Marilyn S. Greenwald is a professor of journalism at the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. She is the coauthor of The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment and the award-winning book A Woman of the Times: Journalism, Feminism, and the Career of Charlotte Curtis. Her new book is the biography of Pauline Frederick, the nation’s first woman network news correspondent.
When Pauline Frederick was nearing the height of her fame as NBC Television’s United Nations correspondent in 1954, a grateful fan sent her a gift: a pair of pantyhose. The fan wrote that he trusted and appreciated Frederick’s news reports about the unrelenting Cold War and he relied on her at a time when Americans feared a nuclear war was a real possibility. “I am just assuming that every woman loves a wardrobe of beautiful stockings,” her fan explained.
Frederick’s reaction to the unusual present is unknown, but it was probably one of amusement. She was accustomed to getting fan mail, and she was well aware that many viewers felt they knew her personally because she was in their living rooms on an almost daily basis.
In some ways, though, the pantyhose were a metaphor for the way viewers felt about Frederick – and how they felt about getting serious news delivered by a woman. By 1954 Frederick had been the only full-time female network news reporter for nearly a decade. She and other women repeatedly had been told by broadcast executives that women could never report hard news because their high-pitched voices did not carry sufficient authority. Yet here was a viewer who made it clear that he was well aware of Frederick as a woman, yet he still admired and trusted her as much as or more than the male correspondents of the era.
Today such a present given to Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, or Diane Sawyer—the subjects of Sheila Weller’s new book about women and broadcasting, The News Sorority—would be considered demeaning at best and downright sexist at worst. Perhaps the scorn such a gift would naturally generate is in itself an indicator that women have made strides in the workplace during the last sixty years.
But are these strides or merely baby steps? Women in most professions still don’t earn salaries equal to those paid to their male counterparts, and many woman have learned firsthand that the “system” won’t take care of them, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella implied earlier this month. He later apologized for comments he made that discourage women from asking for raises they feel they deserve (he had said they should remain silent and have faith in a system that ultimately will reward hard work).
If, as Weller wrote, Couric, Amanpour, and Sawyer were the “canaries in the coal mine” when it came to women’s role in broadcasting, Frederick was the pterodactyl. She began reporting full time in the late 1940s, but it would be more than a decade before she was joined by another woman—Nancy Dickerson—and even longer before a tiny group consisting of Liz Trotta, Marlene Sanders, and a few others joined their ranks.
Frederick spent much of her early career learning how to maneuver in an all-male environment where top executives freely opined on the inferiority of women. As late as 1964, one radio executive observed that when women faced a microphone, “something happens to them. They become affected, overdramatic, high-pitched. Some turn sexy and sultry. Others get patronizing and pseudo-charming.“
As a lone female pioneer in the all-male world of news reporting, Frederick trod lightly for a very long time. If she used a heavy hand or complained, she could lose her job and jeopardize the hiring of other women who hoped to follow her. She had to look attractive but refrain from being too glamorous or sexy for fear of intimidating her bosses or viewers. Most important, she had to avoid appearing argumentative when deflecting criticism and promote herself and her achievements without appearing too pushy.
As Pauline Frederick learned, hard work and talent were merely the default positions for most women who sought equal pay and respect in the workplace. Those qualities were the bare minimum requirements. As she often said in speeches, working women needed to take special care not to fulfill the stereotypes men had of women: never be late for an appointment, always appear self-sufficient, and, above all, don’t expect special treatment, she would say.
During the last few years of her life, Frederick was honored by several women’s groups, and she is still cited as a role model by many of those who followed her. When she accepted the American Women in Radio and Television’s Woman of the Year award in 1977, she was asked what she thought of the handful of discrimination lawsuits brought by women in the media who sought equal pay at the time. She admired and respected those women, she replied, and often wished in retrospect that she had had the courage to respond directly to the men who often told her that a woman could never “make it” in broadcast news.
But Pauline Frederick’s silence spoke volumes, and it was her determination, saavy, and hard work that helped her—and, ultimately, others after her—beat the system.
-Marilyn S. Greenwald