In 1968, Philip Morris introduced a cigarette for women. Virginia Slims were skinny (everybody knows women like skinny, right?) and the copy line was “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Because I’ve worked as a television journalist since God was a lad, I’m sometimes asked about women in the news media and the progress we’ve made. When this happens, I always think of that slogan. And, just for a moment, I want to throw up.
When I started working in TV news in 1973 (five years after being told I’d come a long way), there were precious few women TV journalists. The only reason there were any was that the federal government — pressured by the women’s movement — had told the stations and networks they had to hire some of us. Of course, we had to be young, willing to work for less money, have faces that wouldn’t stop clocks, and, oh, I almost forgot — we sorta had to be single and childless. Girl journalist? Or Playboy Bunny with a notebook? Isn’t she cute trying to do a man’s job in those high heels? Also, we were expected to be obedient. Many of us were (are) not good at that part. It’s hard to be told to get aggressive about getting the story, then come back to the newsroom and say, “Yes sir” all the time — and keep smiling.
And so we fought back. Things got better. But better is not equal.
Remember all the silliness that surrounded Katie Couric’s promotion to Uncle Walter’s Chair? You could drown in such deep doo-doo. Recently, when Diane Sawyer was named anchor for ABC World News Tonight, the president of ABC News, on making the announcement, said that Diane had "more than paid her dues and waited her turn appropriately.”
Uh-huh. Haven’t we all?
Ah well. If young women starting out in the media today stand a better chance of being treated equally (including pay), it’s because they stand on the shoulders of the women who came before them, just as we stood on the shoulders of the women who marched and lobbied to get us in the door. Tomorrow someone will stand on the shoulders of today’s women, and not just those in the media. I believe we all stand on someone’s shoulders. So we must make sure our shoulders are strong enough for the next woman. It is our responsibility. It is the debt we owe. To the past, and to the future. All of us.
And it is still damned hard work. Progress almost always is. I keep a letter written to me by an 11-year-old girl. “Dear Ms. Ellerbee, when I grow up, I want to do what you do. Please do it better.”
The good news: In the end, we may not have come a long way, and we’re certainly not babies, but we are getting more equal all the time and, well, there is this. Few of us smoke these days. That must count for something.
Linda Ellerbee is an outspoken journalist, award-winning television producer, best-selling author, breast cancer survivor, mother, grandmother and one of the most sought-after speakers in America. She is the co-founder of Lucky Duck Productions, which produces programming for Nickelodeon, ABC, CBS, HBO, PBS, Lifetime, MTV, Logo, A&E, MSNBC, SOAPnet, Trio, Animal Planet and TV Land, among others.
Linda Ellerbee will be speaking at The Women's Conference 2009.