In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at nine women who changed the television industry.
From the early days of television (and radio) up to the present, female broadcasters have fought for a place in American broadcasting. They helped make work environments more welcoming and fashioned programs that better represented the country — all the while being entertaining and informative. In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at nine women who were pioneers in the industry.
Pauline Frederick, who started working in radio in the 1930s, once had an executive tell her, “A woman’s voice just doesn’t carry authority.” That attitude helps explain why no network would hire her after World War II, even though she had handled weighty assignments that included covering the Nuremberg trials. With options limited, Frederick freelanced for ABC radio, where she was required to cover women’s interest pieces like a forum about “How to Get a Husband.”
Still determined to tackle hard news, Frederick started to focus on the newly established United Nations. She also successfully reported from the 1948 national political conventions for ABC television. Afterward, she was finally hired on at ABC — thus becoming the first female news correspondent to work full-time for a TV network. And in 1976, Frederick added another broadcasting milestone to her career when she became the first woman to moderate a presidential debate (where participants Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter found her voice held plenty of authority).
Barbara Walters was a “Today Girl” on NBC’s Today show, before moving up to co-host status (she was also the show’s last “Girl” — her female successors were all co-hosts). She went to ABC News in 1976, where she was the first woman to co-anchor an evening news broadcast. Though her on-air partner, Harry Reasoner, was so disdainful that the experience was a trying one for Walters, she did take consolation when women who’d felt similarly mistreated wrote letters of support; even John Wayne sent an encouraging telegram, advising: “Don’t let the bastards get you down”).
However, Walters’s most indelible contribution to broadcasting has to be her interview specials. The first one aired on ABC in 1976, with president-elect Jimmy Carter and Barbra Streisand as guests. It was a ratings smash, and led to Walters sitting down with numerous public figures over the years, from politicians and celebrities to dictators and criminals. Her talk with Monica Lewinsky, which aired on on March 3, 1999, became the most-watched news interview in broadcast history, with an audience of nearly 50 million.
One mark of Walters’s success is how many people have followed in her footsteps. In 2014 she told Vanity Fair, “I was one of the first who did political interviews and celebrities. And I was criticized for it, and now everybody does it.”
In 1988, Carole Simpson became a weekend anchor at ABC News, making her the first African-American woman to be named the anchor of a major network newscast. It was a role she would stay in for 15 years. And in 1992, Simpson was the first female moderator selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates (which took over debate coordination duties in 1987).
Simpson has said that in her career, “I suffered a lot of racial slurs and sexual discrimination, like being fondled and terrible things said to me.” But at ABC News, she was able to speak up for herself, and for other women and African Americans. She told NPR in 2011, “I was a thorn in the side of ABC News. I know that…. I wasn’t demonstrating and I wasn’t taking part with Dr. King, so I decided that I was going to do what I could to change things where I was.”
Long before Connie Chung became a viral video star (thanks to a performance atop a piano in 2006), she was breaking barriers as a TV newswoman. Chung started out as a newsroom secretary in 1969 before moving into on-air reporting. She had to deal with both sexism and racism on the job — colleagues would make remarks about “yellow journalism” — but still worked her way up. In 1993, she was named as Dan Rather‘s co-anchor for the CBS Evening News. This made Chung the second woman to co-anchor an evening news broadcast, and the first Asian American to do so. (Unfortunately, Chung’s presence didn’t provide CBS with a much-needed boost in ratings and she was let go from the anchor slot in 1995.)
Chung broke another barrier by being open about how difficult it was for her to juggle a demanding broadcasting career with her desire to have a family. In 1990, she decided to give up her successful newsmagazine Face to Face (where Chung was the sole correspondent) in order to focus on undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF wasn’t successful, but Chung and her husband adopted a son in 1995). Chung’s actions were mocked at the time, but in a 2012 interview she shared another perspective: “I was the butt of jokes. In the end it was wonderful because some of my girlfriends in the news business then decided to take their personal lives into their own hands.”
Katie Couric‘s success as a host on the Today show helped her land a gig as anchor of the CBS Evening News, making her the first woman to be the solo weekday anchor on a Big Three broadcast network. Before Couric took the reins in 2006, women’s rights icon Gloria Steinem stated, “Women and girls will have their first vision of a female network anchor who is an authority on her own. Since we learn by example, there’s no telling where that iconic image may lead.”
Of course, not everyone was supportive — there was debate about whether Couric had the “gravitas” an evening anchor needed, and after she went on the air her clothes and makeup were scrutinized (sadly this attention didn’t result in higher ratings — the CBS broadcast remained stuck in last place). However, by sitting in the anchor chair for five years, Couric demonstrated that the sky wouldn’t fall down because a woman held the anchoring reins. When Diane Sawyer stepped into the same role at ABC in 2009, it was a much smoother transition thanks in part to Couric having competently led the way.
María Elena Salinas
Though Connie Chung and Katie Couric gained (deserved) attention for anchoring evening news broadcasts, María Elena Salinas had actually taken on the same duties before them. In 1987, Salinas became an anchor for Noticiero Univision, Univision’s Spanish-language evening news program. The next year, Salinas and Jorge Ramos were paired as co-anchors on the show; the two have been working together ever since.
Salinas has also become, as the New York Times described her in 2006, “the most recognized and trusted Hispanic newswoman in America.” Over the years, she’s used her position to both empower and give a voice to Hispanic people; Salinas has said, “I think all of us who work in Spanish-language media, up to a certain point, do have a social responsibility to our community.”
However, her path in broadcast media wasn’t easy. “Women, I think, still have to work twice as hard to receive half of the recognition that men do,” Salinas stated in a 2015 interview. She added, “And maybe as a Hispanic woman I have to work three times as hard to get one-third of the recognition that men do. But the good news is that we can.”
When The Oprah Winfrey Show entered national syndication in 1986, few could have imagined how Oprah Winfrey would transform daytime TV. Her show addressed serious issues like AIDS and race relations (though the program also had its share of tabloid-esque topics). Plus she didn’t shy away from personal revelations about her sexual abuse and struggles with weight loss. And when Winfrey pivoted to focus on self-empowerment and “living your best life,” her audience kept watching.
There was also the “Oprah Effect.” Books selected by Oprah’s Book Club sold tens of millions of copies. If a product was deemed one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” it could count on a boost in sales (Winfrey would choose 283 favorites over the course of her show). And let’s not forget that Winfrey headlined the most successful daytime talk show around (and retained ownership rights that allowed her to become a billionaire). In the 1990s, the show reached audience highs of 12 to 13 million; it was still beating all competitors when Winfrey hung up her microphone in 2011.
Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff
Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill both have impressive resumes: Woodruff has worked for CNN, NBC and PBS; Ifill’s career has encompassed newspapers, NBC News and PBS’s Washington Week (a job she still holds); Woodruff moderated a vice presidential debate in 1988; Ifill handled vice presidential debate moderation in both 2004 and 2008. However, it’s as a pair that the two became broadcasting pioneers: in 2013 Woodruff and Ifill were named as co-anchors and managing editors for PBS NewsHour, making them the first female co-anchor team for a U.S. broadcast network.
Together, Woodruff and Ifill have improved Newshour’s ratings. Plus their broadcast is trying to achieve better representation in gender, race and age. Woodruff has said, “You can’t reflect this country, you can’t reflect the news, unless you look like the news.” And in a 2015 interview with The Huffington Post, Ifill revealed, “I remember the first time I saw a black woman sitting behind a news anchor’s desk. This was in the 1960s, her name was Melba Tolliver and I recall she wore an Afro. I was blown away. With more women in front of the camera, we can do that for more little girls.”