Helen Thomas quieted the crowd and began her keynote address with a candid but rhetorical question.
“Where are all the women?”
The legendary White House correspondent was dwarfed at the dais by two tiers of a mostly male board of directors in a ballroom filled with mostly male journalists at the SPJ annual convention in Atlanta 37 years ago.
Women have since established a strong footprint in an organization that began in 1909 at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, as a fraternity for young men interested in journalism careers and in upholding high standards in the profession.
The women whose footsteps have moved SPJ forward deserve recognition.
It was 1969 when women were finally admitted after several unsuccessful referendums, and it took another decade before Jean Otto was elected the first woman president. Women continued to fill the membership base but, just like in newsrooms, were slow to fill top positions.
Carolyn Carlson, a leader in the Atlanta pro chapter, rose to national president in 1989 and Georgiana Vines of Tennessee took the reins three years later. Until then, SPJ’s national leaders were most often top news executives, and older white men.
Carolyn bucked the trend.
“I was only 39, a reporter and a woman. And I got 90% of the vote!” she recalled with pride. “It was like a sea change — members appreciated having someone different” at the top.
Even though SPJ was still male-dominated, Carolyn felt welcome and respected. “The men treated me like a daughter, and taught me the ropes,” she added.
Her leadership skills were tested during a tumultuous presidential year. As the Society struggled with an unstable budget and declining membership, she moved its headquarters from Chicago back to Greencastle and rebuilt the staff. The introduction of staggered dues brought in an infusion of cash, “and saved us from bankruptcy,” she said.
Carolyn’s mantra to members while president: “I don’t want to hear your complaints; I want to hear your solutions.”
Georgiana Vines’ presidential victory in 1992 was not the same slam-dunk as Carolyn’s: “I won by just three votes,” she confides. But she worked just as hard to keep the Society afloat during further financial duress.
The two former presidents remain good friends — and strong SPJ supporters.
Meanwhile, women managers continue to lag behind industry-wide. A 2023 survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reveals that 44% of top editors in the U.S. are women, down from 50% in 2022 and 47% in 2021. In other countries, that number drops as low as 5%.
It seems gender diversity is improving at lower levels of newsroom leadership, but not at the very top, the survey points out.
Considering that trend, SPJ has a lot to boast about when it comes to gender equity and gender equality. Since 2010, nine of 14 national presidencies have been won by women. At the local level, more than half of the 51 chapter presidents this year are women.
SPJ is making up for lost time. I’m proud to serve as the Society’s 14th female president alongside four other women on the current board and dozens of women leaders heading committees, communities and chapters. My successor, Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, will continue the streak at No. 15.
We salute the others who helped us get here: Wendy Myers (1998), Kyle Niederpruem (1999), Christine Tatum (2006), Hagit Limor (2010), Dana Neuts (2014), Lynn Walsh (2016), Rebecca Baker (2017), J. Alex Tarquinio (2018), Patricia Gallagher Newberry (2019) and Rebecca Aguilar (2021), the first woman of color to serve as president.
Members of SPJ, let’s keep the momentum going and the diversity growing. Consider a run for office at any level.
Claire Regan, 2022-23 national SPJ president, is an assistant professor of journalism at Wagner College in New York City.
Featured Photo: Georgiana Vines and Carolyn Carlson, two of SPJ’s pioneering women presidents, reunite at MediaFest22.