Feminist Hero Friday: Gwen Ifill
by Abaki Beck
Earlier this week, renowned journalist Gwen Ifill passed away of cancer. As one of the most well known African American women in the nation, Ifill was not only a strong journalist, but a strong role model for many girls and women. During her career, she worked for papers in Boston and Baltimore, establishing her career as a political journalist. Later, she worked for the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News, and most recently PBS News.
Gwen Ifill was born in Queens, New York, to a Panamanian immigrant father and a Barbadian mother. After graduating from Simmons College, she worked at a local tv station before landing a position at the Boston Herald American, where she first covered food before moving on to covering school board politics. As her prominence in journalism grew, she often faced racist hate mail from readers, and her white, male bosses did little to counter-act it. She was very aware of her position as a black female journalist in a field dominated by white men, noting in a speech to journalism students in 2013 that:
“Diversity is essential to the success of the news industry, and journalists must include diverse voices in their coverage in order to reach a broader audience. We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.”
Her first major job as a host was for Washington Week in Review. She only accepted this position if she was to be given a dual position as a political correspondent on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer - which she was. Her ambition served her well - she became the first black woman to host a major national political show when she began with Washington Week in 1999.
She was also a moderator of the 2004 presidential debate, a 2008 vice presidential debate, and several PBS town halls on topics like “America After Ferguson” and “America After Charleston,” which explored issues of racism and gun violence. Most recently, she moderated one of the primary debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Most recently, she worked as co-host of the PBS Newshour alongside Judy Woodruff. The Newshour became the first national news show with two women as co-hosts when Jim Lehrer left in 2013. Her co-host Judy Woodruff noted in the Washington Post of Ifill: “She didn’t mind telling anyone when she thought they were wrong, on camera. She kept it respectful. She was one of the most graceful interrupters I have ever seen.”
Reflecting on her role at PBS, Ifill noted in a 2013 New York Times interview:
“When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color….I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”
Millions of people invited Ifill into their homes to educate them on the world and politics. Gwen Ifill was one of my favorite journalists, and I, like many others, was shocked and saddened by her passing. She was trustworthy, bold, and audacious. Her warm smile and laughter made discussions of politics sound more like informed conversations than a distant news anchor. Today, we celebrate Gwen Ifill as a thoughtful political journalist who is a trailblazer and inspiration for women of color everywhere.
“The Life and Example of Gwen Ifill” by David Brooks, New York Times
“Gwen Ifill, who overcame barriers as a black female journalist, dies at 61” by Adam Bernstein, Washington Post
“Gwen Ifill Has Died & PBS News Anchor Leaves a Brilliant Legacy Behind Her” by Celia Darrough, Bustle