National Press Club Reflects on Progress and Work Ahead 50 Years After Accepting First Female Members

From the National Press Club:

Prominent female journalists said there has been progress in the treatment of women in the industry but more work lies ahead, during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Press Club admitting female members.

The Club voted to admit women members for the first time in 1971, having previously only allowed them to cover events and luncheons from the ballroom balcony.

At the time of the vote, some members worried that the introduction of female members would impact the functioning of the Club. Vivian Vahlberg, who in 1982 was sworn in as the first female Club president, said she believed that attitude was partly driven by the fact that until then, some men struggled to see women as colleagues and saw the Club as a refuge from them.

“I think the men there thought of the Club as a way to get away from their wives,” Vahlberg said during an interview with Club historian Gil Klein.

Even after the first women became Club members and started to move into leadership positions, Vahlberg said it could still be difficult for women to gain the respect of their male peers. That was especially true in board meetings, Vahlberg said, which she served on for eight years before being sworn in as Club president by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

“We may have been able to speak, we may have been there, but they weren’t taking us seriously,” Vahlberg said.

Others said they were aware that their male colleagues were surprised to see them reporting and in the Club, but were not concerned. Mary Kay Quinlan, who was Club president in 1986, recalled being a young reporter on Capitol Hill and being treated differently, but she could not tell what caused it.

“It’s a little hard for me to distinguish the reactions or treatment that I got, whether they were reacting to my being a woman or whether they were reacting to my age,” she said.

The panel featured former female presidents of the National Press Club as well as Washington Press Club, which was known as the Women’s National Press Club before the NPC began admitting women. The NPC and the Washington Press Club merged in 1985.

Peggy Simpson, who was president of the Washington Press Club from 1975 to 1976 and was part of several class action lawsuits against the Associated Press over discrimination, said admitting women as National Press Club and suing for equality are first steps along the road.

In addition to membership, she said female journalists need to be nurtured and mentored to encourage future generations.

“Just getting people down from the balcony is never enough,” said Simpson.

Current Club President Jen Judson said during her opening remarks that there has been plenty of progress for women in journalism, but there is still more to do, including ensuring equitable pay with men and having them be taken seriously in interactions with colleagues.

“Being female in journalism at times may feel equal, but there is still a struggle for that equity,” Judson said.

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