The Washington Press Club Foundation is the organizational heir to a proud legacy dating back eight decades to the days when suffragettes were leading their successful battle to enfranchise American women. It was no accident that the Women's National Press Club—the WPCF's forebear—was founded five months after Congress approved the legislation that led to granting women the right to vote. The club's founders included several prominent women journalists and several publicists who had enlisted in the women's rights fight, and all were imbued with the spirit of that cause. Taking on the specific issue of the status of women as professional journalists was only natural.
Banned from membership or participation in the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club, both prestigious all-male journalistic organizations, and suffering discrimination in the industry in general, six Washington newspaper and press relations women decided to do something about it.
It was October 1919 when they gathered in correspondent Cora Rigby's Christian Science Monitor office to organize the Women's National Press Club (later to become the Washington Press Club). They wanted women to band together to promote the journalistic profession and to enhance the role of women journalists.
The language used to promote the idea of a women's press club was deceptively casual. "The other day, when a few of us happened to be together, it occurred to us that it might be both pleasant and profitable for the newspaper and magazine women of Washington to have some means of getting together in informal and irregular fashion," wrote five of the originators of the plan in September 1919.
Within months, the club was operating with 28 charter members. It grew and prospered, serving as a meeting ground for women reporters and public figures. A boost came in the early New Deal days when Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a WNPC member, began holding women-only press conferences, a move that prompted many heretofore all-male news bureaus to hire women.
Celebrating its half-century anniversary in the decade of the 1970s with over 700 members, the WNPC had made its own mark. As Martin Arnold wrote in the New York Times a few years later: "Most Washington journalists now believe that the smaller Washington Women's Press Club is the most prestigious in town."
It was the quality of membership, the voice it raised for freedom of the press, and its battle against discrimination that helped win distinction for the Women's National Press Club.
Every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, many presidential candidates as well as kings, queens, prime ministers and world leaders spoke at events sponsored by the club.
Senator Margaret Chase Smith chose the club as the forum to announce her historic run for the presidency—the first woman ever to make such a campaign. Barry Goldwater made news at a question-and-answer session before the club as he launched his 1964 presidential campaign. President Lyndon Johnson broke new ground by announcing the appointment of ten women to his new administration at the club's 1964 Congressional Dinner.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the club's most famous members and a champion of women journalists, invited club members to perform their annual political lampoon in the White House.
After Mrs. Roosevelt's death, the club established an Eleanor Roosevelt Golden Candlestick Award for service to humanity. Adlai Stevenson presented the first award at a 1964 dinner.
Perhaps the most important battle waged by the WNPC was the one against the National Press Club for its discrimination against women journalists. It took more than fifty years, the advent of the feminist movement, and the aid of world leaders and U.S. presidents to bring about a change.
The WNPC was moving with the times, too. In 1970, it voted to admit qualified men journalists to membership. The club then changed its name to fit the occasion, becoming the Washington Press Club.
The National Press Club voted soon afterwards to admit women journalists for the first time since it was founded in 1908. The two clubs continued their separate ways for more than a decade, but finally merged in 1985 under the banner of the National Press Club. The assets of the Washington Press Club were transferred to the Washington Press Club Foundation, a nonprofit, tax exempt corporation that exists to promote the ideals of equality and excellence that inspired that small band of founders of the Women's National Press Club.
The WPC's Cora Rigby silver bowl, named for founder and longest-serving president (1920-28), now has a place of honor at the National Press Club. Passed on from one president to the next to be held during their term of office, the bowl is engraved with the names of every president of the Women's National Press Club from Lily Lykes Shepard of the New York Tribune in 1919-20 to Susan Garland of Newhouse News Service in 1984-85.
The Washington Press Club Foundation continues the club's annual Congressional Dinner as a fund-raiser for its charitable and educational projects on behalf of journalists.
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