On some level, I always knew I wanted to be a journalist I wanted to ask questions and research things I cared about, then share that information. Yet, as a child, I was often unable to fully articulate what I wanted to do and what it was called. Whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never replied that I wanted to be a writer, reporter, journalist, storyteller. I replied with what made sense to me as a kid; I said I wanted to be Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer. I saw women doing things that appealed to me, and I wanted to be like them.
Only now do I realize how crucial it was for me to grow up in a world where women delivered the news, asked tough questions, and honed their craft with delicate precision. It was the perfect illustration of Marian Wright Edelman’s famous, excruciatingly true line, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If I hadn’t seen women doing work I admired, it’s likely I never would have been able to articulate that faint calling I felt toward journalism. Had I not seen it, I would have dismissed it. I would have convinced myself otherwise.
Now, a new generation of girls may very well have experiences similar to mine, due to women’s role in press coverage of the 2012 presidential race. Though there are no female candidates, women are still highly visible as reporters, debate moderators, and commentators.
We first saw something stirring earlier this summer, when three teen girls from New Jersey started a change.org petition that called for a woman to moderate a presidential debate, something that hadn’t been seen since 1992. Last week, we witnessed ABC’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, Martha Raddatz oversee the vice-presidential faceoff. Tonight, we’ll watch CNN anchor Candy Crawley moderate the second presidential debate as the first female moderator in twenty years.
And we can’t forget about Ifill and Judy Woodruff acting as the first all-female team ever to spearhead a network’s convention coverage in August. The groundbreaking pair acknowledged their unique positions, while maintaining that gender was not at the center of their work.
“We’re not going to go on the air and say, ‘Aha, now is your chance to see two women on the convention.’ If others want to point it out, I’m very comfortable with it,” Woodruff said after the announcement.
“The fact that we’re both women is almost incidental,” Ifill said. “There was no question it would be Judy and me. It just evolved naturally.”
This may be why press coverage of the 2012 election is such a complete and intriguing case study on the status of women in America. Though Candy Crawley could have been asked to moderate a debate no matter what, the 122,344 people who signed a petition calling for a female moderator likely ensured Crawley’s job. Ifill and Woodruff, on the other hand, were simply seen as the most qualified journalists for the job. There was “no question” they would lead PBS’s coverage. These stories prove that women are making progress, but there is still so much work to be done. Sometimes women will naturally assume positions of leadership. Sometimes we’ll have to ask for it. Sometimes we’ll have to fight for it.
No matter how they get there, female journalists will be on television sets across America in the coming months. Girls who tune into a presidential debate, or catch a glimpse of a woman sitting behind an anchor desk, may feel the wheels inside their heads start to churn with thoughts of possibility. We can only hope, though I think it’s safe to assume, that a new generation of women reporters may be born out of the seeds planted at this moment in time in the media.
Sarah Kess is a regular contributor to The White House Project blog and website.