Washington Press Club Foundation

Significance of the Interview with Members of
Eleanor Roosevelt's Press Conference Association

>From this videotape with four members of the Eleanor Roosevelt Press Conference Association, new light is shed on the history of Washington reporting.

This videotape recreates for us a day, not too far past, when Washington reporting was divided into two spheres—one for women and one for men. It provides a picture of that turbulent period from 1933 to 1945—first the era of the Depression, then the Second World War—when Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady and held press conferences for women reporters only.

>From these reminiscences of four women who attended the conferences, three key points emerge:

All four of the women, Ann Cottrell Free, Frances Lide, Ruth Montgomery and Malvina Stephenson, contribute recollections that add to the historical record. Mrs. Roosevelt held some 350 press conferences during her 12 years in the White House, but only fragmentary transcripts exist of what transpired. Consequently, the videotape interview with four participants who were there for several years of the conferences provides information that would be otherwise lost in the years ahead.

The videotape answers the question of why Mrs. Roosevelt first barred men from the conferences. "It was simply to make jobs for women," recalls Lide, who said she was hired as a reporter for the Washington Star because the newspaper needed a woman for the conferences. As Ruth Montgomery, who reported for the New York Daily News, puts it, "It was Mrs. Roosevelt's idea to force editors to hire women in Washington." Stephenson, who covered the conferences for the Kansas City Star, Cincinnati Times Star and two syndicates says, "She thought she'd get better coverage from women reporters."

Free, who covered the conferences for the New York Herald-Tribune, remembers that the women themselves were divided over the issue of admitting men. May Craig, a correspondent for Maine newspapers, led the fight for men because she was a feminist and thought that women ought to give the same rights to men that they were seeking for themselves. "She felt that if you're going to have equality, it's equality," Free notes.

As the tape makes plain, over the years it was Mrs. Roosevelt herself who refused to change the women-only policy and admit men, perhaps because of fear that men reporters might ridicule the conferences.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Press Conference Association, a formal group of reporters organized at the start of World War II to control conference accreditation, had no objections to men, Montgomery recalls: "Two different times men applied for membership after we formed the Association, and it was not the Association that turned them down; it was Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House."

Both Free and Montgomery served as chairs of the Association that whittled down press conference accreditation from about 200 women before World War II to about 60. The revised rules on eligibility removed many women with only marginal claims to journalistic employment from the press conference rolls. Those left had full-time jobs with major news organizations.

The women interviewed credit the war with creating opportunities for women in journalism that did not exist when Mrs. Roosevelt started the conferences. During the war, women were hired to replace men and found themselves at least temporarily free of the prejudice against them.

As a result of the discrimination of the early 1930s, some of the women reporters who had been at the early conferences formed a tight little circle around Mrs. Roosevelt in gratitude for her helpfulness, the tape explains. Their protective stance toward Mrs. Roosevelt irritated other reporters.

Montgomery recalls that some of Mrs. Roosevelt's special friends, particularly Bess Furman, a reporter for the New York Times, urged Mrs. Roosevelt to censor her own comments.

"Here we were supposed to be professional newspaperwomen," Montgomery said, "and these gals would sit there and say, 'Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, you better not say that. Put that off the record.' 'Well, all right,' (she would reply)."

Besides Furman, the women interviewed mention May Craig, Ruby Black, who ran her own bureau, and Martha Strayer of the old Washington Daily News as close friends of the First Lady.

As Stephenson says, Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences represented a "turning point. Of course, there's been another turning point. Women wouldn't accept a ban on men now, because they want their equal rights, too."

The interview adds to the record by offering a first-hand account of that turning point.

Maurine Beasley, 1989
Maurine Beasley is a professor of journalism and journalism history at
the University of Maryland.

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