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Pioneer Women

Years ago a frequent refrain across corporate and politic America was, “Have your girl call my girl.” Hard to believe from the vantage point of 50 years later, but there were virtually no “girls” in the journalistic sphere to call the men out. Well, actually there were two.

Pauline Frederick had a solid writing background dating back to the pre-television era which she parlayed into an offer to draft scripts for an ABC News radio reporter. As to getting on the air herself? “Unheard of…A woman’s voice does not convey authority…” she was instructed. Indeed, she was generally assigned to write about the wives of prominent newsmakers.

World War II led Ms. Frederick overseas. That, and the early Cold War Eastern European and Korean crises allowed her to burnish her global credentials. So much so that when serendipity struck, a breaking development at the UN and no journalist available, Ms. Frederick made the most of her opportunity. So much so that NBC wooed her, making her a diplomatic correspondent covering the United Nations and the first female broadcast journalist. For over 40 years Pauline Frederick reported on foreign affairs for NBC and later for NPR.

Also, in the Cold War era, a younger researcher with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aspired to broadcast journalism. Nancy Dickerson was hired as an assistant producer of several CBS news shows, among them Face the Nation. As a matter of cosmic irony, her son John is presently the face of Face. As for appearing on camera? In Nancy’s words: “It was pointed out to me that since I was a woman and unmarried and didn’t have a family to support, I should stop trying to broadcast (and take a man’s job away).”

To break in she had to do something near-heroic and she did: securing an interview with legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who heretofore had refused all on-air appearances. This led to a full career on camera with CBS, then later with NBC and PBS. Nancy (no disrespect—having written a soon-to-be published novel featuring Ms. Dickerson, I feel enough kinship for the first name basis) was one of the preeminent broadcast journalists of her time. She scooped the pack with news of President Lyndon Johnson’s selection of Hubert Humphrey to be his vice president. This was at a time when the rest of the (male) press corps was rabidly chasing after other putative veeps, such as Tom Dodd (Connecticut senator) and Gene McCarthy (Minnesota junior senator to Humphrey’s senior status).

Despite their professional success, it was a mixed bag. When she retired, Ms. Frederick was making approximately the same income as a first-year male correspondent. As for Nancy, she was never promoted commensurate with her accomplishments. Yet these two pioneers left an undeniable legacy: from Megyn Kelly to Rachel Maddow and all female journalists on the visible spectrum between, who are no longer “girls”, and who owe a lifelong debt to Pauline Frederick and Nancy Dickerson.

Kenneth T. Zemsky is the author of the recently published novel The Nation’s Hope, about the 1965 NYC mayoral campaign. He is also a managing director at AndersenTax and teaches constitutional law at Rutgers. You can follow him at

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