthony even suggested light-heartedly, I like to think, that once women got the right to vote they would actually get in there and redecorate all the polls and make them much more pleasant places to come to. She also said that once women got into office, oh my goodness the reforms we would see in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. Right away she announced they would banish the cuspidors, those nasty things in which people spit their tobacco juice, and I quote, here’s what would happen when women got into office: “The heating registers will no longer emit the fumes of burned tobacco juice.” She really hated smoking. “The two houses and corridors will cease to be filled with tobacco smoke thick enough to cut with a knife. The desks will not be used as foot benches. Decency and good order will be observed in the discussions, and the proprieties of civilized society will obtain. Then justice, not bargain and sale, will decide legislation.” Well I think that’s a bit steep for anyone to accomplish. But the truth is, it was an interesting way to think about things. Interesting to think anybody could do that.

The question is, can anybody do it today, especially in this day when we are in such a red-and-blue nation. I think back to where we are today, and I think that it is a divisiveness that Mary Louise Smith anticipated and deplored. It goes along with the gains that women made in elective office a few weeks ago. They have also increased the partisan gap. Party differences are far greater among women than among lawmakers in all. In other words, there are nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans among the women who have been elected to legislatures, twice as many Democrats as Republicans. I’m sorry. That’s legislatures overall. State legislators: 53 percent are Democrats, 45 percent that’s it. Overall there are more Democrats than Republicans in state legislatures—53/45 Democrat/Republican. But among women in state legislatures: 68 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican. And the breakdown in Congress is similar. Now if you’re a Democrat you might think this is just a spectacular idea—all those Democrats out there. But if you’re a Republican, it is not very encouraging for the prospect of more women in the pipeline coming up and for the future of women in the Republican Party. And if you are an American citizen, it is not very encouraging for the concept of collegiality and compromise. Compromise, I think, is something that has gone away from our Congress. We haven’t seen it in a long time. It’s something that we desperately need. Actually I think Jane Adams got it right back in 1897. At the time she said, “I’m not one of those who believe that women are better than men. We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislatures, nor done many unholy things that men have done, but then we must remember we have not had the chance.”

So, now we’ve got our chance. Now what? Will women, Democrats and Republicans, work together—work together—to put children first, and enact legislation to care for those most vulnerable members of our society? Will women find a way out of war? Will Congress be more family friendly? A few wishes to consider. More flextime in the workplace, paid family leave, all sorts of initiatives to relieve the stress on stressed-out working parents (which means virtually all parents), which means giving families more time together while trying to make ends meet. Those are the kind of family values that make sense.

The potential for real change by our newly elected leaders is exciting, but I must tell you there is one little thing that concerns me. For many years now I have been proud of the fact that some of us in journalism have made others more conscious of the words we are using. So that, for example, a murder victim no longer need be identified by the shape of her body, as in “sexy blonde killed,” or a Prime Minister by her ability to bear children. I’m talking here about those tabloid covers, you’ve seen them all, and there was a headline, there were many headlines at the time. When Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel, headlines read “Grandmother becomes Prime Minister.” I’ve always felt that if a woman was elected to high office or did something newsworthy, it was mostly because of her brain, not necessarily her body. Astoundingly, just this year when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated economist, was inaugurated as the first female president of Liberia, she was actually introduced on World News Tonight as “a 67-year-old grandmother has become the president of Liberia.” We found out about her Harvard education and her career as an economist much later in the sentence. Anyway, this has been an issue for me, and I have fought hard to change these words so that we deal with people as individuals not necessarily by gender. Now we have the first female Speaker of the House who talks about using her “mother-of-five voice” on a regular basis. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t seem to mind that she is described as a grandmother. She actually likes it. So maybe it’s safe to be a grandma again. As the proud spoiler of three granddaughters and a newborn grandson, I really do get it. We are not our grandmothers’ grandchildren today. But if it’s so cool to be a grandma and political leader, how come no guy out there calls himself a grandpa? The rules have changed—or have they?

