Academic journal article Journalism History

Women in Journalism Oral History Collection of the Washington Press Club Foundation

Academic journal article Journalism History

Women in Journalism Oral History Collection of the Washington Press Club Foundation

Article excerpt

This is the first in what will be a series of ankles on archival collections of interest to mass communication historians. Readers of Journalism History are invited to suggest collections that they would like to see appear in future articles, and the editors would welcome volunteers to write such articles.

In 1951, Chicago Daily Defender reporter Ethel Payne thought it was time that President Dwight D. Eisenhower address the issue of segregation. Armed with an opinion from the Interstate Commerce Commission recommending an end to separate seating on buses and trains crossing state lines, she stood up at a presidential press conference and asked, "Mr. President, when can we expect that you will issue an executive order ending segregation in interstate travel?" Ms face reddened, Payne recalled. "Oh he was so angry. He drew himself to his full military posture and he barked at me and said, 'What makes you think I'm going to do anything for any special interest group? I'm the president of all the people, and I'm going to do what I think is best for all the people.' Well, his answer startled even the press corps, you know, and I was taken aback. I thought I had asked a perfectly legitimate question." So did a few of the men covering the White House, including Ed Folliard of the Washington Post, whom she said told her, "You asked the right question. In fact, we should have been asking those questions sooner."1

The boldness of Payne's action-to stand up and question the president on a topic as sensitive as integration a decade before freedom marches and lunch counter sit-ins in the South made national headlines-is underscored by her descriptions of Washington in the pre-civil rights era. One of only two black women credentialed to cover the White House and Congress (the other was Alice Dunnigan), she worked within a system that favored men over women and whites over blacks. She called herself a hybrid, accepted by few white men or white women in the national press corps.2

Payne was not the first woman journalist to ask a question that raised a president's blood pressure. But her career covering Capitol Hill and the White House spanned two decades of dramatic change in America. The years 1953 to 1973 saw the push for civil rights and the war in Vietnam, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the Watergate scandal. Her unique perspective would surely have been lost to historians if a tape recorder had not been placed in front of her for seven days in 1987 by an oral historian working for the Washington Press Club Foundation. She died four years later.

The Washington Press Club Foundation began its "Women In Journalism" Oral History Project in 1986 with the goal of providing to journalists, historians, educators, and students primary source material on the lives of women reporters and editors, foreign correspondents, sports writers, and radio commentators and broadcasters during the twentieth century. It would include black, white, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian women from all regions of the country and all walks of life. The "Women In Journalism" oral history collection consists of fifty-seven transcripts and audio tapes (and some videotapes) of interviews with sixty women journalists, who were selected for their contributions to the profession and to society since the 1920s. The preface for the project stated:

The interviewees were chosen to reflect diversity in race, locale, and type of job in journalism. Other criteria included the woman's importance in her field; the perceived excellence of her work; her connection with people and events of historical significance; and her impact on the careers of other women, on the broader field of journalism, on her own institution, and on the wider community.... Because even less has been known about the careers of minority women than about the contributions of women journalists generally, the project has actively searched for and interviewed these women. …

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