The Woman Who Paved The Way For Female Political Reporters

CREDIT: Library of Congress

Bobby Kennedy signed this picture to Mary: “It looks like you are about to kiss me and that is why I look so excited. Love xxoo Bobby.”

While the 2016 presidential campaign has veered into uncharted territory in many ways, there’s one aspect that feels very old: recurring signs of the sexism embedded in journalism and politics.

Reporters following the candidates have had to figure out how to cover Donald Trump’s demeaning comments about Megyn Kelly’s period, fights over whether Hillary Clinton’s gender is significant to her campaign, and debates about Carly Fiorina’s looks. As we wade through these headlines, it’s a good moment to remember a pioneering woman journalist who helped pave the way for the female political reporters who followed in her footsteps: Mary McGrory.

During a career spanning six decades at the Washington Star and later the Washington Post, McGrory established herself as what former executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, called “perhaps the most consequential liberal voice of the late 20th century.” Her witty, barbed columns on the political scene appeared in close to 200 papers across the United States. LBJ famously made a pass at her, she featured prominently on Richard Nixon’s infamous Enemies List, and she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

As her friend, and sometimes target, Bobby Kennedy once mused, “Mary is so gentle until she gets behind a typewriter.”

President Clinton salutes Mary in 1995 as they board Air Force One after she received the Four Freedoms Award.

President Clinton salutes Mary in 1995 as they board Air Force One after she received the Four Freedoms Award.

CREDIT: William J. Clinton Presidential Library

But McGrory had to overcome incredible hurdles to wield such influence. Before her breakthrough assignment on the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, her editor demanded assurances that she did not have plans to marry or have children if he was going to give her a more prominent role. The National Press Club at the time did not admit women, and the only way women were allowed to cover events there was to sit in the balcony, eat brown bag lunches, and be hustled down the back stairs immediately after speeches.

Famed New York Times Washington bureau chief James “Scotty” Reston tried to hire Mary away from the Washington Star once she became nationally acclaimed, but he insultingly insisted that because she was a woman she would still have to man the telephone switchboard in the mornings unlike her male colleagues. (McGrory declined the offer.)

And while McGrory’s struggles against sexism may sound like faded history, the political narrative in this country continues to be voiced overwhelmingly by men — despite the fact that women make up 54 percent of the heaviest consumers of media across radio, television, and the internet. According to the Women’s Media Center, women made up 36.9 percent of those in newspaper newsrooms in 1999 as McGrory neared the end of her illustrious career. By 2014, that total had barely budged, clocking in at 37.2 percent. Men continue to make up almost 75 percent of the guests on Sunday morning news shows at the major networks — the Mount Olympus of modern day punditocracy.

As Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist, observed, “lots of editorial departments just don’t think they have a problem” with a lack of women’s representation if they at least occasionally run a column by a woman. This echoes the sentiment of columnist and author Anna Quindlen who used to joke about the reality of being a woman in the newsroom: “Not only was there a quota, but a quota of one.”

So how did someone like Mary McGrory make it when the deck was so clearly stacked against her? She stubbornly fought for years to make the jump from reviewing books to covering politics, even as one of her editors insisted (laughable in retrospect) she was “too shy” to make a good reporter. In the more than 60 interviews I conducted in writing her biography, every single person mentioned, without prompting, McGrory’s indefatigable dedication to doing her own legwork — a good lesson for any writer.

McGrory was there on the campaign plane, in the White House briefing room, at Congressional hearings, and she would sit patiently on the leather benches below the old oil portraits of politicians off the floor of the House of Representatives lying in wait for members of Congress. That patience was usually rewarded. “Men naturally like to explain things to women,” McGrory observed, “and I have given them exceptional opportunities in that regard.” Boston Globe reporter Bob Healy explained the result: “She gives someone that little-old-lady, I can’t quite-hear-you routine, and then she’s got the guys balls on the floor.”

Mary McGrory contributed a great deal to not only making politics more progressive but the workplace as well. And clearly the work that she and other women pioneers began is all too far from done. Perhaps it is no surprise then that when women were finally allowed as members into the National Press Club in 1971, and McGrory was asked how she liked finally being able to sit down among the men, she harrumphed in reply, “the food was better in the balcony.”

John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism which was recently announced as a finalist for the LA Times Book Award.