President Gerald Ford after his arrival for a 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter.
President Gerald Ford after his arrival for a 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter.

Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the presidential debates loom, excitement must be building among the young women who petitioned to get a female moderator in the mix this year and end a 20-year dry spell for women in that role.

For CNN’s Candy Crowley, the pressure must be huge. But at least she’s not the very first.

The woman who paved the way was Pauline Frederick. When she was tapped in 1976 she decided several days in advance about her wardrobe: "Of course I’m going to wear blue," she told a columnist who wrote about her groundbreaking selection. "I hope [blue] will look all right against the beige background."

These days that particular color selection might be considered a wardrobe malfunction and would probably lead some to label her a sympathizer for the Democrats. Perhaps she would have to wear purple to demonstrate objectivity.

Frederick, an NBC News United Nations correspondent for 21 years until 1974, was an anomaly for most of her career.

She was the only female network news correspondent for more than 10 years, and she understood only too well the fine line pioneers in any field must walk.

She also knew about the importance of objectivity. Her role in the 1976 debate, she told the columnist Anthony Mancini at the time, was "kind of a policeman, keeping discipline, introducing, bridging gaps, closing off. That’s my function, and I can’t do anything to jeopardize my neutrality."

When the League of Women Voters selected her to moderate the second Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter debate, she was a foreign affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, and her credentials were impeccable.

By the time she retired from NBC, she was the first woman to receive two of broadcast journalism’s highest awards, the DuPont and the Peabody, and was twice on the list of the Gallup Poll’s 10 most admired women.

First Anchor ‘Man’

At the 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago, she was the focus of much media attention when she became the first female network anchor "man" at a national political convention.

Not bad for a print reporter from Harrisburg, Penn., who reluctantly switched to radio and television when broadcasting was coming of age.

When she worked for NBC News, Frederick used to joke that her nickname was Crisis Pauline. After all, she covered the Berlin Airlift, the death in a plane crash of the beloved U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bizarre shoe-pounding incident at the United Nation, and two wars.

So it should have been a surprise to no one that the debate she moderated that October evening in San Francisco would become one of the most talked-about U.S. presidential debates in history.

It was then that incumbent President Ford, when responding to a question by panelist Max Frankel of The New York Times, made a gaffe that would live on for decades: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and never will be under a Ford administration," the president declared.

Three months later, he was known as former President Gerald Ford.

More than 35 years after the Ford-Carter debates, things haven’t changed too much for women. The moderators, panelists and participants in presidential debates are still almost exclusively male.

Crowley will be only the second woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate when she takes the microphone this October. Her immediate predecessor was Carole Simpson of ABC, who moderated in 1992.

And, of course, neither of the two major political parties has ever put forth a female presidential candidate.

‘Gender Neutral’ News

For decades, Frederick reluctantly fielded questions about being the only woman in the room, both in the newsroom and at events she covered, and she usually deflected them with the comment that news is gender neutral.

Late in her life, she would say that her gender held her back during much of her early career in journalism. But she also believed that calling attention to her status as the lone female about would only alienate her male managers and hold her back more.

All the while, she felt she had an obligation to make it easier for other women to follow in her footsteps. That dilemma remains for many female journalists today.

Longtime CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour echoed the views of Frederick recently when she told an interviewer for the website that if she led the way for other women, she did it only by being good at her job. "I didn’t thump my chest as some kind of ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ . . . I proved that I could do [the work]," she said.

When she applied for a job at CBS News in 1946, Frederick received a curt rejection note from Edward R. Murrow: "We have a long list of women applicants and little opportunity to use them," he wrote.

Women are still paying their dues in journalism, even though, 44 years later, when reporting on Frederick’s death, NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw told an audience of millions that Frederick was an "anchorwoman" long before the term even existed. "We have lost a friend," he said.

Marilyn Greenwald is a professor of journalism in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and the author of "A Woman of the Times: Journalism, Feminism and the Career of Charlotte Curtis" (Ohio University Press, 1999) and two other biographies. She is writing a biography of Pauline Frederick.

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