Marlene Sanders

(WOMENSENEWS)–If the term “renaissance woman” were to appear in the dictionary, accompanying it would be a photo of Marlene Sanders.

The first board chair of Women’s eNews, Marlene died last week at age 84. The career of the former actress was full of firsts: first female network correspondent to report from Vietnam; first woman to anchor a prime-time newscast (when she subbed for an anchorman on ABC in 1966); first woman to serve as a vice president of a news division; three-time Emmy winner; professor of journalism; co-author of a well-respected history of women in broadcasting.

I became acquainted with Marlene last year, when she agreed to write a foreword to a biography I was writing about another broadcast pioneer, Pauline Frederick, the first female network correspondent. After many conversations–online, on the telephone and, finally, in person–I learned this about Marlene: she believed that her greatest accomplishments were the ones that helped other women and furthered the role of women in the media.

Marlene was at first reluctant to write a foreword for my book, even though she had known Frederick and, in fact, invited her to speak several times to women-in-media organizations long after Frederick retired. The reason for Marlene’s reluctance? Modesty. She wasn’t sure she’d have anything to add to the biography and she felt her comments wouldn’t be compelling. I knew she was wrong and I managed to persuade her to do it. When we finally met for lunch last February in New York, she confided something to me: she had read the foreword with fresh eyes after the book was published “and it wasn’t too bad.”

That is high praise from Marlene who was known to be a tough critic, a welcoming host and a demanding journalist.

But that was Marlene. She was aware of her role in journalism history, but I got the impression she didn’t realize how many of us looked up to her and respected her.

A Pioneer

Marlene was, literally, one of about half a dozen women who rose through the ranks of broadcast journalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s at a time of stifling assumptions about women’s role in television news. Frederick came first; then came five more. Two of them–Aline Saarinen and Lisa Howard–died very young, shortly after they began their careers. The two others were Nancy Dickerson, who died in 1997, and Liz Trotta.

Now Marlene is gone, and we have lost someone who, until the very end of her life, worked tirelessly for other women because she knew firsthand how difficult the journey is without help and support.

After serving five years as chair of Women’s eNews, Marlene remained involved. She hosted a summer staff party at her home just north of New York City that had a swimming pool. Marlene was a champion swimmer in high school, she explained, and swam every day still. She happily gave lessons to water-shy staffers, diving lessons to staffers’ children and treated the crowd to a demonstration of synchronized swimming. She presented in 2011 to a standing-room-only crowd at Women’s eNews the ground-breaking reporting she did on the women’s movement in the 1970s. The audience was audibly surprised at how she was able to cover such controversial material fairly for network television.

As recently as May, Marlene continued to be part of Women’s eNews, supporting the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015 gala.

She also regularly raised the issue of racism in the news media and the need to include the viewpoints and voices of African Americans in the news.

Marlene and I had several conversations about the pressure female broadcasters feel to look glamorous on camera; pressure that existed when she began working but seems to be intensifying, she believed. We also talked about the idea that women, no matter how accomplished they are, do not seem to have the innate confidence of most men.

In-Person Meeting

After many online and telephone conversations, we were finally able to meet that freezing day. There was Marlene at the assigned location, looking like the network correspondent she once was: perfectly put out, despite the freezing temperatures, in neat winter coat, stylish boots, beautiful hat and gloves.

After about 30 minutes, I felt as though I had known her for years – she was smart and funny and, like all good reporters, was full of questions about my life.

Marlene at that time was an adjunct professor at New York University, and we talked at length about our students and what they need to know in today’s media environment.

She was very proud of a journalism history book she co-wrote in 1994, “Waiting for Prime Time,” and seemed flattered when I told her it was one of only two or three books that I continually use for my research. She was particularly enthusiastic about a documentary she had contributed to that had just come out. “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” recounts the women’s movement of the 1960s with a focus on some of the unsung heroes of the era.

The conversation inevitably turned to that question that arises when women talk about their lives and careers: Can women have it all?

I had known that Marlene was very proud of her son, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal correspondent for CNN and New Yorker magazine. But she admitted that working full time and raising a family was tough for everyone. In her typical style, she indicated that despite the hardships, her son turned out all right: “He’s the best advertisement I know of for working women,” she said.

For More Information:

Marlene Sanders’ Career Path
by Women’s eNews
Marlene Sanders, producer of “The Hand That Rocks the Ballot Box,” talks about her career in journalism and the lack of news coverage regarding women’s issues.

Marlene Sanders and ‘The Ballot Box’
Marlene Sanders, producer of “The Hand That Rocks the Ballot Box,” reflects on the events that led her to cover the women’s liberation movement in her 1972 documentary.

The Evolution of Women’s Suffrage
Marlene Sanders, producer of “The Hand That Rocks the Ballot Box,” talks about how women have changed the political landscape before and after her 1972 documentary.

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