Although every month is women’s history month at the Center for Women’s History, we’re thrilled to honor this month’s celebration with the kick-off keynote of our Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History. Our virtual 2021 conference, Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Women in American Journalism, features a mix of pre-recorded “keynote conversations” and live panels held via Zoom beginning in March 2021.  

Today, as we scrutinize the production, polarization, and power of news, the Center for Women’s History explores the complex history of women in journalism. Beginning in the early 19th century and continuing to the present day, women have made vital contributions to American journalism. Many extraordinary practitioners—including activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, investigator Nellie Bly, photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson, Washington insider Alice Dunnigan, and publishers such as Mary Ann Shadd Carey, Charlotta Bass, and Katharine Graham—made their marks on the profession while fighting against persistent, systemic sexism and racism.

Our first keynote conversation is now live: What I Saw at the Revolution: A Conversation with Lesly Stahl and Peggy Noonan. Legendary broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl and Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator Peggy Noonan started working in the male-dominated news world in the 1970s and both rose to international acclaim. They discuss their careers and the evolution of women in journalism with moderator Missie Rennie Taylor, former CBS News producer.

What I Saw at the Revolution: A Conversation with Lesley Stahl and Peggy Noonan

The conversation begins with a discussion of both Stahl and Noonan’s early forays into journalism at a time when few women were represented in the field, and their difficulties balancing work and motherhood. Stahl shared that while she was working in New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s office in 1967, a conversation with a press reporter changed the course of her career. Noonan, on the other hand, always knew she wanted to be a writer. They both discussed the challenges of navigating professional norms and practices, especially unlearning gendered speech patterns. Stahl acknowledged the role that affirmative action played in her hiring, but described her career as a “slow slog” as she worked her way up the ladder. Noonan recalled having others doubt that her work was her own because it seemed too good to come from a woman. She credited a “learned blindness” about the discrimination she faced helped her avoid being “paralyzed” by micro-aggressions and regular humiliations, and emphasized the grit and persistence necessary for moving her career forward as a single mother. She said, “if you understood the import of what you were doing at the moment you were doing it, you never could have done it.” As a “critical mass” of women joined the field, Stahl recalled a “sea change before my eyes” in how women were treated in the media workplace and the expansion of issues considered newsworthy. She also emphasized the importance of having a strong support network of family and friends—including each other—as she raised her daughter while working. This was especially the case as both later noted they lacked female mentors to help guide them.

The conversation also focused on recent current events and developments in journalism. Stahl discussed how changing technologies have impacted media, both in the ways that journalists report the news and the ways audiences consume it. She worried that recent developments have hurt the profession; Noonan concurred that the tone of public discourse has become much more negative, but also shared that believes that the proliferation of new outlets has brought new voices to the fore. She lamented the decline of unions within the media, with journalists now working around the clock with less job security, and therefore having less loyalty or pride in their institutions. Austerity measures, particularly the weakening of local outlets, have hurt the profession.

Taylor asked both women to share their advice with young journalists today. Stahl sadly shared that she would not encourage others to join the profession today, given how the media has been denigrated in recent years, but that she hoped this will change, because “our form of government demands a strong press” to fight corruption, unveil injustices, and build community. Noonan added that with local newspapers and news channels gutted, we’re living in a “golden age of graft.” On a more positive note, they both emphasized their dedication to mentoring and encouraging women journalists and other professional women moving forward. They concluded by discussing how much they have loved their work—from learning every day and meeting extraordinary individuals to the privilege of being able to pursue their passions and share their viewpoints with wide audiences. As Noonan put it, “one of the great things that you can have in a career is to still love it at the end.”

Harris & Ewing, Miss Marion Martin, Republican National Committeewoman from Maine, outlined to women reporters the stand of the Republican Party on current issues, 1937. Library of Congress.

Stay tuned for more events for this year’s Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History, Breaking News, Breaking Barriers: Women in American Journalism! In conjunction with the exhibition Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEOopening in the Joyce B. Cowin Gallery of Women’s History in May 2021—the wide-ranging conversations and panel will take place as a series of programs throughout the run of the exhibition.

The next keynote conversation, She Said, and the World Listened: Breaking News in the #MeToo Era, with Megan Twohey and Irin Carmon, will be available on March 19. Twohey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with the New York Times and co-author of the book SHE SAID: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. The book takes readers behind the scenes of Twohey’s and Jodi Kantor’s 2017 investigation of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, which helped trigger the global reckoning on sexual misconduct.  She will be in conversation with New York magazine senior correspondent Irin Carmon, whose reporting in the Washington Post on allegations against television host Charlie Rose ended his career. 

On March 19, at 1 pm, join us for a live panel discussion, The Women’s Pages: A Hard Look at “Soft News.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers and magazines turned their gaze towards a new and potentially lucrative body of readers: women. A rising cadre of talented women journalists influenced generations of readers with popular new genres, from stunt reporting to celebrity gossip to advice columns. Explore the evolution of “soft news” journalism and the “women’s page” with our expert panel, and examine both its remarkable potential and its problematic legacies.

Julie Golia (moderator) is the Curator of History, Social Science, and Government Information at The New York Public Library (NYPL). Jean Lutes is an associate professor of English and director of academics for Gender and Women’s Studies at Villanova University. Kathleen Freely is the associate dean of the college of arts and sciences and professor of history at the University of Redlands. Ayelet Brinn is a historian of American Jewish culture at the Katz Center at UPenn.

Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History