As a television reporter, I know they’ve changed because today I get fewer requests for interviews on the subject of what’s it like being a woman in television news. It’s a question I could never answer because I had no basis for comparison. Anyway, now the question they all ask is, what’s it like being an older woman in television news? I try to pretend I haven’t heard the question. The truth is, I think I knew that the end or at least the broadcast end was near during the aftermath of the 2000 elections. My assignment that week was to cover the Supreme Court decision, and I was waiting for it to be handed down and I was sitting in my office emailing back and forth with my little stepson who teaches at New York University and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I saw that the Supreme Court decision was being announced and so I quickly emailed him, “Gotta run Andy. Supreme Court decision is being handed down. Watch it. It’s important.” He emails me back, “Where can I watch it?” I email him back, “All the networks will carry it, all the cable stations. Turn on your television.” He emails me back, “Oh, Lynn, television is so ‘90s. Where can I watch it on the web?”

We used to call it people power, the rule of the many. Blogs and websites which bypass us are the media equivalent of the Iowa Caucuses. A chance for individuals to own their own presses, to be their own party bosses. I think I watched it all begin back in the 1970s with an amazing publication, I’m sure some of you will remember, called the Whole Earth Catalog. It was a handy publication that taught you to do such practical things as grow your own organic bean sprouts, how to deliver your own child, how to bury your own dead, and all sorts of things—you never knew when you would need it. Its motto was “We are as gods” and we might as well get good at it. The truth is, not everyone is good at it today but it doesn’t seem matter. We live in an era when news, or at least opinion, is delivered on the internet, on 24/7 cable, on your iPod, and someday I am totally convinced it will be delivered on your electric toothbrush. I think that our standards as news consumers have slipped. I think our tolerance for mistakes is too high. We are so overwhelmed by the abundance of words and pictures and images out there from unvetted, unedited, unprofessional sources I think it’s harder than ever to determine fact from fiction. All that, as profits have replaced public service. When I was a reporter of local television in New York City, we had a theater critic and a movie critic who did movie reviews at least once a week. Now they report the box office gross. The rules have all changed, which is in part why I wrote my book.

Reporting the news on television can be glamorous, and it can be frustrating. It can be energizing and debilitating. It can puff up your ego and make you feel like a dope, and every now and then it can be really, really satisfying because you straighten out the facts or you catch somebody lying or because maybe, just maybe you save a life. That’s what my book is about. It’s also about the subtle distortion of reality that the box can produce. A disconnect that has struck me throughout my career. The gulf between television and real life, between the images and the message we send out and the truth behind the camera. Sometimes I think we get clear to the core and we illuminate an issue for the very first time. Sometimes we obscure the issue or exaggerate it, and sometimes what you see on television news has nothing to do with the news at all. All of it gets on the air. At worst it’s a medium that follows rather than leads. At its best, a glorious rocket into new worlds. As a passionate defender of an unfettered press, I know that we would not be aware of everything from Me Lie to Abu Ghraib without a free press and without television news.

I know it would have taken a lot longer for the nation to regain its sanity without the electronic hearth pulsating information and reassurance on that awful morning of September 11, 2001, but I make no apologies for our occasional inability to get with the program. But it’s why I’ve stepped outside the box for my book. Stepping outside the box also means uttering the unspeakable in my business. Sometimes it’s not about television. I have a life, thank you very much, one that I cherish, but one that is very different from the one that I faced growing up. When I was child, little girls let little boys beat them at tennis. Mom’s mostly stayed at home, and many colleges did not admit female students. Red was the color of communism, not Republican states, and working out was something you did to a problem. You didn’t say words like cancer or breast in public. We wanted to be cool, not hot, and hot flashes were news bulletins, not something to endure. My father was a professional basketball player who dazzled the sports world long before the jump shot was even invented, and I owe most of my values to lessons I learned during two decades at summer camp. I am also the only person you have ever met who was on Bandstand. If that all sounds like ancient history, it’s not, which I know because I majored in classical Greek, which really is ancient history. Incidentally, if any of you has a kid or some of you students looking for something to study, take classical Greek. It really will make you a better person. I promise.

I also know the answer to the question that continues to nag every working woman in America, and I think it’s best illustrated by a cartoon. It’s a barnyard scene with a mother hen in front. She’s tossing a couple of eggs in the air, and behind her are two more hens and they’re gossiping about the hen up in front. And one says to the other and this is the caption: “How she’s able to manage a career and still juggle her family, I’ll never know.” I know the answer. The eggs get scrambled. Get used to it. As contemporary women we have reinvented every stage of our lives, turning dissatisfaction with convention into new rules for success, trying to reshape the battle of the sexes into a more practical form of peaceful coexistence.

Once unwelcome in all but the lowest-paid pockets of journalism, my generation of female reporters hit the business when the job could become a profession. When we begged, then demanded, then won the right to work. We came on the scene as girls who were supposed to know our place, which was nowhere. Today with the privileges we’ve earned as powerful women, we know that our place is everywhere. So now what? Will the young women of the next decades be so lucky or so persevering? Well they have to be.

I am deeply sorry that so many young women today don’t like the term feminist because I think it’s a good, precise term. Let me tell you Mary Louise Smith’s definition, one of the last times that I interviewed her. A feminist, she said, is a man or a woman who believes that the rights of women should be equal to those of men politically, socially, economically. Nothing scary about that, she said. I add one more aspect to that—I also think it means we have the same responsibilities as do men, and I don’t think it signifies warfare because men are not the enemy and women are not the only solution. We’re all flying on this planet together. I don’t think that makes us superwomen, except of course the fact that we are the multitasking gender and so maybe we do have to do it all. But we are smart enough to make compromises when they matter. I certainly did. As a new wife and unexpected stepmom, I turned political campaigns into social studies lessons for three young boys, and I regularly put candidates on hold when the plumber returned my phone call. My priorities are very clear. I’ve also faced the heartbreak of deaths too soon and come out the other side. My husband died of cancer. I am a cancer survivor. I’ve written about all of that for the first time in part because I think the pain that I went through is exactly the pain that so many of you, so many of us have also endured, and because I’ve learned some valuable lessons about caregiving, about grief, and about survival that I hope will help somebody else. I’ve also related my adventures as I started dating again, an occasionally futile exercise in the world that is every bit as much fun as it was when I was an adolescent. It is a very short chapter.

But just so you realize, my ego is not entirely wrapped up in my book despite the fact that there are in fact two pictures of me on the cover, three if you count the spine. I am confident that someone, somewhere will keep me in my place. Our audience always does. A number of years ago I did an interview with a television columnist and I went on my usual rant about why is it that women have to be relatively young and attractive and wrinkle-free to get on the air when there’s all these fat, ugly, balding men on television out there. Well, a fellow by the name of Ralph read what I had said and picked up a pencil and he wrote me a letter. Now, you’re always a little wary of letters that are written in pencil, but this one was okay. He said he in his letter that he’d read in the paper how I’d said we should have some overweight women as TV reporters. I did say that. And that I’d criticized the way some attractive female reporters are seductive and make love to the camera, an accurate quote. And then he said and I quote, “There is nothing wrong with a cute lady becoming a TV anchorperson as long as she is talented. For example, I saw you not too long ago and you are reasonably good looking and have some talent.” The letter is framed and is on my office wall. It keeps me honest every single day, inside and outside the box, and I hope as you continue to lead your lives and live your lives inside or outside of politics, if anyone says anything critical you will remember Ralph and me and Mary Louise Smith and Carrie Chapman Catt and you will realize you can do anything at all.

Thank you very much.